There are only six studies like this drawing by Michelangelo throughout the world today, done in preparation for painting his “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. Its quality is soft and smudgy due to the chalk used, and the purpose and fashion in which it was executed…it was a sketch.

Sketching is something we all have in common with Michelangelo… we have all sketched to communicate an idea, simple as it might have been. Everyone. Usually the communication works pretty well. If you have a more elaborate or artful message  to convey, chances are you will rise to the occasion and find yourself more technically able. This is something I truly believe.

We recently had one of these drawings on display here in Seattle. When Michelangelo was invited back to Rome by the Pope to paint the altar wall, the resulting work, his “Last Judgment,” was a truly original if controversial masterpiece.

The sheet is filled with a cascade of figures. The first marks are the softest… smaller interwoven figures floating in uncertainty. Larger individual figures fill in the empty areas and are rendered in more precise line. The full emotional force can be seen in the sketched gestures and the movement of the chalk line itself. Imagine Michelangelo’s eye darting between model and page, hand sweeping, and the line starting and stopping on the paper. Each depicted figure moves across the paper, never resting. The confines of the wall and the limits of the fresco technique don’t apply here.

The depiction of the human body has become a visual language. If you study the nuances of muscle, bone and gesture you can see very complex stories being told in the scene. As designers, we can see the same control at play as messages are expressed with typeface styles. Take a single word and notice how each type design offers different interpretations… does each have a different meaning?


I think it was in the drawings that Michelangelo imagined the heavens swarming with boundless discontent. Is it coincidence that he decided to produce the same effect on the wall by not allowing any framing or other architectural devices to lock-down the painting’s composition?

Think about this the next time you decide on a border around a graphic element in your layout.