The Practice and Science of Drawing – Chapter 4

Line drawing

Line drawing is the oldest and most common style of art and, whether the line is drawn, painted, incised or raised, it has been part of art since prehistory. That said, it wasn’t until the renaissance that artists were able to transcend the line into representation of mass (Speed credits Leonardo da Vinci with developing perception sufficiently of overcome the ‘colouring between the lines’ of earlier artists, including masters like Botticelli).

Botticelli vs. da Vinci

As Speed explained in the last chapter, using line to show the boundaries of mass is the first expression of our understanding of the world, and this is why many beginning artists struggle to depict lost edges and why many pictures that rely heavily on imagination are predominantly line-based.

“Most artists whose work makes a large appeal to the imagination are strong on the value of line. Blake, whose visual knowledge was such a negligible quantity, but whose mental perceptions were so magnificent, was always insisting on its value. And his designs are splendid examples of its powerful appeal to the imagination.”

Perhaps this is why many artists who draw from imagination sketch with line, regardless how the choose to render the final piece. Taking a line for a walk allows you to explore an idea in a way that blocking in masses doesn’t permit for.

When da Vinci said “the first object of a painter is to make a simple flat surface appear like a relievo, and some of its parts detached from the ground; he who excels all others in that part of the art deserves the most praise,” ‘relief illustration’ was novel and, although the artists of the time were beginning to move away from the outline and colour model, it wasn’t until Velázquez that the idea of a painting being ‘objects in space’ (as opposed to images of a plane) was challenged or vision was used as more than an aid to some mental model.

Velázquez’ Las Meninas

Here, Speed suggests that art has, in some ways, suffered for the move away from line. In accordance with his theory that line suggests an innocence or primitive quality, he feels that later works lack the freshness of a Botticelli, and highlights one of the dangers of an overly natural approach: that the viewer becomes distracted; looking not at the painting, but at the landscape it represents, applying the same information-gathering thought processes they would if confronted with the scene in real life.

For this reason, the artist must be disciplined in their approach to detail – “the accumulation of the details of visual observation in art is liable eventually to obscure the main idea and disturb the large sense of design on which so much of the imaginative appeal of a work of art depends.”

The key traits of line are simplicity, purity, imagination and design; excessive detail and visual fidelity is a detriment to the benefits of linework.

In Speed’s opinion, the highest pinnacle of art is “when to the primitive strength of early at are agreed the infinite refinements and graces of culture without destroying or weakening the sublimity of the expression”.

In Speed’s opinion, the refinement and graces of culture for painters are an increasingly faithful adherence to the appearance of nature. The height of this refinement was in the mid-nineteenth century and, by the time Speed wrote TPaSoD, he felt that art had become ‘misdirected’ by influences from distant countries and artists’ response to  technology (Japanese ukiyo-e prints came to Europe in the 1860s and the daguerreotype camera was released in 1839). Artists, most notably the Impressionists, rebelled against photorealism and argued that it was impossible or undesirable to beat the camera at depicting reality; others, characterised by the Japonism movement, drew on the style and influence of non-Western cultures and began to paint in increasingly stylistic fashions.
I’m not sold on this theory of the decline of art, to be honest. It seems too much like every generation lamenting the decline of the young people of today. Although the early Impressionists don’t do much for me, I see it as the start of painting finding an identity and a purpose once it’s primary function (that of documenting reality) is performed better, faster and cheaper by something else. The start of art’s turbulent teenage years, or it’s mid-life crisis?

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

The Practice and Science of Drawing – Chapter 3


“The act of painting or drawing is not so simple as replicating what one sees; first, the student must learn to see.”

“Pictures on the retina – vision – are flat and, if examined without prejudice, composed of masses of colour in infinite variety with various edges. The flat nature of the individual retina-picture is mitigated by the use of two eyes but even then, we can only focus on a single distance.”

Through experience, we’ve learned to associate touch sensation with visual texture and the goal of the artist is to replicate visual texture with enough accuracy that the viewer can recall the feel of the material. Speed says that it’s this link between the visual and the tactile that gives children’s drawings their characteristic look – they’re not drawing what they see, but what they physically feel:

“A head [is] an object having a continuous boundary in space. This his mind instinctively conceives as a line. Then, hair he expresses by a row of little lines coming out from the boundary, all round the top. He thinks of eyes as two points or circles, or as points in circles, and the nose either as a triangle or an L-shaped line. […] The mouth similarly is an opening with a row of teeth, which are generally shown although so seldom seen, but always apparent if the mouth is felt.”

Twins Early Development Study/King’s College in London

A phrase from primary school keeps coming back to me when I think on how to encourage students past this stage – ‘look with your eyes not your hands’.
Equally though, the artist needs to give an impression of the volume of the form, so slavish precision isn’t to be encouraged either. A balance must be stuck between the appearance of the thing and the essence of the thing.

Complicating the artist’s job is the fact that people look for information in objects beyond their physical appearance – looking at the sky to check the weather, or at a river to see how deep or fast it is. I think this is part of the mindset that abstract art either has no merit or requires no skill. If people see without looking or look without seeing for the majority of the time, what use do they have for a thing that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to (avoiding the question of the utility and purpose of art)?

Details from Millais' Ophelia
Millais’ Ophelia – detail everywhere!

Picking out the most important elements of a thing to make a picture aesthetically appealing often means leaving out the detail required for an object to read correctly.

Speed points to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as an example of an exception to the rule (“in their work the excessive realisation of all details […] gave emphasis to the poetic idea at the basis of their pictures, and was therefore part of the artistic intention […] every detail being selected on account of some symbolic meaning it had”) but, in the main, excessive detail makes it difficult to identify the important elements in the scene and the message of the painting is lost. 

On the purpose of art

“It is the privilege of the artist to show how wonderful and beautiful [the everyday world is], so that people, having been moved by it in his work, may be encouraged to see the same beauty in the things around them.”

The naive approach to art – outlining masses according to touch – might be part of what gives cartoon drawings their association with childishness in the West. Obviously that’s reinforced by notable examples of badly-written, poorly-drawn books and TV shows designed as extended adverts for plastic tat, but, beyond that, cartoons carry the stigma of ‘not real art’ in cultures with a history of realism.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics talks about the phenomenon of characters as icons vs.characters as actors, and the way we identify more readily with characters who are more symbolic representations of a figure (eg: The Moomins, Tin Tin) than with characters who are highly detailed (eg: Marvel or DC characters). I can’t help but wonder: how does this apply to painted figures? Does colour vs monochome affect projection? What about realism in painting vs stylisation?

Further reading and sources

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – chapters 1-3

Chapter summary

Drawing is a global skill, based on a finite set if components. Like other global skills (eg: reading, driving, walking), drawing becomes automatic with practice and no longer requires attention to the component parts. The five basic skills of drawing are:

  • Perception of edges
  • Perception of spaces
  • Perception of relationships
  • Perception of light and shadow
  • Perception of the whole

There are also two additional, advanced skills: drawing from memory and drawing from imagination
The fifth skill (perception of the whole) develops as a natural extension of the first four and does not require specific training, but the first four are pretty much compulsory. Edwards recommends practising them in the order of line > value > colour > painting, much like Speed.

The first few chapters spend a long time discussing the science behind the DRSB method, as well as the repetition of the fundamental assumption of the book: that “drawing is a skill that can be learned by every normal person with average eyesight and average eye-hand coordination” (p3), and that the student does not need to learn how to draw so much as they need to learn how to see by actively engaging their brain in the activity.

“To put it another way, you already know how to draw, but old habits of seeing interfere with that ability and block it.” (p7)

Switching between brain modes

When deciding between the left- and right-brain modes, Edwards says that neuroscientists believe that tasks are performed by one hemisphere or another based on either how fast the hemisphere begins to tackle the task, or which hemisphere most likes the task (perhaps this is the subconscious mind assigning tasks to the thought process it feels is best suited). The dominant left- brain will turn down tasks that are outside its comfort zone, and the assignments in the book are designed to activate the right hemisphere by presenting the left-brain with tasks it is supremely unsuited to.

Drawing as an altered state of consciousness

In DRSB, the key to learning to draw is to create a shift in consciousness which suppresses the language-processing parts of the brain (shift to R-mode, suppress L-mode) and to become familiar enough with this process that it can be triggered at will.

“One drawing task is no harder than any other. The same skills and ways of seeing are involved in drawing still-life setups, and portrait drawing. It’s all the same thing.” (p8)


Drawing my self-portrait was an interesting exercise; I hadn’t appreciated how much my glasses shrank my eyes and it’s the one area I feel is particularly inaccurate – the natural inclination to emphasise the the eyes in addition to knowing that my eyes aren’t as small as they appear has led to inconsistencies. Also, I don’t think my nose is that long.

Exercise 1: Pre-Instruction Self-Portrait

My hand was the first of the pre-instruction drawings I attempted, and it looks like a warm-up piece to me. The lines are heavy and the fingers bear more than a passing resemblance to sausages. It’s not a bad drawing, but it’s not great.

Exercise 2: Pre-Instruction Hand Drawing

I should have taken a break between drawings and I think this is particularly evident with the still-life. The keys were the last things added to the picture and they are definitely not representative of what I could see. Not pictured in this scan: atrocious planning skills – the left of the picture is butted up against the spine of the book while the right disappears into the void.

Exercise 3:Pre-Instruction Still Life

The drawing from memory task wasn’t in the workbook I had, but was in the theory book (my theory book was published later than my workbook), where Edwards discusses the use of symbols which characterises child-like drawings and insinuates itself in observational drawings when the artist hasn’t yet developed the skill to accurately observe the forms in front of them. Enough said, really.

Exercise 3.5: Pre-Instruction Drawing from Memory

I suppose that most people don’t have the same amount of experience with making different marks and enjoy the chance to experiment. I certainly enjoyed it, but I’m not sure how much I learned. Perhaps I need to be more varied in the marks I use rather than going for the same direct approach each time.

Exercise 4:Warm-Up Free Drawing

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.