Learn more about study drawings, preliminary study drawings and old master drawings.

A study drawing or a preliminary sketch or drawing is a frequently used medium by artists before starting the actual work of art. Sometimes a study drawing or preliminary study is more important than the finished work of art. Such details from a study drawing or preliminary study help to reveal an artist’s thought processes and techniques.

First, let’s start by discovering the difference between sketching and drawing and between preliminary study and study drawing. To make things a little easier: sketching first and drawing later leads to a finished work of art. The preliminary study which is necessary to complete the work as best as possible often starts with a loose sketch, followed by the preliminary drawing, after which the actual work of art can be finished with paint or another medium.

A112 'The Descent From The Cross' A 19th Century Dutch School Preliminary Study Drawing
An example of a preliminary study drawing

Drawing a study means that the bigger picture is divided into small segments. Here the artist practices with what he can already do, such as loose hands, loose feet or other loose body parts. The artist can also choose to practice figures or objects in a study drawing. These separate study drawings can sometimes have more impact than a preliminary sketch or drawing. By practicing individual elements, the artist can discover new insights that may have a positive influence on his or her preliminary study.

An example of a study drawing

Recognizing the difference between a sketch and a drawing is often easy. A sketch is drawn loosely and lacks a lot of detail. Coarse, tangled lines are visible, and sometimes the artist starts over and over again on the same sheet of paper. With a drawing, the artist is already at an advanced stage of his preliminary study, here the story is often already recognizable and objects and people are depicted in detail. The preliminary sketches and drawings can then be used as a visual note for the actual work of art.

A common and recognizable detail in old sketches and drawings is the artist’s handwritten note. The artist describes the light, color, shape, perspective or composition needed for the finished work for certain objects or people. Written notes alongside visual images aid in understanding the finished artwork as they allow the viewer to share the artist’s process of getting to know the subject.

The term ‘old master drawing’ or ‘old master’ is often used in auctions, but when is a drawing an ‘old master drawing’?

Skilled art and antique dealers usually use the term “old master” for highly skilled painters who were active in Europe before the 1800s. The term ‘old master’ can also be used to indicate a painting, print or drawing from the same period. A well-known artist often had apprentices who also produced paintings, drawings or etchings. These could be of such a high standard that they are also referred to as ‘Old master’, an example of this: works by the School of Rembrandt van Rijn.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “old master” as “A distinguished artist of the pre-modern period; especially a prominent Western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.” From this definition it can be concluded that the term ‘old master’ only applies from the 13th century, paintings from the period before that are considered primitive.

Yet the end date of this term remains vague, an example of this is old master Francisco Goya (1746-1828). He still made art after the year 1800 and that work is also regarded as ‘old master’. If you look at the best-known auction houses, a distinction is also made between the different categories. For example, a frequently recurring category after the ‘old masters’ is the category of 19th and 20th century paintings.