Virtual Art Academy

Critiquing Art: Giovanni Boldini, Pencil Sketches

Pencil portrait sketch by Giovanni Boldini
Pencil portrait sketch by Giovanni Boldini

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What can you learn from the sketchbook of Giovanni Boldini. A surprising amount really ….

Giovanni Boldini brief biography

Giovanni Boldini (31 December 1842 – 11 July 1931) was an Italian genre and portrait painter who lived and worked in Paris for most of his career. He was known as the “Master of Swish” because of his flowing style of painting.

Boldini was born in Ferrara, the son of a painter of religious subjects, and in 1862 went to Florence for six years to study and pursue painting. 

Moving to London, Boldini attained success as a portraitist. He completed portraits of premier members of society including Lady Holland and the Duchess of Westminster. From 1872 he lived in Paris, where he became the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris in the late 19th century.

Giovanni Boldini pencil sketches

Key lessons

Pencil portrait sketch by Giovanni Boldini
Pencil portrait sketch by Giovanni Boldini

The wonderful thing about the sketch above is its simplicity. Boldini says so much with so few strokes of the pencil. But the lines he chose were very significant.

With a few lines, he identifies the top, back, front and lower part of the head. This is enough to accurately convey the overall proportions of the head.

The positions of the eyebrows, outer corner of the eye, position of the bottom of the nose and its tilt, the position of the corners of the mouth, and chin are the keys to getting a likeness.

Another key point is the position of the ear, which together with the chin and shoulder line, shows how the head is tilted.

The curve of the line of the clothing around the neck is a simple single cross contour line that creates form. Without this line you would not get the feeling of three dimensions.

His use of line is not only economical, but also elegant. The graceful line conveys the elegance of the sitter. This gives the sketch both Visual Music (interesting design in an abstract sense) and Visual Poetry (a feeling or emotion).

When you join the Virtual Art Academy you will be able to study lots more of Boldini’s sketches in our advanced program, as well as learn about more than 50 artists, including some contemporary masters, that we recommend you study for improving your color, composition and brushwork.

You can read more about the life of Giovanni Boldini and see some of Boldini’s work at

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, and want to learn more about my Visual Music & Poetry® model, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

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