Exercise: Drawing Classical Figure Sculptures

The course notes set an exercise to draw or make tracings of classical figure sculptures  and to choose a variety of figures.  One drawing is then developed further to increase powers of observation.  I choose to draw 3 sculptures or rather casts of sculptures I had photographed on a fleeting (due to time constraints) to the Ashmolean Museum and also choose two the casts to be my annotations for the assignment too. The first cast of a large Herculaneum woman – the sculpture was found at Herculaneum in 1711 and was one of the first sculptures discovered.

Please note all personal photographs posted with the kind permission of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.


Directly underneath the photograph I choose to do an initial sketch of the lower part of the woman’s robes to get a feel for how the sculpture was carved.







I tried a rough sketch of the woman noting some basic details – I felt the figure was carved delicately and skillfully.  According to research the face is idealized and the figure could almost be one of the stock/generic figures loved by the Romans and used subsequently for their portrait sculptures. According to research the woman is of high rank in the society in which she lived and the sculpture certainly gives the impression of a woman with decorum and who is assured of her status in life – she has a confident assured look but also a modesty in her clothing and the way she holds herself.



A second sketch I decided to do a detail of the cast of a sculpture based on Myron’s lost Discobolos which is simply one of my favourite statues of the ancient world.  The Ashmolean Museum’s cast pays tribute to the bronze casting of the original and unlike many Roman copies in marble does not include a tree stump for support of the figure.  Drawing the figure’s upper body was in some ways very simple but also challenging as the lines of the muscles are clearly defined but not exaggerated (as was often done in later copies)  – the carving is delicate and sympathetic and although the figure appears idealized the sculpture also has a naturalistic style too.  The athlete reminds me of the kouros in many ways although more refined and detailed and is likely to have been in the army of high rank and this is demonstrated in both his fitness and also like the Herculaneum woman his assured confidence in his face.  The athletes face is very much concentrating on his task – you can feel the focus as he prepares to continue the movement of the discus throwing.  The carving and casting of the bronze captures the rhythmos so important to the Greeks whereby the limbs are all in perfect balance to one another but also in perfect equilibrium as the athlete is perfectly caught between two movements.


This is possibly the statue that has made the greatest impact on me – the Boxer of Terme.  Like the Discobolos the sculpture is in bronze but this cast is copied closely from the original that is in the National Museum in Rome and was discovered at Quirinal Hill in 1885. Both the Boxer and Discobolus   I suspect were sculpted by the lost wax technique and if this is the case the level of skill is exceptionally high.  The Boxer is caught in a moment of rest with his head turned to one side as if looking at something or someone or anticipating an event.  I choose to sketch a photograph my fiancé took of the side view that clearly demonstrates that he was meant to be seen from all view points – 3 dimensional. There is deliberate and careful definition of his muscles that show them exhausted but tense and careful attention was paid to the detail of carving on the gloves and ties.  This sculpture feels much more of a portrait  rather than a generic style – I question whether it was done for a patron or specific purpose or to be displayed somewhere. The man could have been a gladiator or slave but either way is certainly of more mature years than some of the younger athletes portrayed by the Greeks – he has the scars of many boxing fights along with clearly broken nose.  The muscles on his back, arms and legs have clear definition, as they do in the whole figure, which emphasizes his fitness and strength despite his exhaustion.

These are the 3 sketches I am happiest with of the ones I did and looking now I realise just how much drawing the sculptures has made me really look at them in more detail.  By drawing you notice the tiny details of the work including in the case of the boxer when my research spoke of the bronze inlay on his shoulders, thighs and face that was done to indicate blood (I mention this in my annotation). Drawing these has definitely made me think about how the work was done and how it may have been conceived or for what purpose – why was it done? who was the patron if there was one? where was it displayed if unknown? What materials were used for the eyes? In the case of the Boxer he was found near the Baths of  Constantine so was this sculpture displayed there or was it commission for somewhere else?  the drawing is making me question more which I didn’t anticipate.  Reading about art is fascinating but drawing  it or trying to reproduce even in very basic terms does make you look more closely.  I posted one sketch in an OCA Facebook group and one of the art students made mention of the fact sculptures in particular were and are used as  a figure teaching tool which I understand – somehow for me drawing a sculpture is less daunting than drawing from real life because you have clearly defined muscles and limbs and facial features.  You have the ability to study closely and notice details and also to do research that enhances observation skills still further.


I decided to try annotation a sketch I developed further but leaving out the facial details I found difficult in my original sketch and by doing so I felt more able to concentrate on the carving of the woman’s robes and her stance.  As an additional notes I also noticed the fact that one hand is gloved or covered as if holding her robes around her.  To annotate the sketch I found myself using a combination of research and observational skills – noticing how delicate the carving actually was as I drew it and how effectively the sculptor managed to portray two different fabrics with the way he has carved the drapes – the more delicate lower garment as opposed to the more softly draped robe and also the head dress too.  The carving of the woman’s hair has been done to emphasize the curls so popular at the time and the combination of the headdress and her hair frame her confident expression of her face whilst her hand holding the fabric as well as her stance gives the impression of the modesty and decorum that would have been expected of a lady in the upper classes of society. I did find annotating the sketch was surprisingly difficult but also really interesting.

Overall by doing this exercise I have found another way of looking at art more closely and will use the technique when doing annotations in future if only on a basic level – it may help to really notice colours or textures portrayed as well as the artist use of line and form (and happily my current assignment in textiles is about colour which ties in with further History of Art research).  There is no doubt this exercise has really made me think and observe more closely.


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