Drapery in Art History and in the Sketchbook

Flowing folds of fabric can be incredibly expressive, suggestive, or even uncanny, making drapery a crucial subject to master for artists throughout the centuries. The formal properties of drapery have been used to accentuate and guide compositions, even serving as emotional cues, within sculpture, drawing and painting. Being able to proper render drapery has also been a way for artists to put their technical mastery on display, a sign of just how tricky it can be. Or should we rather say, how tricky it can seem? While drawing drapery might seem like a daunting challenge, with Giulia guiding you through the process, it will unfold beautifully ­čśë

Drapery for a seated figure by Leonardo da Vinci (1470)
The Lovers by Rene Magritte (1928)

Giulia Caruso is an incredibly patient and experienced instructor, trained in Italian classical techniques for many years. Below she shares some remarks on her experience of drawing and teaching to draw drapery, along with some pages from her sketch book that she takes with her to museums. 

Drawing drapery is one of the things that most often makes my students moan and roll their eyes. It can be frustrating and discouraging how a simple piece of cloth can be so stubborn in its shadows and so hard to render with decent softness and volume.
But drapery can be the perfect starting point to learn how to master chiaroscuro and find confidence in other subjects. If you can make a dress feel alive, then everything else will follow.

When I study at the museum I never shy away from drapery: neoclassical sculptures are especially magical in this, showing the extreme mastery involved in making marble look alive and in movement. And sitting there in front of it, focusing slowly on folds and shapes, can be a truly meditative experience.

With every complexly lit subject, the secret is always in the process. The method. Trying to draw drapery without a plan can be overwhelming. It’s hard to keep track of where you are and everything falls over itself, while you groan and curse the sculpture that made it so hard. But if you have a plan, it’s like learning how to surf. You recognize waves and patterns, and once you are in the flow, it’s not so hard anymore.

Clothing has always had a special role in classical art, embodying and conveying meanings that go further than what the eye can see. The whole symbolism hidden behind them is fascinating and it can be inspiring for character design and illustration.

My goal as a teacher has always been to give people tools to express themselves and their vision, to guide them through a process of understanding and discovery of their own potential.

Most of the times it’s not in the practical skills but in the mind structure: the way our visual education allows us to analyze and understand the structure of a subject, the logical process of planning how to approach it and trasform it on paper.

Once that foundation is there, the rest is only practice. Keep drawing, and quantity will bring quality.

One of the biggest task required in drawing and painting is to correctly recognize and organize tonal values, and drapery is the perfect subject for that: once the need for perfect similarity is gone (because you can’t really recognize one piece of cloth from another) what is left is only a symphony of tonal values, winding together to create fluid shapes.

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