Renoir’s challenging simplicity

renoir girl.png

I’m drawing Renoir’s Ballet Dancer from the National Gallery online, looking at a reproduction of the painting and using the website’s zoom feature.  The dancer seems so simple, especially compared to some contemporary drawings of faces that I was looking at earlier today.  Renoir had almost seemed to be bested by a contemporary artist, but looking more closely, I find the dancer’s face to be so subtle and difficult to capture.  Perhaps the difficulty lies with the simplicity.  Get one detail of a feature off just a little and the whole effect is mistaken.  The frankness of gaze disappears, the sense of her living presence then eludes.

Mine is not his.  I am still tinkering with it since it pleases me to fuss over it. The process makes me feel closer to Renoir. His frank art is easy to underestimate. Yet there’s a freshness and immediacy in his painting — and also depth, but the latter is subtle and easily missed.

I think that it’s through drawing that I am now sensing the nuance.  How amazing to make a seemingly living face from such spare means as he uses.


75 Years Young


The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is celebrating a birthday.  As part of the celebration the museum’s education department has a “Sketching is Seeing” program going until April 24th.  Visitors to the gallery can get a free notebook and pencil — pencils are courtesy of Faber-Castell company — and the Gallery is encouraging visitors to enjoy the art they see by making drawings of their own.  You don’t have to be an artist.  Just draw.  I got my free notebook and made a couple sketches  yesterday while I was there.

It’s a big planet and not everybody can come to the museum for the party.  But part of how the museum has changed over time includes this thing called the internet. Many paintings, drawings and sculptures in the museum’s collection are available to see on the museum website.  So even if you can’t be in Washington, you can still make drawings wherever you are and can post them on social media using the hashtag #NGAsketch.

That’s what I’ve done regarding the drawing above.  Using the website zoom tool while looking at Fragonard’s “Young Girl Reading,” I made this drawing.  At home I have the pencil, notebook and a flexible erasure.  Given the tonal character of Fragonard’s image, I find it helpful to smudge the graphite and pull out some of the lights.  Next time I visit the Gallery, if I want to draw Fragonard’s girl again, this drawing I made at home will help me better understand the image.  Think of this as a rehearsal.

If you’re near DC, come visit the museum in person.  The Education Department has some nifty displays set up in the Information room (that’s where you get your free notebook and pencil) — and these displays are themselves really fun.  Currently they’ve replicated a Harnett trompe l’oeil painting so that you can draw a still life set up rather similar (in a theatrical sort of way) to what Harnett might have been looking at.  Now doesn’t that sound like fun.

So go to the party in Washington, if you can make it.  Or if you’re far away, join the party from your internet location. And just draw!