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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

The Practice and Science of Drawing – chapter 1

The Online Manga University study group is reading through Harold Speed’s The Practice and Science of Drawing (first published in 1900). Chapter one, the introduction, is a discussion on ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is the purpose of art?’, with an added comparison on ‘art for art’s sake’ with ‘art for subject’s sake’. A little light reading to get us started, then(!).

Starting off, Speed quotes Ruskin and externalises the artistic impulse into something which acts through the artist. “Not in him, but through him” is a sentiment which comes up again and again whenever people take a philosophical approach to art – the idea that, as artists, we are a conduit for some ineffable creative spirit rather than the source. It’s not a bad idea, nor one I necessarily disagree with, but it has an element of spirituality – of submitting yourself to a higher power – and carries a connotation that whatever is achieved by the artist is not entirely their doing, and I’m inclined to resist that idea. Maybe it’s me being arrogant or idealistic or just a godless heathen, but the idea that I’m a tool operated by an external agent and (perhaps) ultimately not responsible for what I’m moved to create doesn’t sit well with me.
Moving on.
Speed says “[it] is the business of the artist to develop his talent so that it may produce a fit instrument for the expression of whatever it may be given him to express, which is fair enough. Translating a concept to a physical object is a seriously difficult job and I can’t disagree that any artist worth the title should strive to be able to execute the concept (wherever it came from) as faithfully as possible. This means using the best tool for the job, as Speed points out:

Each art has certain emotions belonging to the particular sense perceptions associated with it. There are some that only music can convey[…]; others that only painting, sculpture or architecture can convey […]. In abstract form and colour – that is, form and colour unconnected with natural appearances – there is an emotional power, such as there is in music, the sounds of which have no direct connection with anything in nature but only with that mysterious sense we have, the sense of harmony, beauty or rhythm (all three but different aspects of the same thing).

So, we move from ‘what compels us to create art?’ to ‘why does art appeal to us?’.

Speed quoted Tolstoy at the beginning of the book: “[Art is] an action by means of which one man, having experienced a feeling, intentionally transmits it to others”, although he dismisses it as an inadequate answer to the question ‘what is art?’, I think it’s this intentional transmission of emotion that make art appeal. Art is a very clear, very tangible attempt at communication and music, drawing and painting has the benefit of not being limited by language. Nuance and cultural references might be lost when art is transposed to a different place and time but, if a piece is executed skilfully, it’s a universal language.

Art is the expression of the invisible by means of the visible (Fromentin)

Our experience of things in the world is comprised of more than form and colour – of feelings, emotional response, of connections and correlations and assumptions and inferences – and it’s the job of the artist to explore these feelings, to capture them, and to paint “under the influence of these feelings”.
At this point, Speed introduces the perceived divide between art for art’s sake and art for subject’s sake, and comes down firmly in the middle:

Such deeper feelings are far too intimately associated even with the finer beauties of mere form and colour for the painter to be able to neglect them; no amount of technical knowledge will take the place of feeling, or direct the painter so surely in his selection of what is fine.

Art for art’s sake – “The painter’s concern is with form and colour and paint, and nothing else” – and art for subject’s sake – “Form and colour of appearances are only to be used as a language and give expression to the feeling common to all men” – is a false dichotomy: “Neither position can neglect the other without fatal loss”
The art for art’s sake painter will miss or fail to capture the significance of the subject and descend into arrogance over their mastery of technique while utterly failing to capture the spirit (inner beauty) of the subject, while the art for subject’s sake painter will fail to be convincing, lacking the technical skills required to represent the subject with any accuracy. “The immaterial can only be expressed through the material in art, and the painted symbols of the picture must be very perfect if subtle and elusive meanings are to be conveyed.”

At this point I found myself asking what implications this has for purely abstract art. Are feelings conveyed through entirely non-figurative imagery necessarily more crude because of the broader strokes used? Far from it, argues Speed. With any abstract art, like music, the lack of an identifiable form means that the technical skill of the artist must be exemplary because, without an identifiable subject, the conversation at the heart of the piece relies on the artist’s ability to express emotion through technique.

The expression must be ordered, rhythmic, or whatever word most fitly conveys the idea of these powers, conscious or unconscious, that select and arrange the sensuous material of art, so as to make the most telling impression, by bringing it into relation with our most innate sense of harmony.

Finally we come to Speed’s definition of art: “the rhythmic expression of feeling”, or – alternatively – “the rhythmic expression of life”.

So, then, the measure of an artist is “the quality of their feeling and the fitness of its expression”.
If the artist fails simply recreates what they see with no greater meaning to the work, they’re no better than a mechanical recorder – a camera left running in the woods would do the same job – and galleries would have nothing more to recommend them than holiday snaps. A pretty scene, but not relevant or meaningful unless you were there. Equally, if the artist doesn’t have the skill to express their emotions in an appropriate manner, then they’re basically drawing a smiling face for happiness and a tearful one for sadness with no nuance or room for further emotional engagement

The study, therefore, of the representations of visible nature and of the powers of expression possessed by form and colour is the object of the painter’s training. And a command over this power of representation and expression is absolutely necessary if he is able to be capable of doing anything worthy of his art.

Making encaustic paint: attempt one and two

Lessons learned and observations made in the first two attempts at making encaustic paint in six years.

Recipes

Attempt one: 8 parts white beeswax pellets to 1 part damar resin (by weight)Attempt two: 8 parts white beeswax pellets to 1 part damar resin (by volume)

Attempt two: 8 parts white beeswax pellets to 1 part damar resin (by volume)

Observations

Damar resin

Waiting for the damar resin to melt

In attempt one, I tried to melt the damar resin then mix the wax into the liquid. The resin wouldn’t melt in a double boiler, so I transferred it to direct heat on the hob and promptly burned it (whoops).

On the second attempt, I added the damar crystals to the wax. This was more successful (i.e.: they melted without burning) but the damar crystals didn’t fully melt into the wax and I became concerned about leaving it on the heat too long, in case the wax started to discolour.

WaxSmashing the resin crystals to reduce their surface area would almost certainly help, but that carries the risk of airborne particles – not a good thing while I’m still using the living room as a studio and sharing the space with my asthmatic partner.

Under my current working conditions, I’m not convinced that direct heat is the wrong way to go, but it clearly requires a more cautious approach.

On the first attempt, I added the wax in one go. In hindsight, this was clearly a bad idea. On the second attempt, I added it in four lots, which was far more sensible.

Elementary stuff but, since I messed it up the first time, it bears documenting.

Product

The finished wax cakes

I poured the result of the first attempt into a metal food tray and found that it stuck to the sides of the container as it dried. Getting it out will involve either destroying the container or melting the whole block and decanting it into a more suitable receptacle.

The result of the second attempt went into silicone cupcake cases. These have been far more forgiving, and the wax cakes can be removed easily. Definitely the way to go in future.

Colour

I added colour to the second batch in the form of oil paint, which had been squeezed out onto kitchen roll to draw out some of the oil. The paint was laid out in approximately 1.25 inch lines and left for a little under 48 hours.
I mixed this into the wax while it was still cooling in the silicone moulds and, after some mashing, it mixed fairly well. There are some issues with the distribution of the pigment which is particularly evident in the paints made when the wax was cooler and they’re none of them as pretty or as bright as shop-bought paints, but they’re functional and significantly cheaper.

Conclusions

Measuring the wax by volume seems to be the way to go. The stickiness of the first product was unappealing and, although it could have been caused by any number of factors, weighing the wax and resin is more time-consuming and doesn’t offer noticeably better results.

Melting the wax (in batches!) before adding the damar was not an unreasonable thing to do, but I’m conscious that the wax changes consistency and colour as it gets hotter. I’ll need to do some reading on the properties of wax and damar before making a decision on whether to melt the wax or the damar first.
Silicone moulds are hands down the way to go if I’m making wax cakes. The Enkaustikos-style tins have a certain appeal, but heating that much wax is going to take a while, and the tin will be a swine to clean if it gets contaminated with another colour. The cakes can be melted individually, cut, weighed and mixed methodically.

When making coloured wax, I need to be do it one cake at a time, leaving the bulk of the mixture to stay liquid. The pigment isn’t as evenly distributed and, although aesthetics weren’t high on my list of priorities, the waxes coloured later in the session look like lumps of frosting which will certainly make stacking them harder even if it doesn’t come back to bite me in some other fashion.

Notes for next time

  • Wear an apron
  • Make paints one at a time
  • Take more photos!

Further exploration

  • Explore ways to completely melt damar into the wax
  • Use pigment for colour (not feasible until I have a dedicated painting space)
  • Use wax blocks for colour
  • Check material properties – melting points, flash points, discoloration temperature, hazards…
  • Carnauba wax

BUCK 2014 aftermath

I’m back from BUCK and running to catch up with the commissions I took, but I should write the con up before I forget what I learned.

Observations

Pre-con

Although I got the pictures finished early enough, despite having to drop five of the planned designs (this is a good thing. More on that later), getting them printed was a farce. Pro Print were amazing and I’ll definitely use them again. They seem to specialise in doing proper prints rather than posters, though, and the proofs look beautiful in matte with a white border.

Travelling up to Manchester, I should have prepared food and water for the journey. It was a hot day and if the journey had been the other way around (five hours, change, one hour), I’d have been in serious trouble.

The con itself

About half-way through the con, I realised that I’d committed a cardinal sin: bringing prints of my OCs to sell at a convention. Almost nobody cared and only a handful who did actually recognised the characters. I ended up giving posters away with commissions just to get rid of them, but still have loads left over.

The colouring pages were very well received by other artists, but here were fewer children there than I’d anticipated, so many of the colouring pages came home with me. Like the prints, I expect they’d have gone down better if they’d featured canon characters. They were probably overpriced – they should have been free or thereabouts – and grouped into packs rather than divided by image.

My price list was subject to change throughout the convention, partly due to bad phrasing on my part (‘Buy one get one free’ is less direct than ‘two for £x’) but mostly due to changes in price (commissions were massively under-priced at the start) and focus (commissions rather than prints).

Despite raising my prices significantly, I took a huge number of commissions. I don’t consider this a problem, but I should have timeboxed each painting and informed customers how long they had to wait. This will come with practice, but I have been left with about a dozen prints to finish and post out after the con.

Daniel (with whom I shared a table) was offering ‘pay what you want’ commissions and did very well while I struggled to build momentum. When given the choice of payment, it seems that people will err on the higher end of payments for larger but less detailed commissions. While this frustrated me early on, my smaller commissions were still very popular.

To prevent customers coming back to check on the progress of their commission, I should have taken phone numbers and sent a text when the picture was ready to be picked up.

The tooth of the cold-pressed paper is more pronounced than I’d like it to be when mixing watercolours with coloured pencils; hot-pressed watercolour paper will probably be more effective, although this will undoubtedly have an effect on the painting in some other fashion.
Dropped into my suitcase at the last minute, the caffeine tablets were a godsend. I’m pretty sure they’re all that kept me upright on Sunday.

Post-con

After the convention, I was so unbelievably tired that I let myself be talked into leaving before I could clear up my space. This was massively unprofessional and I should have been keeping my space tidy throughout the con instead of rushing to tidy up at the end.

It turned out that I had no time or pressing need to bring my tablet or keyboard. No digital commissions were asked for (and why would they be, when physical objects are far more desirable?), I had no time to myself in the evenings and no motivation to do anything art-related on the way home.

Notes for next time

  • Pack food and water in hand luggage
  • Bring saleable prints (read: prints featuring characters from the show or fandom)
  • Colouring pages should be cheap and pre-bagged
  • BADGES! (and other low-priced tangible merch)
  • Take customer’s phone numbers and text when the prints are ready
  • Try using HOT watercolour paper for mixed media
  • Keep track of my watercolours. Having to buy a new set three days after buying the first one was painful.
  • Bring a bag to use as a bin and keep the space clean as I go
  • Leave tablet at home
  • Bring caffeine tablets

Master Paste Original: First Thoughts

This is going to be a tricky one to unpick because there are a lot of firsts going on in this exploration. Ostensibly, this is documenting my first thoughts on Master Paste Original (MPO) wax paste, but since it’s also my first time using painting knives, the results are likely to be muddy.

Master Paste Original

I started by using MPO pigmented with oil paint (D-R Georgian), but initially found it difficult to balance the ratio of paint to paste. Ultimately, I needed a lot less paint than I expected: a tiny dab of paint for a teaspoon of paste was sufficient. Too much oil had the entirely expected effect of turning the paste into a goopy, slow-drying cream that I recall far too well from mixing up wax and oil paints at university.My lovely new silver paint was far too oily to use and, in any case, the metal flakes didn’t fare so well in a wax medium and the whole thing turned a rather unappealing shade of green-grey.

Cleanup was pleasantly quick and pretty easy. When the wax dies it can be scraped off the knives, or they can be heated an wiped ad per my usual cleanup, and I expect some sort of spirit could be used too.

I’d like to find a way to make the paste a bit wetter, although that may improve with better ratios of paint to wax. At the moment it seems to dry very quickly and become lumpy and unspreadable.
Other problems I ran into was the hot air gun pushing the molten wax around, and some issues with mixing colour which almost certainly come back to ratios again. Although Michael Bossom’s technique of interrupting the air flow with a sieve seems to work for him, I could use a blowtorch to burn in instead of the heat lamp.

Knives

The first thing I noticed was how difficult it was to get fine detail with the knives. I suspect that will be good for me, but I can see it being frustrating. Perhaps I could use them in conjunction with brushes and hotplate wax, or the tools I already use. Something to explore, certainly.
Overall, I’m very pleased with the MPO. I’ve wondered before how I could get a glaze without disturbing the paint underneath, and this is a possible solution to that question.


Addendum

I have since learned that there may be some health risks associated with heating cold wax paste. I will have to do more research on the matter before I feel comfortable burning in MPO again.