MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE
Looking at the process used by some Artists to create their Important Paintings
Before the days of cameras and smartphones it was usual to carry a diary and note book to jot down day-to-day events. Artists and travellers would also not be without their sketchbook to make a visual record of views, objects and people they met. The pocket sketchbook would often not be more than 4” x 6” and within its pages would be recorded all the little seeds of information that would perhaps one day end up on a six-foot canvas.
John Constable often used sketches drawn twenty or thirty years previously to check accuracy and information when painting major works in the studio.
In this Exhibition we have a small Constable pencil drawing from a sketchbook he used in 1814.
It shows the house known as ‘Willy Lott’s Cottage’ on the River Stour at East Bergholt, as seen in the famous ‘Hay Wain’ painting. This area inspired a number of his large exhibition works, many of which started as small pencil drawings in sketchbooks.
Our drawing was used as a study for the oil painting by John Constable titled ‘The Millstream’, which measures 28” x 36” and is now in the Christchurch Museum, Ipswich.
There is another oil sketch of the subject in Tate Britain, measuring 8” x 11” and it is probable this is the sketch in oil before the artist committed to beginning the final larger work. He often followed this process of practicing the layout and composition, even to the extent of producing a full-size six foot sketch to enable revisions prior to beginning the final Exhibition piece of the same size.
The ‘squaring up’ or drawing of lines to make a grid pattern enables the artist to transfer the image to a larger format without losing the correct scale. Sometimes it is possible to see drawing pin holes at the edge of an oil painting where cotton has been used to give the squares on the surface. This practice has been in use since the Renaissance times, when it was used for fresco work and altarpieces. It was also used for engravers and etchers to transfer images.
Constable drawings are prized and give a very useful indication of his working methods, and we are fortunate a good number have survived including an intact sketchbook in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The drawing on show was also likely to have been referred to in the early 1830’s when Constable produced his series of mezzotints ‘English Landscape Scenery’, as The Mill Stream was one of the plates included.
On the reverse is a further study for the finished oil painting of ‘The Millstream’ - a figure in a boat, which was the Ferry which crossed the River Sour at this point. (See the facsimile in the display frame)
The beauty of a drawing is that the artist is often uninhibited and a real feeling of his inspiration is conveyed. There is also the bonus that the subject is usually directly in front of him and we are benefiting from his observation first-hand.
It is interesting that the late 20th Century fashion for decorative watercolours is now being replaced by a demand for more linear works where we can feel closer to the artist and his subject.