Seurat is most well known for his large paintings using the technique of pointillism but his artistic genius is evident if you look at his drawings.
|The Square House|
According to MOMA, when they examined a number of his drawings, he used a technique of layering conte crayon with fixative applied to protect the initial layers. He would then use stumping to create lighter areas. He favoured a hand-made Michallet paper which is key to his unique style. He was able to adapt the application of conte to the surface of this paper to create the desired effect. For example, in his drawing The Square House he has taken advantage of the grid-like network of the paper to accentuate the lines of the house.
According to experts, rather than drawing using line, he would start by blackening more or less the page. He would then layer on further conte crayon to obtain his characteristic atmospheric half-shades.
He would place an area of dense crayon next to an area of lightest application and this gives the impression of light. He called this technique “irradiation”. For example in the drawing the Nurse, the figure stands out clearly against the background even though they seem to be in shadow. He does this by leaving a halo of lighter paper adjacent to the dark edges of her dress while the edge of her apron is set against a dark background.This makes the figure jump out. He doesn’t use line to delineate figures, rather there is a difference in tones to show the shapes.
I was first introduced to these drawings while studying STP and I was blown away by the apparent simplicity of his technique. I’ve tried to copy the drawings but without being the proverbial bad workman, I really do think having the correct paper would help! I tried using different paper: normal cartridge, pastel paper, paper for acrylics and a handmade paper. I used conte pastel pencils, carre crayons and willow charcoal. I had a look for conte crayons but couldn’t find anything in sticks so I thought willow charcoal was probably the best option. I had a go at copying Seurat’s drawing of his mother “Madame Seurat” which I love.
I started out playing with the handmade paper but I found that it quickly began to disintegrate. I found the pigment showed all the imperfections in the paper which is also present in Seurat's drawings. The conte pastels were the best with this paper but because it was so friable I couldn't really use it.
I tried copying Seurat's drawing on the other papers using willow charcoal. I found the best was the medium grain paper which was the pastel paper. The cartridge was just to smooth and the charcoal would smudge and then the effect was ruined. The course paper was interesting but just too grainy. In contrast to the cartridge, it wasn't possible to smudge this at all. Rather the pigment sat on the ridges only.
So I was quite pleased with my experiment. I loved the effect these tools and his techniques achieved. It forced me to draw without lines and use tone only which is something I wouldn't do normally. Although his drawing look simple and like very little effort has gone in, once you have a go and look closely at them, you can see how skillfull he was and how he has thought about every stroke. I'll definitely try to draw in this style in future.