This Suffolk-born artist would make use of pencil, pen, watercolour and oil sketches as part of his movement towards a final lavish artwork, that would be layered in thick oils to create some extraordinary detail. He would use huge canvases for many of his completed paintings, but worked at a much smaller scale in the earlier study stages of his work. Constable's career made use of a number of sketchbooks in which he would sketch away whilst on the move, to varying levels of detail. Within this work one can find incredible displays of craftsmanship, with Constable being as skilled a draughtsman as he was a painter. Some of the more complete drawings are rightly considered works of art in their own right, even though at the time that he produced them, the artist would have considered them merely technical experiments to work towards a later project.
In order to provide a thorough display of the artist's career, many of the sketchbooks and individual sleeves of drawings produced by Constable have been acquired by the major art institutions of the UK and this allows local researchers to study them in depth and continue to publish new findings on his achievements. Many of these have been published online for those unable to access them, as many are also not currently on display to the public. The techniques and beauty of the medium of drawing has received a greater focus in recent years, with many art gallery curators taking a closer look at the earlier preparatory pieces by a number of famous artists. This has allowed big name exhbitions to be put on, but with artworks on display that have been slightly easier to loan from across the country.
Many continue to compare the careers of Constable and Turner, such was their respective impacts on British art and landscape painting. It has proven easier to research the latter's drawings because most were kept together and handed over to specific institutions upon his death. Constable's drawings were more widely dispersed and many of his sketchbooks had already been reduced to individual sleeves of paper, making it harder to document individual items. The Suffolk master also achieved some success in France during his own lifetime, meaning several of his works would make their way overseas. One of the key questions that researchers have attempted to answer is just why Constable used certain tools in some cases, and then others elsewhere. Why did he switch between pencil, graphite, pen and oils for his different preparation works? It has taken many years for academics to confidently answer these questions.
"...To know and understand Constable as well as to enjoy his art to the full, we need to give almost as much time to the drawings as to the paintings..."
Another significant barrier to constructing a consistent interpretation of Constable's drawings is that even when piecing back together some of his sketchbooks, we then realise that many elements are missing. Some would have been damaged due to the fragile nature of paper, whilst others may simply have been stored somewhere and perhaps have not since been re-attributed to the artist. He would not have signed many of these pieces, meaning the average follower of British art would be completely unaware of their origins. It is highly unlikely that this problem will ever truely be solved, but there is a continual re-emergence of items from his career even today. Only those familiar with the content of his work across different mediums might perhaps recognise some of these spare artworks.
As a young budding art student, Constable focused entirely on drawing. It was considered an essential backbone for any aspiring painter within the majority of Europe during this time. Copying was one technique used by many artists to perfect their skills, and in the case of this Suffolk gentleman, he would make use of several engravings produced in France which themselves were based on Raphael's cartoons from the late Italian Renaissance. Another, more recent influence was the drawings of Thomas Gainsborough that were actually also made in the county of Suffolk, leaving an inspiring mark on someone so proud of his local landscape. He is also known to have spoken fondly about the work of Gainsborough at several times in his career. He would eventually realise, though, that in order to reach the levels that he desired, Constable would have to move to London, and that is precisely what he did.
The artist entered the Royal Academy Schools and set about following their syllabus as directed. Most of his tasks were aimed at portraiture, including making study sketches of various items that were on display in the institution at the time. His real interest already lied in landscapes, though, and he was able to find some likeminded mentors who gave him additional knowledge within that area. His enthusiasm for it would also enable him to develop quickly. Constable would go on to study the writings of Joshua Reynolds, a famous British portrait painter, as well as the contributions of other, earlier, members of the Academy. They provided him both inspiration and also direction and at this stage he was still building his own self-confidence with regards his own work. Another interesting development was how several of the artist's new connections within London would grant him access to other masterpieces outside of the ownership of the Royal Academy. For example, he would make detailed copies of several paintings by Claude Lorrain.
The guidance of Reynolds suggested that Constable should avoid going into too much detail with his copied works, and whilst the artist followed this advice, he would also later produce highly complete drawings too. His career is filled with both of these options, and soon afterwards he would begin to produce highly impressive oil paintings for the first time. His painting style was varied at this stage, producing both the simpler, romantic approach in some, whilst others were more traditionally made in the way that we best remember him today. Indeed, even the classic Hay Wain has several different versions of it in existence, one of which was far more 'abstract' than the more famous version, as well as a whole host of accompanying sketches which spanned over a decade between them. He would take various different study drawings and use them collectively to put together the final scenes in oils. In this case, then, he must have preserved his work carefully, otherwise he would never have been able to refer back to older creations in this way.