Drawing a Van Dyck

Drawing a Van Dyck

Drawing by Sadie Valeri after Van Dyck’s 1628 portrait of Anna Wake
(graphite and white chalk on canford paper)

Approaching the New Year this year I wanted to start a new art project, but a new painting felt like a lot of intense energy and planning. For the rainy week between Christmas and New Year, I just wanted to do something mellow. And so I decided to draw a study of a painting I like by Van Dyck.

Van Dyck’s portrait of Anna Wake is a painting I saw in Europe this fall, at the Mauritshaus museum in The Hague, and I really fell in love with it. At first glance it could be passed over as yet another commissioned portrait of a wealthy white lady in fancy clothes and jewels… but the strength of the composition, the delicate observation of her features, the masterful drawing of her hands, the feeling of the presence of her as a person, even the sense that she is a young bride draped in jewels that she is not yet accustomed to, to me is Van Dyck showing his full capabilities.

The painting of her husband, which is hanging on the same wall, is also very strong. These two paintings are directly across from two portraits by Rubens, Van Dyck’s contemporary. The paintings make a striking statement in a relatively small room.

If I paint a copy of a painting, I’m studying painting technique: I usually focus on brushstrokes, paint application, pigments and color mixing. If I make a drawing of a painting, I am only studying composition, value, and form.

At first I thought I might just draw a study of her head, but then I knew I wanted to study those exquisite hands as well. I thought the drawing might only be that, a head and hands study, so I knew I wanted the precision of graphite. But the white lace collar is so important in this work, and integral to the head and bust, so knowing I wanted to draw that as well is what made me choose to do the study on gray paper with white chalk.

Drawing in-progress

I did not ever plan to fill in the black dress. I already know how to shade just for the sake of shading, and I feel my study time is more useful spent on other things that teach me more. (This is the same reason I don’t have my students fill in the backgrounds around their cast drawings with graphite: Shading practice is partly about developing pressure control and value sensitivity, so there is value in learning how to fill in areas of flat tone, for example to define a shadow shape in a Bargue plate or cast drawing, but in general shading time is better spent studying form than filling in large empty backgrounds).

So I knew the dress would be only outlines.

Once I finished the head, collar, and hands, I didn’t want to stop drawing yet, so I continued with the white cuffs, and then the white satin in the slashed sleeves. I almost stopped there, but I spent one final day adding the feather fan she’s holding. I wasn’t sure if it would work, as the painterly style of broad brushstrokes used for the plumes was a challenge to imitate with pencil and chalk, but I’m glad I included it, as it adds so much to the composition. The final detail I added was her jeweled belt. When that was done, I felt I’d learned what I wanted to learn through this study.

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