Why avoid talking of “negative spaces ” or “negative shapes”?
The title of Chapter 6 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” is “Negative Shapes”. Some people may be surprised to find that I question the widespread use by art teachers of the phrase “negative shapes” and of its equivalent, “negative spaces“. After explaining the reasons for the popularity of its use as a means of bypassing the problems due to familiarity, I argue that it has significant shortcomings. In the light of these, I suggest that there are alternatives which avoid its disadvantages without relinquishing any of its advantages. Perhaps more importantly, these provides better ways of using drawing from observation as a tool for discovering the unique characteristics of objects in the world around us.
In the illustrations above, Figure 1 shows the famous face/vase illusion in which either the faces or the vase can be seen positively, but only alternately. Figure 2, shows a drawing of a chair (on the left) and a drawing made from it (on the right), using the existing “negative spaces” method. Although it comes originally from Betty Edwards, I found it on a website that discusses negative shapes and spaces, using the terms in their established meaning.
Other chapters from “Drawing on Both sides of the Brain”
Strictly speaking a scientific revolution cannot have either a starting point or and end point. It is always part of an ongoing process. However, two events provide milestone contributions to the scientific revolution in the understanding of visual perception that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was a lecture given by Gaspard Monge in 1789 . The second, the publication of a book by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867. In between these two dates, various other scientists made key contributions to the science of visual perception. Three worth special mention were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell.
What these five men helped the scientific community to make crystal clear is that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world, but a construction of the eye and the brain. The word “colour” only has meaning as an experience. A corollary of this realisation is that it is meaningless to describe the patterns of light of variable intensity and wavelength that enter the eyes as having colour. Whatever their wavelength, they are still only light.
Nor was it long before the scientists were forced to the conclusion that it is not only colour that is made in the head, but all conscious visual experience. No scientific revolution could have been more radical in its implications. Everyone, including artists, were confronted with the fact that there is a gulf between the “measurable reality”, which had previously been assumed, and the “experienced reality”, to which they now had to reconcile themselves.
Artists have to question their rules
No wonder artists took note. How exciting it must have been to partake of the unsuspected visual banquet that they now found to be available to them in every moment of their everyday lives. But this was not all. I was not just that they found themselves looking differently. In addition, they were forced to question the rules that underpinned the academic method that they had all been brought up on. At the very least these would need to be revised. Quite possibly they would have to be jettisoned.
In short, new rules, new ways of looking and new ways of doing were clearly required. It was the growing acceptance of these realisationst that played a significant part in galvanising the young Impressionists and their immediate successors into the new conceptual frameworks that provided the impetus for the Modernist Revolution in Painting. Nothing in painting would ever be quite the same again.
Gaspard Monge (1746 – 1818)
Monge was a highly reputed French mathematician. He invented descriptive geometry (the mathematical basis of technical drawing) and has been described as the “father of differential geometry.” However much more important for this Post in the section on Painting, he gave a lecture on color vision to the Academy of Sciences in April 1789. In this he demonstrated the constructive nature of colour perception. A key part of his argument was a demonstration of colour constancy that showed the importance of whole-field relativities in creating what we see. His theorising about how the eye/brain enabled it proved to be almost two hundred years ahead of its time (It was not until 1977 that Edwin Land published similar ideas in the Scientific American that they resurfaced into the public domain. Land’s article was called “The Retinex Theory of Color Vision”).
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
In my experience people tend to be surprised when I mention that Goethe , the famous German playwright and poet, was also a scientist. It is said that, in his own view, the book recording his lifelong interest in visual phenomena was as important as his literary achievements. Amongst the observations he recorded were ones of after-images and induced colour. He was by no means the first to observe either (For example, Monge demonstrated induced colour) but, probably because of his reputation as , a poet and playwright, it was often his ideas that were picked up by the artistic community. Also, his proposals concerning the relation between colour and emotion were to prove extremely influential with artists, including Gauguin, Kandinsky and many, many more.
Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786 – 1889)
Chevreul was a chemist employed by the famous Gobbelin tapestry producing factory. His expertise was needed because, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, new dyes were being created at a unprecedented rate. His job was to test the new products for permanence (particularly light fastness) and for compatibility with other dyes and materials used by artists. As a sideline he got interested in visual perception. It is to him we owe the law of simultaneous colour contrast, which states that, when any two colours are juxtaposed, the difference between them is exaggerated by the eye/brain. The fact that the law applies when black and white are juxtaposed provides early evidence that the eye/brain treats them both as colours. However it was not until the 1970s, when Semir Zeki found colour coded cells in are V4 of the visual cortex, that this hypothesis was confirmed.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879)
Clerk Maxwell has been described as the “Father of modern physics“. His most notable achievement was to formulate the now classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon. His equations for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in Physics” (the first having been produced by Isaac Newton).
Maxwell’s importance for artists stemmed from his work on the relationship between light and colour. This provided one of the sources of Georges Seurat’s ideas about colour mixing. Maxwell’s experiments showed that optical mixtures of pigment colours obeyed the laws of additive mixtures, as opposed to the subtractive ones that govern paint mixtures on the palette. This keyed Seurat into his pointillist theory which is based on the idea that small closely packed dots of colour will mix additively, when viewed at a distance from which the blend optically. This was the theoretical basis of Seurat’s claim that Pointillism was a method of “painting with light“.
Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894)
Helmholtz was a polymath who made important contributions to several fields of science. In physics, he is celebrated for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics and thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science. More importantly from the perspective of this Post, he has also been described as “The father of the Psychology of Perception”. His landmark book on this subject, “The Handbook of Physiological Optics”, was published 1867 at the time the young Impressionist were meeting in the café Guerbois. In it he made his synthesis of the new developments in the study of visual perception. On the basis of this, he developed his theory of cognitive inference, which proposed that human visual capacities could not be explained on the basis of visual input alone: There had to be another factor. Helmholtz argued that this could only be the use of information stored in memory. In other words, he claimed that visual perception is a constructive process. In doing so he gave support to the idea that visual experience is made in the head.
Summary of the influence on painting of the scientific revolution
All the five scientist featured above played important roles in the scientific revolution that gathered momentum in the nineteenth century. Three of them (Monge, Clerk Maxwell and Helmholtz) had such an important place in it that they have been described as “Fathers” of their main subjects “Differential geometry”, “Visual Perception” and “Modern Physics” respectively. In addition all five of these remarkable men played important role in helping artists to realise that there is a significant difference between “measured reality” and “experienced reality“. In doing so they provided what lay well have been vital grist to the mill of the Modernist Revolution in Painting. Very possibly, without the scientific revolution in which they played such important roles, it would never have taken place.
The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.
To assess its significance, let us place scarcely visible area of raw canvas in the context of Antonio Tapies’ comment on Van Gogh’s chair. In the Spanish artist’s view, such an everyday object as a chair would be “hardly worth looking at”, if it were not for the richness of its associations and connotations. What made it such a rich subject for a painting was that it meant so much for Van Gogh, and because it resonated with our mental picture of him. Similarly, we might be inclined to think that nothing could be less interesting than a tiny patch of bare canvas. How could something so minuscule be seen as anything but a blemish? How could an absence of paint be worth looking at?
Cézanne asks for forgiveness
Nor would there be any question of excusing the artist on the grounds of it being a deliberate mistake, analogous to the Allah-placating deviations from symmetry found in the designs of the Islamic carpet makers. In a contrite letter to Ambroise Vollard, sent from his home situated hundreds of miles away in the South of France, Cézanne explained why he had not turned up to his Paris studio for the 106th sitting. Hoping that his patron would understand and forgive him, he admitted that he had fled from the Paris because even he could not face the 100 or more additional sittings that it might take to rectify matters.
Error of judgement
The simple truth that Cézanne had to face up to was that he had committed a serious error of judgement. By leaving this patch to last, he had painted himself into a corner: He would not longer be able to produce a colour for it that would be the right degree of colour/lightness difference relative to the immediately neighbours. The only way of rectifying the situation would require him to have change these. But that would not be all. He would then have to change all the colours adjacent to them. Indeed, he would have to continue modifying until every single one of the colours on the picture-surface had been given the right relationship with all the other colours. Only by dong so would he be able to meet his self-imposed criteria of never repeating a colour.
A new significance
As well as being a very human story, Cezanne’s failure to complete his painting provides an insight into the degree of perfectionism and rigour which he brought to his work. When we realise this, the patch of bare canvas takes on a new significance. It becomes a doorway into the artist’s mind and a telltale sign of his lofty ambition. In these ways, it reveals itself one of the most telling and significant patches of colour in the history of painting. Surely Tapies would have seen it in this light?
Other posts from, “Having fun with Creativity”Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspective on creativity”
In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, “The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:
“It hardly seems worth looking at. But think of the universe of reference it embodies: the hands and the sweat of the person responsible for cutting the wood, which was once a mighty tree, full of energy, in the middle of a dense forest, high up in the mountains; the loving work involved in crafting its form; the joy of the purchaser on buying it; the many moments of weariness it has alleviated; the sorrows and the joys of those who have sat upon it, in a grand reception room or, perhaps, in a pokey little dining room in the suburbs… All, absolutely all, of these aspects have their importance.”
And, the list could easily have gone on for pages. Indeed, it could have gone on for ever, for there are no limits to the associations and connotations that can emanate from no matter what object or word.
Games of children
Tapies goes on to liken the intellectual activity which he is proposing to the games of children, which he claims are used by them as “tools for growing up”. He exhorts us to play our own creative self-educational and life-maturing games when we look at paintings. He also warns us that when we do so, we should never get bogged down by our ideas of what paintings should be, for “a painting can be anything whatsoever.” Finally, he sums up by inviting us to combine the three activities of “play”, “attentive looking” and “active thought”.
Three examples of games playing by Antonio Tapies
Why the chair?
Tapies does not explain why he chose a chair for his illustration, but it may be that, somewhere in the back (or, possibly, front) of his mind, he was thinking of Van Gogh’s famous painting of a chair in which, by general agreement, the Dutch artist so admirably succeeded in transforming a humble object of daily life into a universal symbol of human experience.
Van Gogh’s painting of a chair
He certainly cannot have been thinking of the white-painted dining room chair in my Painting School, which I have so often used for drawing lessons designed to introduce my students to a more penetrating awareness of abstract relations and a more vital appreciation of the dynamic possibilities of linear juxtapositions, rhythms and arabesques. Nor is this an aspect of visual exploration mentioned in his short polemic even though the analytic-looking involved can point the finger towards another whole world of new experience.
As well as Tapies, John Constable (who claimed that “it does not matter how ugly an object is, when light falls on its surface, it becomes beautiful”) and Marcel Duchamp (who challenged us to consider both a urinal and hat rack as art objects) have helped us to understand, such potential lurks in even the most seemingly unremarkable or said-to-be ugly objects that we come across in the course of everyday life. Moreover to arabesques and linear rhythms and the play of light can be added, whole-field lightness and colour relations, local interactions between colours and between the astonishing variety of textures that enrich our visual worlds. Each quality of appearance, whether on its own or in combination, provides a wonderland for visual exploration.
Taking the idea further
Or, taking a different tack, it would be easy to focus-down on the different parts of the chair, such as the shapely lathe-turned legs, the finely plaited seat or the machine-sculpted back-support. All are objects in their own right, capable of being treated to creative game-playing looking strategies such as those advocated by Tapies, those I suggest as a teacher and, indeed, a potential infinity of others lines of inquiry.
And, it hardly needs saying, the same is also true of the parts of all other objects (for example, the trunk, the branches and the foliage of trees), for the parts of those parts (for example, the bark, the twigs and the leaves) and for the parts of the parts of the parts (for example, the lichen, the buds and the skeleton of veins), etc.. And all this without taking context into account or using mechanical means (for example, microscopes, infrared cameras or computer software) to transform our vision.
With respect to context, it is well known that the meaning of an object can be transformed by placing it in a different settings. If Van Gogh’s humble chair were to be placed in the reception room hall of a grand palace or a jewel-studded golden throne were to be transported to the grimy kitchen in a run-down slum dwelling, how differently each would be viewed. If a red screen were to be set up in front of a green wall, its colour would stand out forcibly. And if the wall had been painted the same red as the screen, it could be almost camouflaged.
As for mechanical aids capable of transforming vision, a panoply of ones used by artists over the centuries were listed in Chapter 2 of “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”. And others can be found in later chapters. Almost all these not only help us to focus-down onto parts or aspects but also provide new contexts capable, with the help of comparisons, of directing attention into unaccustomed channels of experience.
Nor is it only artists who have resorted to perception-transforming devices to extend or sharpen their awareness. Surely, their use must be routine in all spheres of creative looking. Certainly, as indicated above, scientists have made abundant use of them to delve deeper into the objects and subjects of their interest. Indeed, they have done so such an extent that it has became impossible to imagine how most branches of science could progress without them.
But how many artists or scientists have subjected their findings to the games playing approach advocated by Tapies?
The list of Posts in the creativity category now reads
The chapter featured in this Post is about the paradigm shift in artists thought that took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and some of its consequences in terms of the Modernist teaching methods that were to emerge in the twentieth century.
It will help to have read the previous chapter, which has already been published as a Post, since this describes the context from which Modernist teaching emerged, not only in terms of specific traditional practices but also in terms of the academic system as a whole, against which the young Modernist Painters set their face.
At the same time as publishing Chapter 3, I will be making Chapter 4 available as a separate Post. Its title is “The sketch and the feel system”. This builds on Chapter 3 by focusing on the sketch as a link between old and new ways. Also, the fact that making sketches involves sensing relations between elements provides the opportunity to define and explain what I mean by the “Feel-System”. Doing so is of importance, because it plays such key role in subsequent chapters and because it helps to explain the title, “Drawing with Feeling”, which I chose for the book as a whole.
This Post is the first of two that I will be publishing in time for the July 22 – August 5 session of the Painting School of Montmiral. In this way it will also be ready for my experimental “Life Drawing” week in Norfolk, which is scheduled for later in August. As it is holiday time, I will be taking a break from Posts during August and will not start again until some time after 7th September, which will be my 80th birthday.
The chapter featured in this Post tells how, over the centuries, artists changed the way they conceived the function of the sketch. From being a step in the Academic method, by which predetermined elements were organised into a composition, it was used in more open-ended essentially Modernist ways. This chapter also explains what I mean by drawing with the “feel-system” and, in doing so, prepares readers for the crucial role it plays in later chapters. For this reason it is key to the ideas developed in my book.
Feeling-guided sketches by Michelangelo and Matisse.
A foretaste of the illustrations found in Chapter 4 are included below. The first of these is by Michelangelo, a Renaissance artist, and the other by Matisse, a Modernist one. The difference between them reflects both similarities and changes that had taken place in the way artists approached their work.
This Post is the second of two that I will be publishing in time for the July 22 – August 5 session of the Painting School of Montmiral. In this way it will also be ready for my experimental “Life Drawing” week in Norfolk, which is scheduled for later in August. As it is holiday time, I will be taking a break from Posts during August and will not start again until some time after 7th September, which will be my 80th birthday.
The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.
Right-minded or wrongheaded
The title of the chapter is “Having fun with creativity”. In it I let my hair down and enjoy playing with ideas from a wide variety of domains. Many of them have direct relevance to creativity in drawing and painting, while many others stray into a multiplicity of other disciplines, including scientific and philosophical ones. The point being made is that, whatever the long term focus of interest, it is difficult to be sure which of these could be of relevance to the current domain of interest For example, whether right-minded or wrongheaded, or whether in the realms of science, philosophy or anecdote, a great deal of what is to be found in this chapter could turn out to have an analogous relation to the making of drawings or paintings as did:
The Neoplatonist ideas that were so important to Michelangelo and Paul Cézanne.
The Theosophical beliefs had such an influence in the work of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.
The science-based propositions that inspired Piero della Francesca and Michael Kidner.
In all cases, except perhaps that of Piero della Francesca, with his interest in the more arcane aspects of linear perspective, the origin of the ideas lay in philosophical speculation, rather than in artistic production, but how creatively they were used by the different artists and how difficult to imagine the same ideas coming out in such different works of art.
A not very serious suggestion
I start my chapter with a not very serious suggestion. I deliberately chose this evidently silly idea because one of the key propositions of this book is that almost any point of departure, no matter how trivial, misguided or crackbrain, has the potential to lead to significant creativity. My belief is that as long as it is followed up with serious intent, with an open mind and with a good dose of positive motivation, it can lead by one route or another, however circuitous, to interesting new ideas and creative actions. When I chose to start the chapter with a lighthearted youthful fancy that I could never have taken seriously, I had little idea where it would end up. But I decided to put my trust in it and see where it would take me. In the event, it proved to be a catalyst to all the other ideas in the remainder of the chapter, some of which I have already Posted (for example, “The story of the potato” and “On being a “On being a Flat-Earther”)
The silly idea
As an adolescent and young adult I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to opera records. Among them was Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg“, and I remember an idle fancy relating to this particular work that gave me a frisson of lighthearted pleasure. It was based on the kind of extremely improbable idea that can pop into my head in moments of relaxed reverie and spark playful mind games. It started with my admiration for anyone who could have the degree of self-assurance necessary for conceiving a plot which hinges on reaching a climax with a song to excel all songs with its perfection, uniting the old and the new in perfect harmony (“The Prize Song” ).
Although it must be every composer’s dream to finish with something extra special, what caught my youthful imagination was the sheer bravado of making explicit the intention of finishing up with “perfection”, and to do so from so early on in the story. As someone with a taste for lighthearted idea-games, building on the proposition that the prize song represented the composer’s idea of the very best, I imagined Wagner determining to keep this perfection in reserve and hold his audience’s attention with over three hours of deliberately less-than-perfect music.
Giving playful credence to such not-to-be-taken-too-seriously possibilities is of the essence of the seemingly inconsequential, but very enjoyable “private pleasures” of the imagination, which seem to bubble up as part of the creative process, and which so often turn out to have the capacity to animate it in interesting directions. Lighthearted idea-games can push us into unexpected reveries and stimulating speculations.
Thus, the not very serious possibility that Wagner might have written second-class music on purpose can lead naturally to thoughts about definitions of “good” and “bad”, and from there, both to the medieval wood sculptors, whose work adorns so many of our cathedrals, churches and public buildings, and to the Middle Eastern carpet makers.
I realise that these two subjects might not be ones that would jump to everybody’s mind. But that is grist to the mill of the argument I have been making throughout this book, namely that it is the uniqueness of each individual’s reaction that pushes ideas in a maximum of different directions, thus increasing the possibilities for the evolution of the sum of human creative thought.
I learnt about the wood carver’s, along with my lesson about the truth, from, my medieval history tutor, Bruce McFarlane. Apparently, prospective buyers could go to a workshop and demand a first, second or third class production and these supreme professionals had neither qualms nor aesthetic problems in obliging their customers accordingly (at first, second or third class prices).
The case of the carpet makers is more generally known. Their Islamic convictions insist that they must always leave a flaw in their handiwork, so as not to compete with the perfection only attainable by the Almighty. But, hold on a moment, doesn’t the very fact of considering themselves capable of choosing imperfection imply the very knowledge of the perfection which their contrivance is intended to deny? Surely the All Knowing One would see through their ruse and condemn them for their double-bluff pride?
Nor is that the end of the matter for some theorists proclaim aesthetic virtue in imperfection. For example, it is not easy to explain why a blemish on a woman’s face should set off her beauty, but, in the past, there have been poets and the fashion houses a plenty, who have made much of the belief that it does. If they are right, where does that leave the Islamic carpet makers? Could it mean that the flawed pattern may be more beautiful than their idea of the perfect one and the flaw be the very reverse of a defect? One can only speculate as to what Allah might think of such a possibility. And, remember “Les Incohérents“, who proposed that what had hitherto been widely accepted as “bad” might actually be “good”. It would seem that the more the imagination is allowed to wander, the more confusing and, at the same time, the more intriguing the situation becomes.
More playful fancies
With these thoughts in mind, it is time to move on to insights from Antoni Tàpies, who also advocates playful fancies. But for that we shall have to wait for a later Post which starts with an extract from one of his writings.
In furtherance of my project publishing chapters from my books, we now come to a chapter on traditional artistic practices. Its title is “The Renaissance and the Academic Method”. To understand how it fits into the structure of “Drawing with Both Sides of the Brain”, please go to the POSTSCRIPT below. To read the chapter just click on “TRADITIONAL PRACTICES” on the line below.
Some illustrations of traditional artistic practices
As you will see the chapter is richly illustrated: The four images below show either the traditional artistic practices in action or their fruits. The first two give a foretaste of the use of essentially mechanical devices, while the second two illustrate the advantage of a having a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy and linear perspective respectively.
This chapter is from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which is divided into two BOOKS.
BOOK ONE “Drawing with Feeling” and
BOOK TWO, “Drawing with Knowledge“.
Each book is divided into several parts. Thus BOOK ONE, to which contains the chapter to which this post is devoted, is divided into three parts:
Part 1, “Objectives“.
Part 2, “Established practices“.
Part 3 “The new drawing lesson“.
The Chapter found in this post is BOOK ONE, Part 2, Chapter 2. It follows the sole chapter from Part 1 which has already been posted and can be obtained by clicking on its title below:
In the coming weeks and months other chapters from BOOK ONE, Part 2 will be posted as .PDF files.
Chapter 3: The arrival of Modernist teaching methods,
Chapter 4: The sketch as a link between old ways and new.
Chapter 5: Negative shapes.
Chapter 6: Contour drawing.
Chapter 7: Photographs.
Chapter 8: Movement, speed and memory.
Following these chapters, comes PAR T 3, which can be described as “the hub of the book”. It consists of three chapters devoted to my “feeling based drawing lesson“. These describe the drawing process in considerable depth, before embarking on my drawing lesson with its host of innovatory suggestions.
Also, I will be posting other chapters and extracts on the theme of drawing. These are from BOOK 2, “Drawing with Knowledge” and they will provide a raft of new perspectives on linear perspective and human anatomy.
List of Posts relating to “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”
Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).
Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments”page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page
The limitations of existing books
At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that most of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.
An opportunity to learn more
At the University of Stirling, I found myself gifted with the opportunity to do ten years of fundamental research into different aspects of how artists use their eyes when drawing and painting, It was during this time that, with the invaluable encouragement and help from colleagues, I was able to find convincing answers, not only to most of the questions I had brought with me but also to many others that emerged with the passage of time. In the process, I learnt a lot about reasons for the strengths and limitations of practices that are routinely recommended in how-to-do it painting and drawing books. Evidently, my new knowledge indicated a need for updating or replacing a surprising number of ideas that had previously been taken as fundamental truths. An additional, and quite unexpected spin-off of the research was the discovery of a rich vein of information relating to the birth and early development of Modernism in Painting.
In short, for a whole bunch of reasons, while at Stirling, I found myself being more and more excited by what I came to experience as a bubbling fountain of new ideas. So confident was I that I took the step of setting up my summer school in S.W. France as a way of both sharing and testing them. When it came to teaching students, the use of the new knowledge both confirmed its validity and enabled me to expand it further. I must admit that I felt exhilarated by how well everything seemed to be going in both practice and theory. The subject matter that was later to provide the substance of my books was accumulating.
A lone voice finds a soul mate
The only problem was that, when I looked at what other people had written on the theory and practice of drawing and painting, I had to face the fact that I had was a lone voice crying in a wilderness: I found myself wanting to point out shortcomings in every book I read. Nor did anything change very much for a long time. Indeed it was to be more than twenty-five years before, totally unexpectedly, I came across intriguing references to the nineteenth century teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran (1802-1897), formerly Director of the “École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques” in Paris.
What led me to this little known, but hugely influential figure was the discovery that Auguste Rodin, whose rapid and expressive drawings I had for long admired, was one of his students and a lifelong advocate of his ideas.* I also learnt that Lecoq Boisbaudran was a hard taskmaster. Later, when at last I came across his writings. I was amazed at how much there was in common between his attitudes, ideas and teaching methods and mine.
How Lecoq Boisbaudran came to write his book
One of the things we had in common was that both of us hesitated before committing ourselves to the task of writing our books. Another was that we were both were urged on by our students. in a Preface to one of his writings Lecoq Boisbaudran recounted how his ones had prevailed on him to set down his ideas . He told how when they put pressure on him to publish what they described as his “true method”, his first response focused on the word “true”:
“The ‘true’ one! That is far too exclusive a word. There is not and can never be only one method. Every sensible teacher should have full liberty to construct his own method, provided always that he bases it on upon true principles and rational deductions.”
But these salutary words, with which I completely agree, did not deter his students who pushed their argument further, saying:
“If the poorness of contemporary teaching is due to a general ignorance of principles and if you believe yourself to possess the required principles, it is your duty to make them known, and to spread them abroad.”
My students likewise have encouraged me to publish my “true principles and rational deductions” and they have done so for much the same reasons as the students of Lecoq Boisbaudran. And, like him, I allowed myself to be convinced that I should “make known” and “spread abroad” the ideas I teach. In other words I was persuaded to write my books.
What we have in common
So what else do we have in common? At the general level, we share three priorities, namely to:
Help students develop their individuality.
Emphasise the importance of training the memory.
Explain why, contrary, not only to the beliefs of many but also to what might seem to be the dictates of logic, the aspiration to achieve accuracy in drawing from observation provides a particularly effective preparation for those who wish to free themselves from the straitjacket of habit and explore new ways of seeing and doing.
Also, there are many similarities in the details of our different methods . For example, we share a belief in the effectiveness of rigour as a learning tool.
Need to update
However there are also substantial differences in the details of the two methods and in their underpinning ideas-base. This is because in the more than one hundred and fifty years since Lecoq Boisbaudran published his first book, significant developments have taken place in the knowledge available both in the domains of visual perception and in the neurophysiology of eye/brain function. Because of these, there is a need to update the “true principles” and the “rational deductions” of which the pupils of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran spoke.
The purpose of my books is to meet this need for updating the contents of books on the practice of drawing and painting in the light of modern research. More specifically, it is to make use of the new knowledge to provide useful modifications and practical alternatives to widely taught artistic practices.
*His enthusiasm is evident from the letter to M Luard, the editor of a 2013 edition of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s writings. M Luard placed it on the first page after the title. In this letter Rodin wrote of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s teaching: “The greater part of what he taught me stays with me still. I very much wish that every young artist could profit from his teaching and I strongly advise you to circulate his ideas by means of a new edition of his writings.”
When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.
In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.
When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”
It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.
This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.
My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics. Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.
Was what my teachers taught me true?
Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:
The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*
Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.
Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?
In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.
The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:
Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
The science of visual perception.
What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.
Can my truths be trusted?
Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:
Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
Are they are of practical use.
My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on “The Venetian Colourists“ and “Colour in Painting“. And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.
* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.
** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”