Learning To Draw Like An Angel (Michelangelo)

Classic Bust III, Pencil, 10 x 8, $600.

Classic Bust III, Pencil, 10 x 8, $600.

After long wishing and planning to study art in the center of the Italian Renaissance, I am keeping my wish alive. I arrive at the Florence Stazione (train station) and walk for three blocks to the Florence Academy of Art. At last, I find the bell cord, the lock clicks, and the door opens into a small entryway where bicycles line up. Through an archway, I can see a garden as I enter the art studio to the left. Standing at his desk is Daniel Graves, an American painter and the director of the academy. He welcomes me with a hug. Strangely, I already feel at home in my new city.

The Florence Academy Of Art

I don’t know what to expect at the academy. Following the 19th-century French Academy which developed neo-classicism, Daniel sets an agenda for new students like me. Immediately I am assigned to draw an exact copy of a finely defined pencil drawing of a man wearing a hood. He very much resembles the Florentine poet Dante.

I draw exact dimensions and values of white through scales of gray to black with a HB (hard black) drawing pencil. Each stroke must be crisp by keeping my pencil sharpened with a mat knife, pushing from the tip of the lead, back along the shaft and up into the wood. I shave away until I have a long lead with a pinpoint-thin tip so I can make sharp, distinct marks of lead.

Classic Bust I, Charcoal, 18 x 15, $700

Classic Bust I, Charcoal, 18 x 15, $700

I never press the pencil into the paper to make a darker mark. Instead, I stroke one line next to another on a smooth white paper. Each mark falls crisply in place. The more I stroke, the darker the definition of a shadow becomes. On the other hand, when I have gone too dark, I erase and begin again with a freshly sharpened pencil. I love to draw and am so engrossed that hours pass without my noticing the time. I lay a string as a plumb line vertically to line up the head. I use the plumb line, as well, to establish the tip of the shoulder in relation to the chin line. And this measuring of angles and spaces continues throughout the drawing. By the time the drawing is completed, I have sharpened my pencil 100 times.

Classic Bust II, Pencil, 8x6, $500

Classic Bust II, Pencil, 8×6, $500

Main Drawing Room

Finally, I graduate to the main drawing room where classical plaster casts stand on pedestals against black velvet drapes. The room is painted black and black curtains cover side windows. The daylight streams through north skylights onto the statues. No unnecessary reflected light interferes with our tasks of drawing exact replicas of the statues.

Classic Bust III, Pencil, 10 x 8, $600

Classic Bust III, Pencil, 10 x 8, $600

I stand back eight feet from a statue, alongside six other draftsmen who stare at their individual statues. The room is quiet, although some students are playing their tape recorders with ear plugs. I listen to silence as I mount on my easel next to my statue an 18”x24” sheet of heavy charcoal paper. I stare at a lovely Grecian female in classic pose and wonder if I will ever be able to replicate her beauty of lines and shadows.

Female Nude (Classic Pose), Charcoal, 25 x 16, SOLD

Female Nude (Classic Pose), Charcoal, 25 x 16, SOLD

Working With Charcoal

That is when I begin to use charcoal in ways I had never known. For one thing, I am instructed to buy Fusam NITRAM, a vine charcoal made in France of the highest consistency. It comes in hard and soft. Fine charcoal which is difficult to find in the United States can make the lightest delicate gray marks with feather touch. It also can be sharpened with a mat knife from tip to shaft.

With the finely sharpened charcoal I stand back to get a sense of how wide and tall and how dark and light my drawing should be to duplicate the original. I hold my plumb line in order to eyeball a point on the statue. Then I move the line horizontally so I can mark the same spot on the paper. I stare at that point as I carefully walk forward to the paper and touch the spot with my charcoal.

Running Pose, Charcoal, 24 x 18, $700

Running Pose, Charcoal, 24 x 18, $700

I continue to eyeball the plumb line horizontally and to establish the vertical angles and alignment of body parts to give the figure a natural and classic stance that is not stilted. The hardest part of replicating a statue is to place the shapes and strength of shadows. I begin to recognize geometric shapes which crop up in any composition or design.

To help me see values without reflections of incidental light, I use a black mirror (vanity mirrors are usually backed with silver) to establish the exact values of half lights and shadows. Correct lighting indicates that the figure may turn toward and away from the light source and into the shadows. It is like dancing, writing poetry, and singing in symphonic variations. I hold the black mirror at an angle where I can see the statue juxtaposed next to my drawing in progress which I compare to the plaster cast. The mirror cuts out glare and I then adjust the art to match the true values in nature.

Classic Nude Drawing, Pencil, 9 3⁄4 x 6, $600

Classic Nude Drawing, Pencil, 9 3⁄4 x 6, $600

In all, the drawings are precise and time-consuming. As a result, I am learning to see infinite detail of light, shadow, line, and pose. I draw with great care. This eyeballing, sharpening of charcoal and walk goes on every morning. My drawing and touch on the paper improves during the three months I live in Florence. Quickly, I correct my major flaw of drawing objects and people larger than they are in proportion to other objects.

When I am not drawing, I wander into museums and churches to converse with Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and Pontormo. These great Florentine draftsmen guide my left drawing hand.

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  • Diana Moses Botkin

    Thank you for sharing your experiences at The Academy, Rosanna! These are lovely drawings you did. I recently spent a week in Florence, and enjoyed sketching The David and other pieces, then explored Tuscany for a week. I want to return to Florence for a longer stay. Can you provide information on studying at The Academy?

  • RonGrauer

    Wonderful article, takes one to the peaceful halls in Florence where, as Hall says, where the energies of the past masters still waft thru that warm sea air. How I would love to share her experiences there and gain the inherited strength from those great ones who lived and worked in such times where spending an extra hour or two on a work was not criticized but expected.

  • Ying Liu, OPA

    Nice cast drawings and great effort!!

    What a ‘luxury’ to spend
    three months drawing in the Florence Academy of Art, and/or painting in
    Florence, Italy! I can truly appreciate that! You are hearing, seeing,
    feeling, and smelling everything Italian – it is so inspirational! I
    attended two Summer Art program with the Calif. State University…
    during which, we were taught by American and Italian teachers in studio
    figure drawings as well as how to make Gesso and egg tempera from
    scratch, painted in egg tempera… painted en plein air and visited
    numerous churches and museums even those which are not accessible and
    are not known by the general public. Great experience to indulge
    yourself in the culture, learn and absorb like a sponge and relate to
    its glorious history!!

    While the experience is priceless…but they are costly… By the way, what credentials one needs to be admitted to the Florence Academy of Art? I wish I knew where we could attend any similar cast drawing or go through a serious drawing program in U.S.? Any thoughts on the similarities and differences in terms of those?

    Thank you for sharing!

    Ying Liu, OPA

  • Johanna Hanks

    How wonderful you make it sound as though I can do it to.I love Italy .