How many times have you heard this?
I know I’ve come across it a few times, it’s a common criticism of what we might broadly call representational work that slavishly copying what you see isn’t art. An either/or dichotomy is generally assumed between feeling and accuracy.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the how big the gap is between what we see and what ends up on our paper, canvas, or whatever support we happen to be working on.The point is, that gap is always there. Sometimes it might be a big gap and sometimes a small one, but I think that it’s somewhere in that gap that the personality behind the drawing or painting sneaks in and makes itself felt, even in the most tightly controlled, visually faithful work.
So that’s what I’m going to be writing about today, and I’m going to do it by referencing a couple of practice self portrait drawingsI’ve done fairly recently. I’m going to leave aside the “that’s not art” part. I mean really, who is qualified to decide that? All of us ornone of us, but we’ll reach our own conclusions. It’s the “copying what you see” part that really interests me, and is what I’m going tobe talking about in reference to my self portrait drawings.
Both of these drawings were done sight size, a technique which in particular seems to come in for a healthy amount of vilification, largely I think from people who equate the sight size technique with obsessive accuracy and “copying what you see”.
A quick scan around the web this morning turned up these little gems, which I think are fairly typical and relevant:
(A comment on a blog.)
(An online review of “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri.)
(An excerpt from a blog post)
(Not from the web this one, I overheard a teacher loudly pronounce this piece of particularly ill-considered wisdom to her class of young children in a room of impressionist paintings in the National Gallery, London. Ironic, really, since impressionism was all about the visual impression and not at all about feeling.)
To my mind, this way of thinking is inherited – a hangover, if you like – from the Romantic movement which supplanted Classicism some time in the late 1700s and has (it could be argued) been influencing Western thinking about art ever since.
It’s not “Just” copying. In fact, it’s not “copying” at all.
I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the idea that representational drawing and painting can be (and perhaps even should be) concerned with other things in addition to the visual impression, and perhaps more so. But what does make me a little uncomfortable are the pejorative connotations that the phrase “just copying what you see” carries with it. Note the “just” part of that phrase, as if drawing accurately were a trivial undertaking. Pulling off realistic representational work would be easy if that was case, but if my experience is anything to go by, it really, really isn’t!
I should be clear though: I’m not arguing the opposite view that copying what you see is art. What bothers me is that what is often dismissed as “copying what you see” is anything but copying. Of course representational work begins with the visual impression. But something happens when that impression is translated onto a two dimensional plane by a thinking, feeling human being. Choices are made; some conscious, some not.
Because of this, making a drawing of something perceived in the real world is almost never copying. I’m fond of saying that drawing is thinking.You might as easily say that drawing is feeling, and I don’t personally see any contradiction between those two assertions. It’s both. Mind science is increasingly finding intimate connections between emotion and rationality, to the extent that some (Alexander Damasio for example) will contend that the two are inextricably linked. Rationality can’t exist without emotion. If you want to read up a bit more about that, I’d recommendDescartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio.
Anyway, whether we call it thinking, feeling, or a bit of both, representational drawing is abstraction by its very nature since the drawing is abstracted and selected from the raw visual information. A drawing is a mental construct made physical. It’s not copying. It really isn’t.
Enough chit chat, show me some pictures!
OK, I will.
This post is really about something that struck me whilst working on a couple of drawings recently, and the best way to illustrate it is todo my usual step-by-step demonstration approach. Along the way, I hope I’m going to be able to show how the kind of drawing I’m trying to do here most emphatically isn’t slavish copying. Complete fidelity to the visual impression wasn’t my goal in either of the two drawingsI’m posting today, which is probably just as well since going on the evidence I’m obviously not skilled enough to achieve that in any case 🙂
Theory Into Practice
A little while ago I did a few copies of Sargent portrait drawings, in order to learn something about the way he approached them. It struck me how economical he could be with his values and modelling, yet still create a convincing impression of three dimensional form.
I began to look at Bargue drawings in relation to the Sargent drawing, looking for differences and similarities in the approach. Having copied a few Bargue drawings, I have some idea of how Bargue approached the conceptualisation of form in them. There is often no detail at all in the lights and very little in the darks, perhaps a whisper of a suggestion of reflected light. Most of the subtleties of the modelling, the fine gradations of tone, are expressed in the half-tone areas.
From Bargue to Life
One thing that’s always struck me about the Bargue drawings is that although they are quite stylised and certainly aren’t examples of faithful copying of the visual impression, they still have a forceful impression of three dimensions and a great sense of physicality of the form. I thought it might be an interesting idea to draw my own head using Bargue’s way of conceptualising light and shadow in mind.
Which brings me nicely round, finally, to what I sat down to write about today in the first place.
Self portrait drawing #1
Apart from the aforementioned approach to simplified darks and lights and finely modelled half-tones, two other things about Bargue drawings stand out for me:
Edges, where light meets light, are shown by lines. This is most obvious where a light plane of a head, for example, butts up against a light background. In the real world we see edges between forms as differences in value. An outline like this is an abstraction, probably related to the tactile notion of the felt boundary of a form. An outline is not what we see, it’s an abstraction, an idea.
The paper, despite being a high mid value, not white, is taken as the lightest light. This makes the value range of the drawings quite narrow and means that no highlights are included at all. This is a simplification of value, an abstraction of it and therefore not exactly what we see.
This approach to conceptualising a drawing can be seen pretty clearly in this Bargue copy. Edges of forms are shown by lines. There’s no modelling in the lights or the shadows. The edges of shadows are carefully handled, and there is some fairly economical handling of half tones, but there are large areas with no modelling at all. It’s a highly conceptual approach to drawing, a translation and an abstraction. But the form lives.
Setting up the drawing and sight size
Both of the drawings I’m posting today were begun in exactly the same way, with close similarities to the approach used on the Bargue copy. Some time ago I discovered that if you draw around your head on the surface of a mirror, your head, as it is projected onto the surface of the mirror, will always be exactly half the actual size of your real head no matter what distance you are from the mirror.
That makes it possible to draw your own head sight size. As you can see from the picture below, I’ve got a permanent set up for this now with a mirror hung on the wall and a drawing board screwed to the wall next to it. By transposing the reflection of my head across to the paper, I will get a drawing exactly half the size of my head.
I’m standing a fair way back from the mirror. That distance is effectively doubled anyway because the distance between me and the mirror is reflected in the mirror itself. If I’m five feet back from the mirror, I’m drawing myself as if I was ten feet away. This rather usefully makes your studio twice the size it really is.
I’ve already started the drawing in the picture above. I’ve begun by drawing a vertical line down the middle of my paper. I also have a corresponding length of cotton taped vertically to the mirror, which I use to judge distances from. Essentially, what I have here is not so very different than the set-up I use for sight size flat copies, which you can see in this post of a portrait drawing and this one of the Bargue Drawing copy, described in a bit more depth.
After a bit of measuring and drawing out, I’ve got a basic and reasonably accurate scaffolding (I hope) of my head laid in:
I think this is a good time to revisit one of the quotes I started this post with:
I can’t get inside the head of the person who wrote that, but I hope I’m not doing them too much of a disservice by making some assumptions about what they meant.
Sight size is just tracing
Firstly, there’s a (mis)conception that all you do when you’re laying out a drawing this way is tracing an exact outline of the subject.
That’s not what I’m trying to do here. I do want the shapes and proportions to be fairly accurate, but I’m trying to build a three dimensional armature of the main planes of my head. I think you can see that particularly around the brow and the nose, and the line I’ve drawn following what would be the profile down the centre of my head. I’m trying to figure out what the main forms are in simplified shapes. I’m trying to abstract them from the visual information I have before me.
I’m also looking for the edge of the main shadow that’s running down my forehead and down my face, because that helps to define the form and I know it’s going to be an important part of the drawing.
The point here is that I’m thinking and selecting as I start to lay in the drawing, not just copying.
Accuracy takes out the feeling
This is perhaps the most common criticism of representational work that attempts a reasonable degree of accuracy. I must come clean, I’m much more inclined to agree that there’s something in this. I could certainly see how an overriding obsession with accuracy might prevent you from making artistic decisions about the marks you make. But building an accurate scaffolding for the drawing needn’t necessarily stop you feeling I don’t think. It’s a question of how you approach it, surely.
Bargue’s drawings draw heavily on the Classical tradition, in which subtle changes to the drawing, to proportions and shapes, simplifying and beautifying line, are intended to create a more pleasing result. You might not like the classical approach, but please don’t labour under the misconception that it’s about copying. If it’s about anything, it’s about idealising. And that means changing the raw material of the visual perception so that it conforms more closely to the classical ideal of beauty, and beauty, surely, is something we feel.
Of course, you’d have a lot of work to do to make my head appear beautiful but I might conceivably look less of a common oik than I do in real life if my ignobly proportioned head was forcefully squeezed through the Classical ideal. I should try that one day. Maybe I’d come out looking like Apollo (but with less hair).
Building up the drawing
I’ve described my process for these drawings in more detail in the posts linked above, and I’m sure I’m already trying your patience with the length of this post, so I won’t go over it again. Let’s just whiz through the steps without labouring the process too much.
Establishing the main shadow shape
Here I’ve pretty much just filled in the shadow shape with a flat, even tone of something like the darkest value I can get with my willow charcoal. I won’t be doing a lot more with the shadow than this since Bargue leaves his main shadow areas pretty flat, apart from a hint of reflected light here and there.
I’m trying to at least follow his conceptual approach, albeit with rather less artistic accomplishment.
Refining the edges of the shadow block
Leaving the shadow tone and the light area untouched, I’m just looking at where the shadow moves into the light and trying to define the edges better.
The quality of the edge of a shadow, whether it’s hard or soft, can help to show whether the plane is moving gradually away from the light in a soft curve (soft edge) or sharply away (hard edge). Three dimensional form is already starting to appear because of this.
Now I’m starting on the meat of the drawing really, the half tones. I still haven’t done anything with the lights, and have only introduced a suggestion of reflected light in the main shadow area.
It’s amazing to me how this restrained suggestion of reflected light in the shadow helps to suggest the roundness of the form there.
With the drawing finished, I think this is an interesting first attempt at using the method of organizing light and shadow from the Bargue drawing course on a live head. Some areas don’t quite read right though. Specifically, the forehead seems to bulge in the half-tone area to me, and doesn’t flow naturally into the shadow. There must be something wrong there in the transition from light area to half tone to shadow. I suspect it’s too abrupt.
Perhaps some cast drawing using this approach might help to develop facility with half-tones further. I do think the key to getting a drawing of this type to work lies in the handling of the half-tones more than anything else, so that would be the area to concentrate on.
Self Portrait drawing #2
It should be mentioned before I go any further that I spent a lot longer on this drawing than the first one, trying to get the shapes and proportions more accurate. With this drawing I was looking for a more convincing translation of the tonal visual impression with more modulation of values in the lights, and the introduction of a background value. The shadow planes and half tones, however, are treated very similarly to the first drawing.
Although this approach is perhaps closer to what I saw than the first drawing, the initial stages were identical to the ‘Bargue’ approach taken above. The main difference is that it’s tonally more complete and more detailed in the light areas of the head. Edges between forms are shown by value differences instead of lines. In fact, there are no lines in this picture, a trademark of what might be called ‘optical effect’ drawing.
The addition of more modulation does result in a more convincing three dimensional effect in the lights I think. But some of the strength of simplification of the Bargue approach is lost. There is less opportunity for interpretation and significantly less flexibility for design and expression, it seems to me.
What’s worth pointing out here though is that the highlights down the forehead, on the end of the nose and down the cheek on the left of the drawing are much lower in value that they were in the subject (me). That meant that I had to drop the value of the light areas somewhat in order to have the highlights stand out. Which meant, of course, that I had to drop the value range of the half-tones in turn in order to differentiate them from the light areas.
If that seems overly technical, I’m pointing it out in order to underline the fact that I had to manipulate the values I saw in order to get a drawing in which the values worked against each other. I wasn’t copying (would that I could) I was being forced to translate the values.
Is there a point to all this?
I hope so, yes.
I do agree that art can be about feelings and making people think. My favourite paintings are my favourites in large part due to the emotional reaction they illicit in me.
But that said, I think that what’s often dismissed as mere slavish copying is actually something very different. I hope that I’ve at least partly managed to explain why I think that’s the case with this post.