Lessons from Charles Bargue

The Charles Bargue drawing plates have been a staple in classical art education since they were created in the nineteenth century. Designed as a beginning drawing course and consisting of seventy lithographs depicting varied classical sculptures increasing in difficulty and complexity, the original intention of the course was to be used as a simple foundation to prepare students for the more complex lessons on drawing from life they were expected to tackle at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here at LARA we believe these plates to be one of the most effective introductions to representational drawing available to the beginner student. As such, they form the first two cast room exercises of the LARA Curriculum before students tackle designing from life.

The use of these plates became extremely common throughout Europe and its influence touched a huge number of artists of the period. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of this is Pablo Picasso, whose primary study took place with his father (himself a teacher of drawing at Escuela Provincial de Bellas Artes) in Spain. Shown above is an example of Picasso tackling a Bargue drawing. Given how radically he changed the art world, his humble academic beginnings are fascinating. At LARA we believe a strong understanding of how to see and of the grammar of drawing will be a huge asset to any student, no matter which direction they choose to take their later work.

While there is huge value in purely using the Bargue plates as a way to sharpen our ability to copy more accurately, it should not be forgotten that this is only the surface value of the exercise. The plates are meant primarily as a design template, teaching us lessons in how to efficiently tackle the miriad difficulties of drawing from life and it is in these lessons that the real value of the exercise lies. As we can see from the image below the Bargue plates offer a step by step approach that emphasises starting with general shapes before moving on to more nuanced, specific shapes and ideas of light and shade. This idea of beginning with the general before moving on to the specific is one of the most important lessons for beginning students and is a good general principle for all aspects of art making.

A common mistake for beginning students is to enter into the details too early, particularly using curves immediately. This often leads to shapes looking generic and overly close to perfect shapes, such as spheres and ovals (as seen in figure 1). Organic form rarely creates shapes that are this perfect. To avoid this overly generic look Bargue gives us an excellent solution: start with straight lines. Beginning this way allows us to place the major ‘angle breaks’ of a shape. Having established these we can then find the more minor angle breaks of the shape, and from there the particulars of any curves, leaving us with a more accurate and specific representation (seen in figure 2).

We see evidence of this method of approach in this fantastic study by the nineteenth century painter Albert Edelfelt. While the most finished study (3) has a huge amount of complexity, the less finished studies (1 and 2) give us an insight into his method of approach. It falls in line with what we have discussed with the Bargue plates. The least finished study (1) is hugely simplified: the hair and features are almost entirely omitted and the overall straightened-out shape of the head is clearly articulated. Another interesting thing to observe here is that even without all of the added texture and detailed modelling of 3, 2 retains all of the character and likeness. This is an important idea for students to remember: the general truths of the subject are far more important to recognition and no amount of detail will save a drawing from poorly observed proportions.

by Charlie Pickard.

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