How to Draw Like a Renaissance Master

The Encounter celebrates the creative connection between artist and sitter during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, ranging from fifteenth-century figure studies to bravura portraits of the seventeenth century. But what did it take to become a master of portrait drawing?

A Sheet of Figure Studies, with Male Heads and Three Sketches of a Woman with a Child by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn c.1636 The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

In the fourteenth century, Florentine artist Cennino Cennini wrote The Craftsman’s Handbook (Il Libro dell' Arte) a fascinating and instructive handbook for aspiring artists of the period.

This is his advice on drawing in silverpoint:

  • Find a place to draw where the light is diffused, and have the sun fall on the opposite side to the hand with which you draw.
  • Prepare the paper with a coloured ground
  • Select a slender, smooth and handsome metal stylus with a silver tip
  • Begin by copying simple subjects
  • Make the first marks very lightly, so that they can barely be seen
  • Strengthen the strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows
  • Touch in highlights with white lead on the tip of a pointed brush
  • Work a little each day, so that you don’t tire of it.

Woman Wearing a Hood by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c.1485-90. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

After about a year of drawing in metalpoint you may take up drawing with a pen and ink on paper, which will make you expert, skilful and capable of drawing from your imagination:

  • Cut your quill from a goose feather
  • Work up your lights, half lights, and darks gradually, going back to them many times
  • Shade with washes by adding two drops of ink to a nutshell of water and applying with a dry, blunt brush, made from miniver tails.

His key advice: Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.

Self-portrait by Unknown Dutch or Flemish Artist c.1625-35. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford