I have met many people who think that copying photographs is somehow cheating. Certainly it can be used as an easy way of sidestepping the challenges (and opportunities) provided by copying directly from nature. But this does not mean that it can never be justified.
The main purpose of this Post is to publish Chapter 7of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of copying small, static, two-dimensional photographic images, as compared with confronting the full force of nature, in all its dimensions. Its conclusion is that both possibilities have their place. Rather than condemning the practice of copying photographs out of hand, artists might be well advised to work out what is the best option in the circumstances of the moment.
The chapter also considers an earlier and, for many years, much used memory-based alternative to copying photographic images.
CLAM is an acronym for “continuously looking at the model“. It describes a teaching method, suggested by Kimon Nicolaїdes and popularised by Betty Edwards. However, these authors describe it as “contour drawing”.
Since 1941, when Nicolaїdes‘ book “The Natural Way to Draw” was published posthumously and started its life as the most influential book on drawing published in the twentieth century, his method has proved its value as a powerful teaching tool. However, in addition to its well established advantages, the way Nicolaїdes‘ and Edwards taught it has significant disadvantages. Chapter 6 in my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” explains both the strengths and the limitations of the method.
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.
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.
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 Perspectives 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 the link immediately below: