Large-format landscapes: why Northern-Netherlandish artists drew on extra-large paper outdoors
In the 16th and 17th centuries, many Northern-Netherlandish artists drew outdoors to train their hands and eyes, and to record landscapes and nature. In her inaugural lecture on 21 March 2022, Yvonne Bleyerveld, Professor by Special Appointment of Art on Paper and Parchment, draws our attention to a forgotten practice: how some artists drew outdoors not only in small sketchbooks, as is well known, but also on large-format sheets of paper.
Artists went outdoors to work in nature and to record town and village scenes from direct observations. They did so in the surroundings of their hometowns, but they also travelled to other parts of Europe. This was not only a way to practise and collect new material for their work, but also a form of relaxation. Art theorists encouraged drawing outdoors. Many landscape drawings from this period feature artists drawing in the open air, indicating that it was common practice at the time. Bleyerveld: ‘By depicting draughtsmen working on the spot, artists wanted to show that they considered it important to be true to nature, and that they spent time in nature on a professional basis. Their presence there also had a psychological purpose. The viewer could more easily identify with the artist and see the landscape through his eyes.’
Larger and more precise works
Yvonne Bleyerveld examined a set of 16th- and 17th-century drawings by various artists from the Northern Netherlands that have two things in common: they were created outdoors, at least the first draft, and they were executed on large sheets of paper, sheets about 40 x 50 cm in size or even larger. Bleyerveld: ‘Drawing outside on large-format sheets was quite a challenge because how do you transport these, and how do you work with them on location? Artists used large drawing albums or drawing boards to do this.’ They went to all that trouble because large-format sheets offered them a wider range of options. ‘They could register the light, sky and atmosphere, and depict a town or village scene accurately, something they could do less well in a much smaller sketchbook. Large drawings were typically created by painters who were accustomed to working in larger formats.’
Actual observation or imaginary composition
How can you tell if a drawing was created outdoors? Bleyerveld: ‘To find out, you need to look carefully. First of all, you look for a degree of naturalism and topographical correctness: is the drawing based on actual observation or is it an imaginary composition? The use of chalk is also a good indication.’ Chalk is easy to carry and was therefore often used for drawing outdoors. Initial outdoor sketches were often made in chalk, and then completed in the studio. Pen and brown ink were used both indoors and outdoors. In the open air, this drawing technique lends itself perfectly to rendering the effects of light and shadow on a landscape.’
By looking at a group of drawings in context, we learn more about their function and the practice of drawing outdoors. ‘This can reveal interesting patterns. It provides insight into how artists worked and into the role of drawings in the artistic process.’ Bleyerveld is Senior Curator of Drawings and Prints at RKD – the Netherlands Institute for Art History. As Professor by Special Appointment of Art on Paper and Parchment she uses original drawings and prints from the important Leiden University collection in her teaching. Bleyerveld: ‘This is the best way to teach students to look properly and to encourage object-focused research.’