famous drawings

10 Most Famous Drawings and Sketches in Art History

Drawing, arguably the most basic form of artistic expression, holds a significant place in art history. Before the brush touches the canvas, it is the humble pencil that sets the stage, giving shape to thoughts, emotions, and narratives.

A sketch can both be the inception point for a masterpiece painting and stand alone as a masterpiece itself. In this post, we delve into ten of the most famous drawings in the archives of art history. Each unravels a unique story, not just about the artist behind it or the era it represents, but how it has shaped our understanding and appreciation of drawing itself. Join us, as we embark on this journey of lines and strokes that have left indelible marks on the canvas of time.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci: The proportions of the human figure (The Vitruvian Man)

The Vitruvian Man is considered the most famous drawing in art history. Leonardo da Vinci drew this masterpiece in the early 16th century during the Renaissance period. It shows that human proportions can be described by mathematical ratios.

The drawing features a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, forming a square and a circle. It is believed to represent da Vinci’s exploration of the concept of ideal human proportions.

Da Vinci also created the most famous painting in the world—The Mona Lisa, which can be viewed at the Louvre Gallery in Paris.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer: Praying Hands

Praying Hands is a drawing by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. It was created in 1508 and currently in the Albertina of Vienna. It shows hands clasped together in prayer.

The drawing has become an iconic symbol of religious devotion and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest drawings ever made. It is widely used in books, posters, and other forms of art to represent faith and the power of prayer.

Two Figures by Michelangelo

Michelangelo: Two Figures

Michelangelo is best known for his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but he was also an avid sketcher. His figure drawings represent his expert understanding of proportions, anatomy and movement.

He used chalk to create most of his drawings, but he also used ink to create studies of architecture and perspective.

Study for St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael

Raphael: Study for St. Paul Preaching in Athens

Raphael’s study for St. Paul Preaching in Athens is one of his most famous drawings, completed around 1515. It features a vigorous and expressive figure of Saint Paul preaching to the Athenians.

The drawing is a study for one of the tapestry cartoons for the Sistine Chapel. Completed in chalk, the drawing is an example of Raphael’s ability to convey complex actions through his figures. Raphael’s adept use of light and shadow in his drawing brings the scene to life. It gives it a sense of depth and dimension. Moreover, the details in the clothing and facial expressions showcase Raphael’s keen attention to detail and his ability to capture the human form realistically. This drawing is a testament to Raphael’s mastery and his significant contribution to the Renaissance period.

Road in Etten by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh: Road in Etten

Before starting his career as a painter, creating the famous painting widely associated with his Post-Impressionist style, van Gogh represented many of his subjects with the pencil medium. Gogh created over 1,100 drawings, most of which were of rural landscapes and people.

Road in Etten is one of his most famous drawings. It depicts a rural landscape with a path winding through the fields, evoking the quiet stillness of Dutch countryside.

Sitting Woman by Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele: Sitting Woman

Schiele drew many dynamic figures over the course of his art career, which are renowned for their expressive poses. His most famous figure drawings are of his wife Edith, such as Sitting Woman.

This sketch shows her in a seated position with her hands on her lap and a distant, slightly troubled expression on her face. This drawing was one of many, that used simple lines to capture the gesture of the pose, without using shading or values. By simplifying the subject, Schiele conveys emotions and moods without unnecessary details.

Drawing of a Horse by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso: Drawing of a Horse

Picasso is known for his Cubist paintings but he was also skilled at drawing. One of his most famous works in this medium is the Drawing of a Horse, which has been widely praised for its simplicity yet powerful expression.

The sketch captures the horse as an abstract form, using just a few lines and curves. The drawing conveys the essence of the animal without providing details or realism.

My Portrait as a Skeleton by James Ensor

James Ensor: My Portrait as a Skeleton

Ensor was a Belgian painter who created drawings in various mediums over his lifetime. He is best known for his darkly humorous self-portraits, such as My Portrait as a Skeleton. This particular portrait is an etching, so you can see how he used the hatching and cross hatching techniques to create the impression of light and shadows.

This sketch captures his self-portrait in a surreal scene, where Ensor has the face of a skeleton, with a second skeleton peering at him through the window. The drawing conveys a sense of absurdity and mortality through its use of contrasting elements.

Self Portrait in a Cap Open Mouthed by Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn: Self-portrait in a Cap, Wide-eyed and Open-mouthed

Baroque painter Rembrandt is often considered as one of the greatest draftsmen in art history. His drawings, which he often created in chalk and ink, show his mastery of composition and lighting.

One of his many drawings is the Self Portrait in a Cap, Wide Eyed and Open Mouthed. The drawing captures Rembrandt’s facial expression as he looks directly at the viewer, as if in surprise. It has been widely admired for its realism and emotional depth. This is one of Rembrandt’s most expressional portraits, created with simple cross hatched lines, the loose nature of the drawing emphasises the appearance of the face.

Rembrandt created a focal point in the middle of the face, by using densely hatched lines, that are more precise and rhythmic in nature. These lines become gradually more organic as they taper towards the edges. The exemplifies Rembrandt’s expert use of composition in art.

Seated Model with Drapery by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent: Seated Model with Drapery

John Singer Sargent was an American painter and draftsman whose drawings are known for their lifelike qualities and attention to detail. One example of his works is Seated Model with Drapery, a charcoal drawing in which Sargent has created a sense of both realism and dynamism, with his precise knowledge of anatomy and control of values.

The sketch captures a model seated in a chair, draped with fabric around his body. He created many other portraits and full figure drawings in the same style, some of which acted as composition sketches for larger oil paintings.