The Practice and Science of Drawing – chapter 2

Chapter two of The Practice and Science of Drawing is on drawing itself, or “the expression of form upon a plane surface”, and opens with a quote, that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been too keen to get to the fun part of a painting at the expense of the fundamentals: “Art probably owes more to form for its range of expression than to colour” (also known as: ‘get the basics down before addressing colour’). With that in mind, Speed encourages art students to develop “a well-trained eye for the appreciation of form […] with all the might of which he is capable”.

Reading through other books on art from in a certain era (to hand are books by Hamm and Loomis, and the 1954 Famous Artists course), they don’t focus on colour anywhere near as much as contemporary ‘how to paint and draw’* books. In my copy of Loomis’ Creative Illustration, colour doesn’t make an appearance until 150 pages in, and the 1954 Famous Artists course is 24 chapters long and doesn’t touch colour until chapter 21! My research on traditional drawing ateliers suggests that this was quite normal, and that art students were more-or-less prohibited from using colour until they’d attained a certain degree of competency with both pencil and monochrome paint.

I don’t want to speculate on the ‘state of the modern generation’ or the ‘instant gratification, YouTube-era attention span’, but I do wonder if there actually has been a decrease in people’s attention spans or if it’s more like a change in people’s expectations of accomplishment since the middle of the 20th Century. Maybe the decline of the visibility of traditional drawing and painting in everyday life (the rise in computer graphics and the subsequent invisibility of hand of the artist) has pushed art into a luxury past-time and reduced the target audience for ‘how to draw’ books to kids and teens. Or maybe it’s the other way round. The recent reprints of Loomis’ bibliography shows that there is clearly an appetite for old-school art instruction, and I suspect that The Art of X books showcasing film and game concept art are putting the contributions of professional artists back into public sight, even if they aren’t staring you in the face over the breakfast table.

To express form one must first be moved by it

As discussed last chapter, direct, mechanical reproduction of an object is definitely in the art for art’s sake camp. An artist must be moved by their subject. At this point in my notes, I started wondering where technical illustration comes in all of this, and there is obviously a distinction between technical artists and illustrative artists in Speed’s mind. He’s clearly dealing with the latter and I’m pretty sure that the former has mostly moved on to CAD systems by now.

It is this selection of the significant and suppression of the non-essential that often gives to a few lines drawn quickly, and having a somewhat remote relation to the complex  appearance of the real object, more vitality and truth than are to be found in a highly-wrought and painstaking drawing, during the process of which the essential and vital things have been lost sight of in the labour of the work; and the non-essential, which is usually more obvious, is allowed to creep in and obscure the original impression.

This is the great strength of gesture drawing.
Gesture drawing enables us to cut to the heart of a subject, with careful consideration enabling every stroke to complement and support previous marks and the subject. Scratching away and putting down lines without consideration leads to confused, overworked drawings; we must always return to describing the essence of the thing rather than the thing itself.
This, then, is the role of art for art’s sake; practising the skills and techniques – the trade of the artist – without needing to consider the feeling behind the subject. This practice should be exhaustive and capture fine details, so that including them becomes instinctive, so that the mind is ‘free to dwell on the bigger qualities’.

Drawing […] must present the form of things in a more vivid manner than we ordinarily see them.

[The accuracy of a drawing] depends on the completeness with which it conveys the particular emotional significance that is the object of the drawing. […] It is only by this standard that the accuracy of the drawing can be judged.

This is not to suggest that any gross inaccuracies in perspective, anatomy, lighting, etc. can be waved away as ‘stylisation’ in the fashion of a junior artist looking for a pat on the back; artists with a strong sense of personal style, such as Margaret Keane, remains consistent in their stylisation and otherwise technically accomplished, despite the clear deviations from factual accuracy. They obviously have a solid understanding of the fundamentals before they start to exercise their aesthetic choices on the subject.

However much it may be advisable to let yourself go in artistic work, during your academic training let yourself aim for a searching accuracy.

* The order of words in the titles of these books should be some clue as the the relative importance of the two topics