Friday Sketchbook: How to Draw a Museum

Drawing the paintings gets the structure into your head
The point of drawing these little thumbnails is to catch what might otherwise be missed, and to figure out a few basics, like composition and value. And steal ideas. In the Alfred Sisley work at bottom left, the viewer’s eye crosses roof spines and slowly floats down to the courtyard stones, where- surprise- people are hanging out. Sisley saves the trick until the end. Take a sketchbook to a museum and you, too, can take Sisley home for further study. Or Renoir, or Monet. Many museums, including the Musee d’Orsay, don’t permit photos, but no one’s ever stopped me from sketching.

Why did Camille Pissarro put a woman in the gutter? The couple in La route de Louveciennes stroll along a sidewalk which is partly blocked with fallen leaves and melting snow. The woman steps off the curb and slogs through muck and debris while the man walks high and dry. As I drew a little sketch of this unequal relationship, my imagination overheated, and I began to worry. Did he push her off the sidewalk ? Are her shoes okay? Should she find another boyfriend? Maybe none of these questions worried Pissarro when he painted the walking couple. Or maybe they did. Could La Route de Louveciennes be a sly little commentary on bad manners?

Drawing is a great way to get inside a work of art, and a great way to absorb and remember a museum. I wasn’t the only one in the Musee d’Orsay doing this. A boy who looked like he might have been ten years old was sketching a Van Gogh. No parent hovered nearby and he wasn’t part of a class. He was an independent young artist, drawing with confidence. He even ignored the rubberneckers peeking over his shoulder. I peeked. He was making a very fine sketch.

Two Degas masterpieces, dissected on the page.
Two Degas masterpieces, lightly deconstructed.

A gaggle of art students sat cross-legged on the polished floor and sketched Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette as their instructors lectured and critiqued. The regular museum visitors threaded their way around the students, admired the huge canvas a few moments, and moved on.

Color notes and technical surprises: the bubbles done with the mouth of a bottle, most likely, dipped into aqua paint and pressed to the canvas.
Color notes and technical surprises are revealed by the close scrutiny that comes with sketching. For instance, the soap bubbles on the bathtub rim were made by dipping something perfectly round into aqua paint and pressing it on the canvas- perhaps the mouth of a bottle recently drained by Degas?

Of the the two groups, one came away with a deeper understanding of Renoir’s cinematic canvas, and may even have had a few questions about the subplots, the casting, and at least three of the extras, while the other got sore feet and an espresso at the museum cafe. Care to guess which was which? I leave it up to your imagination.

Happy Friday.

8 thoughts on “Friday Sketchbook: How to Draw a Museum

  1. Carol says:

    This is the perfect post for my Friday afternoon – I feel like I slipped away to Paris. It also reminds me to bring (and use) my sketchbook (always) whenever I visit a museum; you really do see so much more that way …

  2. jane gardiner says:

    Agree sketching in art galleries is very useful – but I have been stopped many times by guards. Told not allowed any reproduction (in an exhibition of work from China’s forbidden city), not allowed to use an ink pen (in Metropolitan), not allowed to use a pencil or charcoal (in V+A and Burrell), not allowed to sit on floor (in Louvre). Maybe it’s me?

    1. zeladoniac says:

      It’s not you, Jane! Museum policies are highly variable. At the Boston MFA, a guard came over to make sure I wasn’t using an ink pen (pencils were okay) but at one of the museums in Washington, DC, there were easels and drop cloths freely available to visiting artists. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen hands out portable folding stools to artists. Mechanical pencil and small notebook/sketchbook seems to be acceptable almost everywhere, although I’m fascinated by your story of the forbidden-Forbidden artwork. Charcoal might be iffy in a museum, as would, perhaps, pastel, given how dust tends to drift. I guess you just have to check and see what’s allowed, or give it a try and be ready to stow it away if you accidentally break a rule. Good luck!

  3. Gabrielle says:

    I’ve sketched in natural history museums, but never thought to sketch in an art museum – great idea!

    The Musee d’Orsay is one of my all-time favorite art museums. I enjoyed visiting it again vicariously through you. Thank you.

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