John Bellany and Drawing

"There is a fundamental misunderstanding about what drawing is, what drawing does and what drawing means." John Bellany

For many artists drawing is an aspect of their oeuvre supplementary to their painting. However, for John Bellany, drawing has always been the foundation of his art and his paintings bear many of the qualities of his drawings.

His early passion for drawing was ignited when he was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. In his second year he rented, with Alexander Moffat and two other students, a top-floor flat at 150 Rose Street Lane South. In the flat they discovered an old ottoman filled with top-quality French reproductions of Old Master drawings. It was a real treasure trove of the best that Europe had to offer: drawings by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, Cranach, Holbein and many more besides.

Engraving after Michaelangelo, Unknown

Engraving after Dürer, Unknown

For a young artist desperate to learn how to depict the human body and the world around him, this was manna from heaven. It chimed with the very traditional way in which drawing and painting were taught at the college, but it gave Bellany his own private master’s studio. He grasped the opportunity with both hands and drew incessantly.

Whilst at Edinburgh College of Art, Bellany spent many hours in the Scottish National Gallery copying works of art. He made several drawings of Joos Van Cleve’s 'Deposition' triptych.

Triptych. Centre: the Deposition from the Cross; Left wing: St John the Baptist with a Donor; Right wing: St Margaret of Antioch with a Donatrix, Joos van Cleve, 1518

Copy after Joos van Cleve's 'Triptych', John Bellany − © the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.

He also made a large painting based on the Gallery’s copy after Giovanni Bellini’s 'The Feast of the Gods', then thought to be by Nicholas Poussin. Bellany’s work, 'The Box Meeting Cockenzie', 1964, was a free transcription of the Venetian composition but transposed from the Arcadian home of the classical gods to the shores of the Firth of Forth.

The Feast of the Gods, Giovanni Bellini, 1625

Box Meeting at Cockenzie, John Bellany − © the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.

Drawing would continue to be a fertile and important aspect of Bellany’s output. In 1969 he became a part-time teacher at Winchester College of Art where Trevor Bell was head of fine art, William Crozier was head of painting and Heinz Hengis was head of sculpture. Whilst there, Bellany learned etching, a medium that was highly suited to his skill at drawing and his often dark subject matter. Norman Ackroyd, who taught printmaking at the college and shared a studio with Bellany, noted:

"He was an obvious etcher because there was so much drawing in his painting. Good painters are natural etchers. Also he is a very spontaneous painter and etching is a spontaneous medium. I only had to suggest it to John and he just went for it… He’s a terrific etcher."

Untitled (The Kiss), John Bellany, 1972 − © the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.

Drawing is an incredibly direct medium, perfect for capturing a mood or moment. When, in 1988, Bellany underwent a liver transplant he began drawing almost as soon as he woke up, signalling to the nurse for a piece of paper on which he wrote: “Can I draw you?”.  In leaving intensive care, Bellany, spurred on by new hope for the future, drew himself, his doctors and nurses as he recovered from the operation. These remarkably honest and occasionally searing depictions make up a rare record of art overcoming physical disability.

Self-Portrait (from 'The Addenbrookes Hospital Series'), John Bellany, 1988 − © the Artist / Bridgeman Art Library. All rights reserved.

Bellany’s drawings are captivating in their skilful use of line to communicate a mood, personality or scene. Some are heavily worked, others are sparse, what joins them is a sense of description and honesty.