All in the details… a comparison of two drawings two hundred years apart

I have chosen to compare detailed work that was created 200 years apart.  The first drawing is by Carl Philipp Fohr; it was created in 1815/1816 as an illustration, one of five, representing scenes from “Der Zauberring” (the Magic Ring) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a popular fairy story first published in 1813.  The drawing, which can be seen at this link, is in the Graphische Sammlung (Collection of Drawings) of the Staatliche Museen in Kessel, Germany.

The artist has used black ink to focus the viewer’s attention on the story that is taking place on a riverbank in the foreground, grey ink to pick out the trees in the middle ground, and pencil to provide the background which includes a castle, also relevant to the story but not the main focus at that moment.  Thus, he has used different media to create aerial perspective; the level of detail is also different in these three “layers” of the drawing (detailed marks in the foreground; hatching in the background) but what is missing is a gradual movement into the distance rather than the distinct “leaps” in perspective provided by the different media.  On the other hand, the purpose of the drawing is to illustrate a story; the drawing was not created as a landscape. Thus, the rather-too-detailed reflection was probably also drawn with an eye on the story.  The artist would have known that a reflection would never be perceived as a distinct outline, and certainly not in a flowing river; however, it serves a narrative purpose. Fohr has used a wide variety of marks to depict recognizable foliage from the plants growing at the water’s edge (for example, fine “flicked” lines for grass, circles and dots for flowers, zigzags for leaves) to the trees on the right where he has used small “hooks” for leaves.  Changing the direction of the hooks creates movement and depth in the trees. In small sections of the drawing, he appears to have used a wash to introduce tone; however, in the main, he has achieved this by altering the density of marks.

As a contrast with Fohr’s work, I chose a drawing by Vija Celmins, a contemporary American artist with Latvian origins, whose work I encountered for the first time this summer during an exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Köln.  Her themes are the desert, the sea, the stars and, more recently, spider’s webs. Despite the repetition of these themes throughout all of her work, it is a joy to look at, wondrous, expansive, mesmeric.  The attention to detail requires that each drawing takes weeks to complete which in itself inspires wonder….


In the drawing here of a spider’s web, Celmins has drawn with a putty eraser into a graphite ground.  The ground itself is luminous and therefore, there is a sense of a light source beyond the web.  The strands of the web are not uniformly bright; Celmins has created a sense of light in the real world, in which undulations and breaks in a surface will cause changes in reflected light.  She has created this effect by drawing thousands of intricate lines around a central spot of light.  The irregularities around the edges mimic the imperfections and create a sense of the fragility of a spider’s web, where it seeks an anchor in the solid world.


You could imagine yourself on the edge of a forest just after sunrise, watching the sunlight break in the dawn through the silk of a spider’s web…  Alternatively, it could be a web caught in a car’s headlights on a dark night, in which case, better get out of the way…


Both of these artists represent nature in detail but in different ways. Apart from their use of different media, Celmins works from photo references, while Fohr could only have worked directly from nature. However, Celmins could not have produced her beautiful, natural drawings from observing nature alone as she is capturing a moment in time in a process that takes her several weeks to complete.

A review in English of the Köln exhibition (now over) can be read here. There is also a short clip on youtube filmed at the Ludwig this year, in which Celmins talks about her work.

Further information about this artist, including videos of her discussing her work can be found here:


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