The Practice and Science of Drawing – Chapter 6 (part 1)

The academic and the conventional

A strict education has the unfortunate habit of leaving students’ work flat and lifeless and Speed puts the blame for this squarely at the foot of schools that fail to allow teachers time to practice their art or, worse, teachers who aren’t practising artists art all. The flip side of that coin is schools who invite a series of visiting artists in for a month or two, and risk confusing less able students by overwhelming them with methods and techniques.

The biggest mistake art educators make is to teach students to copy instead of to observe. Although ‘painstaking accuracy’ should be the goal of any student serious about their art, conflating technical studies and artistic expression, and rewarding and encouraging the former at the expense of the latter is as harmful to the student as the complete neglect of the former. To counter this, Speed suggests educators give awards and recognition for artistic expression as well as technical merit.

It is difficult to explain what is wrong with an academic drawing, and what is the difference between it and a fine drawing. But perhaps this difference can be brought home a little more clearly if you will pardon a rather fanciful simile. I am told that if you construct a perfectly fitted engine —the piston fitting the cylinder with absolute accuracy and the axles their sockets with no space between, &c.—it will not work, but be a lifeless mass of iron. There must be enough play between the vital parts to allow of some movement; “dither” is, I believe, the Scotch word for it. The piston must be allowed some play in the opening of the cylinder through which it passes, or it will not be able to move and show any life. And the axles of the wheels in their sockets, and, in fact, all parts of the machine where life and movement are to occur, must have this play, this “dither.” It has always seemed to me that the accurately fitting engine was like a good academic drawing, in a way a perfect piece of workmanship, but lifeless. Imperfectly perfect, because there was no room left for the play of life. And to carry the simile further, if you allow too great a play between the parts, so that they fit one over the other too loosely, the engine will lose power and become a poor rickety thing. There must be the smallest amount of play that will allow of its working. And the more perfectly made the engine, the less will the amount of this “dither” be.

It’s this ‘dither’ that creates an artist’s personal style and the ineffable vitality in any well-executed picture. Any drawing done from life and with feeling can’t help but exhibit this dither because the artist can’t not put themselves into their work when they work with feeling. That said, reworked pictures often lose their spark and even master artists struggle to transfer the initial feeling from the sketch to the final image without the impression given by live observation.

Jamie, by me (circa that awkward ‘realism’ stage)

Unfortunately, only the technical aspect of creation can be taught. The character of a subject must be observed by the student; all the master can do is encourage it when they see it and, at the risk of repeating myself repeating Speed, “the test [of a quality drawing] is whether it has life and conveys genuine feeling.”With that in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the best way forward is for the artist to eschew all stylisation, aesthetic movement or convention and paint strictly what they see and, in doing so, choosing realism which is itself a convention, and a difficult target to aim for.
In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Edwards says that this is a common stage in drawing development and often the precursor to young artists quitting drawing altogether as the quality they strive for seems impossible to reach and their work seems to get less pleasing as it gets more realistic.

“After a certain point, the nearer you picture approaches the actual illusion of natural appearance, the further you are from the expression of life.”

Ronald Reagan, by Jason Seiler

This is, more or less, the textbook definition of the uncanny valley (a phase coined by roboticist Mashahiro Moti, and connected to  Jentsch’s ‘Uncanny’ (On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906) and Freud’s expansion thereupon (The Uncanny, 1919). The effect is enhanced by the realistic rendering of exaggerated features.

To minimise this effect, Speed recommends movement – “the nearer you approach the actual in all its completeness, the more evident is the lack of that movement which always accompanies life” – but also authenticity – “however abstract and unrealistic the manner adopted, if it had been truly felt by the artist as the right means of expressing his emotional idea, it will have life […]. It is only when a painter consciously chooses a manner not his own […] that his picture its ridiculous and conventional in the dead sense.”