A Work in Progression: the Importance of Preparatory Works in an Artist’s Oeuvre

When a critic asked to view the post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin’s sketchbook he quipped, “My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.”

Leonardo da Vinci. Fine Art. Leonard Joel Auctions
LEFT: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Portrait of Isabella d’Este 1499-1500
RIGHT: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Mona Lisa 1503

Preparatory drawings can reveal an artist’s creative process, providing us with a visual guide for how they form their ideas, critique their own creations, and bring a concept to full fruition. Previously, a preparatory drawing may have been viewed as a minor work by an artist, however the market now values these as important documents, providing insight into the artist’s mind which can often be invaluable. 

Let’s start with arguably the most famous artwork in the world – Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Several years before this iconic portrait was created, Da Vinci produced the sketch Portrait of Isabella d’Este 1499-1500. In 1499, Da Vinci was invited to draw her portrait with the promise of a later painting. Although there is still mystery surrounding the Mona Lisa, this drawing reveals the experimentations of Da Vinci, specifically in the workings of the dress and placement of the arms which are a close resemblance between the two works. 

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks 1942 explores the loneliness of the big city, with three customers seated at a late-night diner opposite a server, all seemingly disengaged from one another. The placement and pose of each figure is crucial to the overall composition, so it is no surprise that Hopper produced numerous preparatory sketches to develop the final painting. In Study for Nighthawks, the majority of the composition appears unchanged, but when we look closely it is the subtleties of the figures that are modified. In contrast to the painting, the couple are faced inward to each other whilst the server is more focused on his task below eyeline. So, too, has the signage for the diner moved from the window glazing to the top exterior of the building, perhaps to accentuate our gaze upon these figures, as though in a display case. Hopper’s Nighthawks has forever intrigued the art world. We attempt to fill the void of uncertainty with our own interpretations and find meaning, hence why these preparatory sketches are so important.

Edward Hopper. Fine Art. Leonard Joel Auctions
LEFT: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Study for Nighthawks 1941 or 1942, fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper
© Edward Hopper/Copyright Agency, 2023
RIGHT: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Nighthawks 1942

Our June Fine Art auction features an important sketch by Jeffrey Smart. In 1977-78 Smart produced two preparatory sketches for the resulting painting, Bus by the Tiber. The painting depicts a bright yellow bus flanked by graphic street signs, with a labyrinth area of road markings in the foreground. Small adjustments were made from the preparatory sketches to the final painting. By the following decade, Smart was still experimenting with this composition to produce one of his most recognisable images, The Waiting Bus 1986. The final image was to produce a lithographic print in collaboration with master printmaker, Neil Leveson. Jeffrey provided Neil with a preliminary sketch, illustrating the overall composition with notes for colour preferences. There are only minor changes from this sketch to the final lithograph – predominantly the yellow dashed line in the foreground of the road. As original paintings by Jeffrey Smart now achieve in excess of $200,000 these sketches and works on paper by the artist are highly attractive and attainable. 

OLIVIA FULLER / Head of Art 

Banner Image: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Nighthawks 1942

May 2023