The Best Drawings in History
This page documents some of the greatest drawings in history, with a particular focus on identifying the greatest illustrators. This journey takes you through the Renaissance Masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, through to the Impressionists such as Manet and Degas, to Modern Artists – Pablo Picasso and M.C. Escher, as well as contemporary artist Shane Wolf. The artists are in no particular and are chronologically jumbled creating strong contrast between illustrations and artists.
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519
Leonardo Da Vinci is widely recognised as one of the greatest drafts-man in history. Da Vinci had an incredible accuracy and a soft touch which allowed him to create some truly beautiful and often heavenly female illustrations. Da Vinci’s life-work – his multiple Codex’s were so extensive it has been estimated that he added 3 pages of illustrations, notes and findings every day. This enormous thirst for knowledge and recording his findings no doubt contributed to his exceptional mastery of illustration. Da Vinci often obsessive and was known to attempt to draw the perfect circle freehand. This obsession for perfection and improvement made him one of the greatest illustrators in history.
Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528
Albrecht Durer is unquestionably one of the greatest illustrators in history. His drawings are immensely diverse, both in subject, mediums and techniques from his highly realistic illustrations of animals, to his highly realistic two tone drawings, to his highly elaborate and intricate etchings to his creative depictions on mythology and angles. Living around a similar time as Leonardo Da Vinci, what is most striking when looking at some of Durer’s drawing’s is their apparent modernity. One could imagine seeing his highly detailed and realistic animal illustrations hanging on a contemporary gallery wall. Durer will be remembered as a genius of detail and his etchings are technical feats scarcely surpassed in the history of drawing.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669
Rembrandt is strikingly unique compared to the highly precise and technical style of Durer. His illustrations and etchings are all together more organic with more rugged and emotive line work. Few artists have surmounted such an impressive and extensive collection of self-portraits and it is fascinating to look at the different techniques, poses and mediums Rembrandt experimented along his journey of becoming one of the truly great artists.
Shane Wolf, Contemporary Artist
Shane Wolf would no doubt be humbled to be amongst such illustrious company, but from my research he is undoubtedly one of the leading figure illustrators of our time. His drawings pay tribute to what has come before and no doubt have a classical nature but they are also unquestionably modern in their photo-realism and often sexy and unusual poses. Like Rembrandt, Wolf completed a series of fantastic self-portraits that were full of fun and life, but as these were paintings as opposed to illustrations I can only recommend you to do further research into Shane Wolf. He often holds tutorials so there are opportunities to learn directly from one of the greats.
Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
Rubens has an immensely diverse portfolio of illustration both in subject and style. From bold, rugged male figures completed in heavy two-tones to soft female portraits in colour, to subjects of mythical grandeur to highly soft sensual figure drawings. This diversity was no doubt a sign of his ability, adjusting his style to suit each subject and experimenting endlessly.
Maurits Cornelis Escher, 1898-1972
More frequently known by M.C. Escher, his work is instantly recognisable for it’s illusionary qualities. Apart from being highly original and creative in his creations he was also technically quite brilliant and for this reason he is one of the great illustrators in history.
Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
In a similar elk to Degas and Picasso, Manet sought to push the boundaries of creativity as it was known and therefore his portfolio is immensely diverse. His style ranges from classical to bold sketches and often rugged rendered impressionistic images. It takes a great talent to capture so much with so few lines.
Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520
Following in the great foot-steps of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Rafaello or Raphael became one of the most prominent artists of the high-renaissance. In his time, many considered him the greater painter compared to his two great predecessors but unfortunately he died at just 37, so lost some of his best years and subsequently lacked the sheer volume of work in comparison to Michelangelo who lived to 89 and Da Vinci who did most of his great work in his latter years and lived to 67 years old. Nonetheless Raphael was unquestionably one of the great talents and was extremely versatile, depicting both male and female figures and portraits with equal skill. The influence of Da Vinci on his female drawings and Michelangelo on his male figures is palpable and in many ways he become the bridge between the two. The drawing on the far right, was no doubt influenced by Da Vinci’s Last supper and his rich perspective and striking hands no doubt influenced Caravaggio many years later.
Léon Augustin L’Hermitte, 1844-1925
Leon Augustin L’Hermitte was really a master in creating highly emotive scenes with great realism and stark shadow and light in a similar vein to a Caravaggio painting. His subjects glow, against the shadows and often capture a somber, contemplative mood. He was quite versatile from rough sketches, highly detailed, well worked scenes to more technical renderings. His subjects are often of the forgotten people in society, the homeless, the old and the drunks and his moody renders highlight their disposition perfectly highlighting their depression and drawing emotions from the viewer.
Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Few artists recreated themselves quite so many times as Picasso. It is common for an artists to have success and become trapped in their reputation for a certain style. Picasso on the other hand endlessly strived to create something new and his readiness to change paths is a clear indication that his creativity was driven by his own journey rather then the expectations of others. Looking at his later work, which often has a tribal, childish quality, one could be mistaken to think that perhaps we are not looking at one of the Greatest Illustrators in the history of mankind. But once, you discover his journey and realise that he was creating masterpieces in a classical style from a very early age you quickly realise that his goal was to destroy everything that came before and to break new creative grounds. From the left one can see a fine example of Picasso’s classical credentials, through to his African tribal influence to the right. One great achievement of Picasso’s was the destruction of perspective and his subsequent creation of Cubism. His work is confident and bold and often contains confrontational, emotive themes.
Charles Le Brun, 1619-1690
Charles Le Brun is another highly versatile, highly creative artist, with work ranging from highly detailed and technical drawings in a similar vogue to Durer, through to sketches and quasi human-animal creations, which has been attributed to being of influence to Charles Darwin’s train of thought. His work has a fascinating intensity, full of life an emotion.
Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo needs little introduction. On par with Da Vinci, he is unquestionably one of the most well known artists in history and for good reason. Not only was Michelangelo the greatest sculptor in history, but he was also one of the finest illustrators and painters. One can sense the life in his drawings, the male nude on the left almost popping off the page in it’s realism, with muscles contorting to the twisting torso. His work not only revolutionised art in it’s realism and elevation of human beauty but it also carries with it a great weight and emotional sensibility that has a timeless appeal. Michelangelo was a master at the male nude and his heavier hand (in comparison to Da Vinci) was perfectly suited to the robust, muscular male figures he often depicted. Whilst saying that, one cannot question the elegance and grace of the female portrait which shows his great skill and versatility for various subjects and moods. The male nude to the right has incredible hatching with great accuracy and an almost sculptural ferocity. Michelangelo was unquestionably one of the greatest illustrators in history.
John William Waterhouse, 1849-1917
John William Waterhouse is a real master for capturing the youthful beauty and innocence of the female figure and this occupies almost the entirety of his work, painted in mythological themes. His work has a timeless, mystical, dreamy, out of this world, heavenly quality. His soft touch was perfectly suited to capturing the softness and beauty of women.
Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
What is fascinating about the impressionists is their ability to capture a moment, movement and light. One will typically associate impressionism with colourful paintings, but I think Degas carries an impressionist way of thought through to his drawings also, especially apparent in his charcoals which are often smudged quite severely. Like many great artists, pushing the boundaries of their time his styles are extremely diverse as he explores endlessly. From the classical figure on the left, through to his highly impressionist charcoals, through to his bold, confident outline sketches to his soft beauty capturing female nudes. Irrelevant of style, Degas’ work depicts a masters confidence making all of his styles highly appealing and elevating him as one of the great drawers in history.
I hope you enjoyed this journey. More illustrators will be added to this list over time as my discoveries continue to expand.