Drawing the Folger’s Shakespeare bas-reliefs

Yes, the Folger Shakespeare Library has a theater inside its historic building on Capitol Hill. But it also has nine stages outside on the north wall facing East Capitol Street. Nine moments from nine Shakespeare plays, their marble actors eternally holding their places. John Gregory’s bas-relief sculptures are one of the artistic jewels of Washington DC—yet they’re easily overlooked.

I’ve lived in the DC area my whole life and have been drawing sculpture in the city for decades. Yet it wasn’t until a casual visit to the Folger this spring that I finally had that jaw-dropping moment of seeing the reliefs. How could I have missed them? I resolved to draw them all.

What hooked me was the way each sculpture instantly told a story. Their classicist grace (tinged with Art Deco styling) can be taken in at a glance, but observing them slowly yields great pleasure and reward—as I’ve learned.

Gregory set up each scene in the same six-by-six-foot square, and then filled them with so much to see: life-size figures standing, sitting, crouching, and turning; facial expressions ranging from passive to crazed; delicate fingers and gnarled fists; hats, headdresses, and helmets; wild swoops of drapery and monumental armor; hints of architecture and billowing clouds.

They represent a thematic core sample of Shakespeare’s work: dynamic moments of fantasy, love, jealousy, murder, ambition, madness, innocence, betrayal, and redemption. Even if you don’t know the story, you can get a sense of the characters—who they are, what they’re doing, what their relationship might be. Each frozen moment suggests what happened a second before, and what might happen next.

Photo by Julie Ainsworth

The sculptures became a gateway for me into Shakespeare’s timeless world. Indeed, when I started the drawings I’d only read or seen four of the nine plays. Now I’ve read them all. I’m hooked.

I started with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and moved one by one to the right. Each sculpture took about nine or ten hours to draw, in four or five sessions for which I usually arrived just before the sun came up. I’ve happily discovered that the Folger at dawn is one of the most peaceful places in Washington.

The entire process has been made a true pleasure by the kindness and encouragement shown me by everyone at the Folger, especially the security officers, docents, and shop staff from the moment I first showed up. The Folger’s wonderful resources have shed great light on the sculptures.

With this series of posts, I’ll share what I’ve learned from John Gregory about staging Shakespeare without sound, action, color, or language—and in my case using only a pencil.

Drawing sculptures is a fascinating puzzle. Each element must fit with the others so that together they make a plausible illusion. It’s a magic trick to which I’m hopelessly addicted. Drawing is just like anything else – one rarely gets it right on the first try. And like magic tricks, there’s a process behind the illusion.

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First Study

I begin simply by looking—standing back far enough so I can see the whole thing in a glance, but not too far that I miss details. Then I make a small, loosely drawn study where the very last things I care about are mistakes. It’s all about figuring out where the big lines of motion are, where the fussy details will be, and the major areas of light and dark. Then I take the drawing home, prop it up, and let it soak in for a few days.

Underdrawing and Modeling

When I return, I begin the finished drawing. This is where the study serves its purpose—it’s not the first time I’ve drawn the sculpture. I start with lines first, which serve as guides for where the edges of light and dark shapes meet. This is where I figure everything out and make all my mistakes. The lines—warts and all—will get covered up.

Usually, I take the line drawing home and let it sit for a day or two, and if I notice anything that needs correcting, I fix it when I come back. Then, I begin the modeling (or shading) from the top left-hand corner, moving toward the bottom right-hand corner. I began this series with the intention of having finished, presentable drawings. Being right-handed, if I draw this way, I won’t smudge it as I go.

Modeling Progress

The modeling usually takes three or four 90-minute to two-hour sessions to complete. It’s kind of like sculpting with a pencil. The sculptor carves away at the marble; I carve away at the whiteness of the paper. It’s always thrilling to see the illusion of the sculpture start to emerge from the flat lines.

Finished Drawing

The drawing usually tells me when I’m done, when everything I see in the sculpture is on the page and in balance as best as I can make it. It’s always a little hard to pack up and walk away.

(I did not draw the carved titles for any of the sculptures. Rendering them would be more akin to calligraphy, and done poorly would distract from the rest of the image. So I simply left them off—artist’s prerogative.)

Next: A Midsummer Night’s Dream