Paper first came to Europe in the 11th century but it was expensive and of poor quality and difficult to erase. Hence, drawing was not an art form during the Middle Ages. But by the Renaissance this had all changed. The availability of better and less expensive paper opened up the possibility of the sketch. Renaissance artists were able to sketch their work before they drew, painted, or sculpted it. This meant they could plan and experiment with ideas on paper, and it raised their art to a new level.
According to Mark Kurlansky in his 2016 book, “Paper: Paging through History,” during the Renaissance, “artists drew and sketched with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo, known for his frescoes and sculptures, was equally brilliant as a draftsman…though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. Both artists used Fabriano paper at least some of the time.
“Michelangelo used a great deal of paper, [and]…almost any piece of paper he used contained a few sketches. A few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up, with notes about the banal ephemera of everyday life jotted on the reverse side. … Michelangelo may have been among the first to jot down quick ideas for himself. Some 2,000 letters from and to Michelangelo have been collected. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.
“Leonardo da Vinci was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to complete projects. … Fortunately, there was paper, on which Leonardo could capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only 15 paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind 30 bound notebooks. Unlike Michelangelo, he did not want people to see this work on paper, including notes he made in his mirror-image script – a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kind of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and, most of all nature….
“Leonardo also left behind 4,000 sheets of drawings of staggering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrochio.”
Artists have been trained on paper ever since.