The normal approach taken by Bouguereau for his major paintings would be to produce several intial sketches in oil before moving onto pencil drawings from life models. Figurative portraits were the true essence of Bouguereau's career and this is a genre which cannot be mastered over night, even by the most gifted artists.
It is the layout, the composition, that this artist would find the most challenging, making the drawing stage all the more important. To complete the whole, he would need to take care of the individual elements one at a time before then fusing them together in a believable and natural final piece. Study drawings would therefore be of individual portraits before starting to place multiple figures together as he progressed through this process.
The more complex the final painting, clearly the more study sketches that he would need to perform. There are a handful of sketches included in this section which give you an idea of his work in this medium but sadly there are not that many left in existence. The fragility of this medium plus the way in which it was seen as a support to his oil paintings meant that many have fallen into disrepair or disappeared altogether.
Prior to the detailed sketches found here, there would be multiple croquis, or thumbnail sketches. Bouguereau would make use of all manner of spare paper for these, which was never in short supply during this age. Parts of old envelopes, for example, could be a great resource for quickly putting together ideas in simple strokes of pen, pencil or graphite. These were almost abstract in the way detail was sparse but his brain could decipher any learnings.
Bouguereau was a constant sketcher, it was a natural pastime for him. This medium was perfect for exercising his inventive mind at the drop of the hat. He would also have the tools around to put together a quick sketch, even when on one of his many travels. You will see similar in drawings by Turner who would visit other parts of Europe to continue his development, plus also Monet.
One of his early stages of planning is termed grisalle which was wash drawing or charcoal. It would be for the purpose of investigating the impact of light and shadow across his composition, trying out several different positions to see which would work best for his final painting.
These early stages were essential as later amendments would be far harder to implement. Some artists have adapted work directly on canvas, but this was not an avenue that Bouguereau wanted to go down too often.