Friday, March 2, 2012

Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed
Chapters IV- VIII

 "...the eye only sees what it is on the look-out for..."
~Harold Speed

Harold challenges us to see what it is that we're drawing. Anyone can look at a rose, but the artist must see how the light hits the petals in different degrees of brightness. Or how the color isn't just a gradient from light to dark. Or the delicacy of it. Or the texture of every part. Or the naturally occurring rhythms. The artist must see what the laymen only glimpses.  
The Impressionists seemed to recreate how to see, how to paint. Strokes of pure color were laid down side by side to create the desired effect of light on objects. But what they forgot as they did their studies was the strength of drawing.  Everything was flat on the picture plane. Nothing was rendered or turned as form. So though their new way of seeing objects as they actually appear on the retina was groundbreaking, it's not how our mind perceives the world around us. We are able to see depth and form because we have two eyes. So the artist is challenged with the task of making a two dimensional object (the canvas) an illusion of three dimensions. 
There are several ways of going about this. Mr. Speed insists that the student must study both line and mass drawing at the same time in order to eventually weave the techniques together and thus more fully get the natural effect of how we perceive objects.  At the CAS we focus more on mass drawing as it relates more to paint, but we must not forget the power that the line can hold in drawings. Rhythms, strength, and expression are all embedded in a properly placed line while masses contain atmosphere and solidity.  Both are crucial to an accurately represented drawing. 
The fear of nearing what we actually see in nature is that our drawings become lifeless. The closer we get to nature, the farther away we get from the emotions that either the artist or the subject emanate because the artist is more concerned with technical accuracy and not with how the subject "feels".  While it is imperative that the student study how to accurately represent whatever is placed before him, it is just as imperative that the student remember what it is that makes him want to be an artist in the first place. Being able to express one's self is what art is about, but it's very easy to lose sight of emotion in favor of accuracy as you go through your studies. Therefore, having the discipline to work on one's own time without the fear of critiques would be advantageous.  (Not that I have the authority to say these things as my own discipline tends to lack at times.) If the student always keeps a sketch book with him and uses it at every spare moment, the life of the world around him will fill it up. It's hard to have static figures in a two minute sketch. And sometimes I need to take my own advice. 
~Katie Liddiard 

There has been a lot of discussion on what is art and what makes an art piece true art.  It is interesting the public has longed for and craved excellence from antiquity.  Watch any sport and the best athletes are admired, envied, and copied.  Books are written and movies are made about the best of the best.  The best of the best truly inspires.
  Recently an artist stretched primed canvas and laid them on the floor in an art gallery and the controversy flew on whether or not this was real art.  It is interesting the canvases were put on the ground.  What we usually find on the ground is discarded and deemed as garbage, picked up and thrown away.  Something of real value is never left on the ground where it can be walked upon, or something spilled on it, or ends up covered in dust.
  If you want to be successful in anything, find someone successful, find out how they became successful, and do exactly what they did to become successful.  Think of golf legends, or basketball, football, or basketball legends.  Many a child studies about them and dreams about becoming as good as they are.
  As a child I would spend hours in the encyclopedia (this gives my era away) pouring over paintings by Goya, Velaquez, Rembrandt, etc.  These paintings were alive to me.  It seemed as if I could reach into the photo and touch the fabrics and or the hands or faces of the subjects in them.  I marveled that someone could make silk fabric read as silk fabric with paint.  The flesh looked alive.  How did the artist render that?  What did they know in order to achieve greatness?
  In college, one of my art teachers talked about what she believed would bring an inexperienced artist to fame and fortune.  She believed there had to be some knowledge of the basics, but the artist had to be on the edge, a trend maker.  The art of the past was just that-the past.  The wheel had to be re-invented.  The William Bouguereaus, Velasquezes, Rembrandts, they had had their day.  Why would you ever think to become like them?  This goes back to my thought-find a highly successful person and do exactly what they did to become as good.
  Harold Speed in his book The Practice and Science of Drawing describes what it takes to accomplish what the best of the best artists achieved. This book is not a one time read for the aspiring artist.  Every time I read it I am in a different place and I find something new to apply.   He speaks about art schools producing only academic students. "It has been the cry for some time that Schools of Art turned out only academic students.  And one certainly associates a dead level of respectable mediocrity with much school work.  We can call to mind a lot of dull, lifeless, highly-finished work, imperfectly perfect (which in my opinion is what a lot of art nonsense is happening now, and is supposedly the beauty of it) that has won the prize in many a school competition...
 But perhaps the chief mistake in Art Schools has been that they have too largely confined themselves to training students mechanically to observe and portray the thing set before them to copy, an antique figure, a still-life group, a living model sitting as still and lifeless as he can.  Now this is all very well as far as it goes, but the real matter of art is not necessarily in all this.  And if the real matter of art is neglected too long the student may find it difficult to get in touch with it again."
  There lies the difference, mediocrity or greatness.  Sometimes with recognition artists believed they have achieved and their education ends. They believe they have arrived to greatness, but lay their work side by side one of the master artist's work and their weaknesses are glaring.
  It takes real humility to recognize one's faults and weaknesses.  It takes real strength and perseverance to do something about it.  I am speaking to me as well as to you the reader.  There is something noble in the struggle from mediocrity-to good-to great.  I love "to dream the impossible dream," and then to strive to achieve it.
~Laurie Bell

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Preface - Chapter III

“The emotional side is beyond the scope of teaching...all you can do is surround [students] with the conditions calculated to stimulate any natural feeling they may familiarising the students with the best works of art and nature.”
-Harold Speed
I've been mulling around the idea recently of the development of taste in society. How do we come to recognize truly masterful works, or even tasteful ones, much less create them ourselves? In the quote above, Speed offers an answer: surround ourselves with the best we have and in us will grow understanding and discernment.
Having been burned once in the university system where the modernist movement was lauded as a seminal event in the progress of the arts and where previous works and achievements were passed over or even scorned, I am skeptical of what I am told are the best works. The art world today seems so divided, that if asked to identify the greatest artists, each faction of a different answer. The abstract expressionists would name Rothko, Pollock and Brancusi; impressionists, Monet and Degas; we Academics, Bouguereau and Gerome. 
I echo the reaction I have heard from many outside the art world who are disenchanted with art today, "Where are the standards by which we are to judge, and who creates them?" Though I identify more with the academics and impressionists than any other group, I am unwilling to say that those in the 19th century had all of the answers, and take only the few masters from that era as models. But who else? 
Speed does make a few statements on the subject which resonated with me:
- “Art for art’s sake,” and “art for subject’s sake,”...neither position can neglect the other without fatal loss.” 
- “...whether they are good or poor artists will depend on the quality of their feeling and the fitness of its expression.”
-“Great things are only done in art when the creative instincts of the artist has a well-organized executive faculty at its disposal”
Taken together, I understand his point to be that artists who are worthy of our study are those who have refined both their intuitive and feeling natures, as well as the technical skills involved in relaying those feelings to others. Mastery and balance. I can buy into that.  
Even with some clear criteria, finding "the best" work off all of the centuries and all the cultures past and present - is quite a task! One which Speed points out is a unique challenge to the modern generations. "Not only European art, but the art of the part of the formative influence by which [the student] is surrounded; not to mention the modern science of light and wonder that a period of artistic indigestion is upon us. Hence the student has need of sound principles and a clear understanding of the science of his art, if he would select from this mass of material those things which answer to his own inner need for artistic expression.”
So, as we recover from our bought of indigestion, Speed offers a beautiful analogy that has brought me a good deal of hope: "The position of art to-day is like that of a river where many tributaries meeting at one point, suddenly turn the steady flow to turbulence...After a time, these newly-met forces will adjust themselves to the altered condition, and a larger, finer stream be the result. The hope of the future is that a larger and deeper art, answering to the altered conditions of humanity will result.”
I feel, with so many students asking similar questions - trying to make some kind of order out of the masses of information and opinions available - that we are on our way to achieving that "larger and deeper art" - and, like Speed, I look forward to the future. 
~Emily Taylor

 I've  always enjoyed reading Harold Speed. He has a sense of humor that whether he meant to put into his writing or not makes reading the material he presents enjoyable.  He was also, clearly, an educated man. He was able to put into words what I've felt at times not knowing how to describe it. He's one man whom, were he still alive, I would love to have lunch with and just pick his brain to attempt to gain a drop of knowledge from his reservoir. 
One thing that I've been thinking about for a while now is why it is that we do what we do. As artists, I mean. Why do we feel the need to copy nature and hang it on a wall? We can talk about technique, draftsmanship, form, line, mass, etc., but what does it all mean? 
"The visual blindness of the majority of people is greatly to be deplored, as nature is ever offering them on their retina, even in the meanest slum, a music of colour and form that is a constant source of pleasure to those who can see it. But so many are content to use this wonderful faculty of vision for utilitarian purposes only. It is the privilege of the artist to show how wonderful and beautiful is all this music of colour and form, so that people, having been moved by it in his work, may be encouraged to see the same beauty in the things around them.This is the best argument in favour of making art a subject of general education: that it should teach people to see." 
-Harold Speed
How concise. It's practically the old cliche "stop and smell the roses." Taking a moment in life to enjoy the simple beauty that is everywhere in our every day routine. And shouldn't everybody be given the opportunity to be taught the ability to do so?  The painter purposefully takes from nature that which moves him to feel something and puts it on canvas in the hope that someone else will feel something similar through it. 
Having the power to implement a certain feeling into someone else is something that should not be taken lightly. Art has traditionally been used for the uplifting of society, but modern artists often times seem to feel the need for more of a shock factor than actual deep emotion and value.  And society has responded. If asking strangers on the street what good art is, how many people could come up with a definite answer? Yet, back in the 19th century, art was criticized harshly by the public if it didn't meet certain standards of quality in both technicality and emotion perceived. I feel, personally, that it's about time that we re-educate the public by first putting values in our work. Work on a higher level than our contemporaries so that the difference will be clear to the viewer. Once society learns to see the difference between "modern" art- art which holds a facade of pure emotion and if you don't "get" it then you just aren't looking hard enough- and art rooted in nature, tradition, hard work, mastery, values, and emotion, I believe we will see a better society overall. 
~Katie Liddiard

“An act of vision is not so simple a matter as the student who asked her master if she should “paint nature as she saw nature” would seem to have thought. And his answer, “Yes, madam, provided you don't see nature as you paint nature,” expressed the first difficulty the student of painting has to face: the difficulty of learning to see.”
Harold Speed
There is the crux of the matter. What am I supposed to see? The first tendency to see too much, or to fall in love with the darkest shadows. It can be putting down too much information too soon. Goldilocks, “not too much, not too little, but just right.” I see what I want to see. Even if I see “it”, putting it on paper accurately is a whole new challenge.
I am training my eye to see the hierarchy of importance. Which is why I am here in CAS, to understand exactly what is important and when.
~Laurie Bell