freehand drawing & sketching as recognized in the late 1800's & early 1900's

A couple of books that I have just finished that both expressed similar reasons for freehand drawing by the 2 artist. These books are Charles Rennie MacKintosh; Art is the flower by Pamela Robertson (1995. London, GB. Pavilion Books Lt.) & Plant Drawings by Ellsworth Kelly (1995. Munchen, Germany. Schirmer/Mosel). Ellsworth Kelly’s  Plant Drawings book had me fascinated, especially once I learned that his art (which I would describe as his ‘public art’) is very abstract. kelly.2 Drawing by Kelly The drawings in this book appeared to be very child like. Most were simple outline or contour drawings of leaves & flowers, some were even blind contour drawings. Many have no shading or details to speak off, as Kelly feels that the line is the means of expression & colour will simply distract from this. Unlike the drawings by Charles Rennie MacKintosh, which are often very detailed and colour rendered. Many of Kelly’s (1923 - ) drawings of foliage did not have leaf stalks, so the foliage appeared to be floating with no obvious spatial relationship, but they were arranged on the page in a considered way. In many of these drawings he appeared to have only wanted to document the arrangement of foliage along a stem or certainly play with compositional layout ideas on the page. Kelly mentions that he “attaches value to the observation of nature as a crucial motif for his creative work” (Kelly pg 7). A similar approach is held by MacKintosh in regards to drawing/sketching. MacKintosh (1868-1928) who trained at the Glasgow School of Art was taught that “The pencil is like the marshal’s baton” without a pencil an artist is unable to really grasp what he sees. Sketching was part of his development as a young architect and was a vital activity to develop his draughtsmanship, skills of observation, knowledge of architectural history and form, and a design vocabulary. (Robertson pg 11) MacKintosh was a trained architect and attended art classes to further develop his interest in botanical drawing. When you look at MacKintosh’s earlier drawings they all have a formality about them, almost a rigid representation of a flower stem, which could be explained that they were influenced by his architectural profession. In the beginning of his practice, he was not only concerned with the scientific analysis and correct recording of plant forms, but also with their potential as a source for design ornament. (Robertson pg 12) What is also of great interest with his drawings is the creative approaches early on that he employed to add titles to his drawings, these developed from simple lettering that ran from top to bottom, to becoming a feature in his later drawings as a formal border down the right side eg the tree of personal effort 1895, to be become a simple box (a cartouche box) containing all the information. Many of Kelly’s drawings have no title or reference to where they were found. macintosh.tree Tree of personal effort. 1895. C R MacKintosh.           Much of MacKintosh’s drawing was initially for personal pleasure only, just like Kelly. Both men used this technique to help develop their observational skills and also their analytical skills. For Kelly in particular they helped to “shed light on fundamental artistic problems related primarily to paintings which revolve around relationship of form, silhouette, contour, interaction between space and plane, the positive & the negative, and figure & ground.” (Kelly pg 7) KellyDrawing by Kelly   Kelly’s drawings were often a very impersonal observation of form, as the drawings varied between organic plant like to abstract object like forms. He would distill the realities of nature into fragments, cut-outs or enlargements. A similar approach can be seen in some of his abstract paintings. While Mackintosh drawings initially develop into a stylization of plant growth, where stalks can rise in unnatural twists and turns, many of his drawings were reduced to decorative motives. Symbolism also played a role in some of Mackintosh’s drawings, which was hard to avoid, as it was very widespread throughout Europe during the late 1800’s.   What interests me the most is that Kelly used the botanical sketching alongside his practice, a practice which is described as “ hard-edge painting, colour field painting and the minimalist school. His works demonstrate unassuming techniques emphasizing simplicity of form, similar to the work of John McLaughlin and Kenneth Noland. Kelly often employs bright colors.”(Wikipedia)Chatham II, Blue:Red. 1971 Oil on canvas. Two joined panels. 224x223cmChatham II, Blue/Red. 1971. Oil on canvas, two joining boards. 244x223cm. This contrast of soft, botanical drawings to the hard-edged, rich coloured painting that Kelly produces is interesting and at times I find it hard to see any similarity in approach to these two arms of his practice. I do believe that an improved ability to analyze and distill an arrangement is present in both realistic representation and abstract forms. There are other similarities between the two drawing practices; Kelly only uses line to create his drawings, at times these lines simply overlap, ignoring any 3D or what is sitting in the foreground. MacKintosh has a similar approach in many of the drawings he did early 1900’s. At this stage his drawings had become more realistic and less stylized, but the approach in these drawings has been similar to some of Kelly’s, overlaying the outlines of stems and leaf. This overlaying did create an extra feature in Mackintosh’s drawings, that of “additional decorative effects and created an ambiguous spatial relationships between the respective components.” (Robertson pg 53) Mackintosh Japonica 1910Japonica. 1910. By MacKintosh. Both their drawing approaches had a lack of 3 dimensionality, which was emphasized by Kelly through the lack of any hatching or cross hatching, while MacKintosh did add this variant in through use of water colour. These drawings of Mackintosh were also mostly of single species, arranged formally in the middle of the page, with what became his distinct label system, a cartouche box. Both artist believed that an economic use of line should be employed to say what needs to be said, for example the curve of a leaf or twist of the stem, without any added tonal areas. Kelly very much used his botanical sketching as a support for his painting practice, while MacKintosh developed this over time and in combination with his knowledge of architecture started to create furniture, textile and wallpaper designs which were botanically inspired, with many of these seeing a return to the more stylized drawing approaches of his earlier practice. For MacKintosh plant forms were the main source of inspiration for form and details of his designs, without becoming a slave to accuracy of detail. He praised nature ‘s forms and her ability to combine beauty with utility, but in practice form often took precedence over function (Robertson pg 91). If I was to explore the development of Kelly’s abstract work and lay them next his drawings am sure that there would be a parallel between the way the plant drawings grew and changed to how his abstract work grew from simple straight lined blocks of colour to curved shapes and irregular canvases. What for me has been the most enjoyable discovery is that 2 separate artist (the only overlap is the last few years of one to the first few years of the other) used sketching of natural forms as an inspiration for their practice. This is making me think about my practice and what the use that regular drawing/sketching could add to it. I do believe that daily photography of my garden is adding something to my practice.   A few websites I used for this blog:,+watercolours+and+designs   Books: Kelly, Elsworth. (2011) Plant Drawings. Munchen, Germany. Schirmer/Mosel Robertson, Pamela. (1995) Charles Rennie MacKintosh; Art is the flower. London, GB. Pavilion Books Ltd

Posted by Elle Anderson

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