• The Rest on the Flight to Egypt
  • The Repentant Magdalen
  • The Petrobelli Altarpiece

Veronese: Drawing and the creative process

In Italian, the term “Disegno” means both “drawing” and “design.” These two concepts are closely linked in the practice of an artist like Paolo Veronese. Drawing in various forms was of the utmost practical and conceptual importance in his oeuvre, and the running of his workshop.

Different types of drawing were used by Paolo and his collaborators in the process of creating a painting: initial, loose, exploratory sketches, termed “primo pensieri”, more elaborate preparatory drawings made once an idea had taken direction, and freehand drawing in paint directly on the canvas. In addition, there may have been other forms of transferred design elements, and many paintings were recorded after completion in drawn form – termed “ricordi”. The steps represented by these forms of drawing show the artist’s creative process and allow us to better understand how an artist composes his work.

Veronese achieved prominence early in his career. His production in a variety of forms – painting on canvas, on wooden panel, and in fresco - was always in demand. He and his workshop typically handled several commissions simultaneously, using an efficient and collaborative process, with each member playing their own, important role. The interaction with the drawings in the initial stages of a painting was important to this collaboration. In later years some paintings were worked up from the master’s preparatory drawings almost entirely by assistants, who transferred the design and applied much of the paint. In this instance, Paolo’s role was to provide direction and to ensure a level of overall quality.

The Petrobelli Altarpiece is quite different, and comes from a stage in Paolo’s career when the use of assistants was minimal, and the majority of the work was done by Paolo. While none of the preparatory drawings for the painting have survived, there were clearly several types of drawing used in the construction of the composition. There would have been plans for the overall composition and architecture, loose studies and structured preparatory drawings for the major figures - including a life-study for the figure of Christ and perhaps Saint Michael - and likely portrait drawings of the donors.

This section, divided into three parts, explores the use of drawing and the workshop’s involvement in Veronese’s creative process. As there are no surviving drawings for the Petrobelli altarpiece, the first sections examine two other paintings by the artist in the National Gallery of Canada’s collection as well as related drawings from other institutions. This section allows us to explore the working methods and drawings used by the artist and his workshop. The third component of this section presents a reconstruction of the steps in the composition of the Petrobelli altarpiece. The visual evidences revealed during the restoration process and through infrared imaging inform each of the steps of this last component.

Infrared Reflectography image of the section depicting Christ and the angel to his right
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Infrared Reflectography image of the section depicting Christ and the angel to His right

Infrared Reflectography image of the section depicting Christ and the angel to his right

This image shows the initial drawing of Christ, which was possibly the first figurative drawing on the painting. The vertical lines are reference marks made on the canvas around the central plumb-line, which runs through Christ’s head. These reference lines were to allow more accurate transfer of a figure study, and to ensure Christ’s scale was correct in relation to figures below.

The Angel on his left was drawn freehand in black oil paint around this early figure, and is typical of Paolo’s bold and gestural drawing style.