Monday, February 23, 2009

The Artist's Eye

I didn't get to go to many panels at Radcon.  One was a two hour sketch session.  I had to leave about an hour in, but that hour helped loosen me up.

I've been to a few art classes over the years.  I've actually been a life model at more classes than I've personally attended, and I got to learn a lot at those.  I've noticed there are a lot of different ways of going about teaching people how to sketch, and I have a preference.

One really common way is the part analysis.  It can be fascinating.  Students learn how to draw individual portions of anatomy like eyes, noses, mouths, ears, hands and so forth.  Gray's anatomy is often referenced in such classes, getting into the nitty gritty of muscle under skin.  But these studies miss something important.  Overall composition and proportion.  

One of the most effective proportioning observations is through DaVinci's "Vitruvian Man"--an elegant display of DaVinci's understanding of Vitruvius' mathematical proportions combined with his own studies in human anatomy.  Deeper study into these proportions reveal that the 'golden ratio' or golden mean visible in the Vitruvian man echo throughout nature and inform some of the world's most compelling design elements, including (often purposefully on the part of the architect) architecture.  One of the most exquisite is how it appears in the nautilus shell.  If you can see the similarities between the Vitruvian man  proportions and how they connect with a nautilus, you've made an ancient connection that can change the way you see things forever.  I chose the link for golden mean because it's a little indirect, so it makes you think.  Where is the golden mean in the Vitruvian Man?  It's not immediately obvious.  A clue is how the circle and the square interact.  Also, look at the small lines in the joints, and look for both squares and rectangles.  You'll know you have the right ones when you look at the nautilus on the link and see the same sort of square/rectangle relationships.

So as cool (very cool!) and fun as it is to learn about creating volume/mass in noses and thickness in eyelids and the proper placement of iris and pupil when drawing eyes, in many ways I wish these things were approached after (well after!) loose sketch technique.  It's easy to tighten down.  This is so important, I want to repeat it a different way.  It's very easy to obsess on details and fail to achieve a harmonic whole.  I didn't want to pick on any particular person, so I did a search for fan art to pull up a bunch of amateur (remember, amateur is 'love of' and there's nothing wrong with or pitiful about amateur efforts) art.  Some of the images are very effective and well-executed.  Looking at the ones that don't work as well for you, can you detect a sense of piecing together parts like Dr. Frankenstein assembling his monster? Those parts can be perfectly executed, but do they work together? Is there harmony?  The golden mean isn't the only proportion set that works--do you see some proportions on the more aesthetically pleasing art that aren't golden mean proportions but still transmit a sense of harmony and layers of interlocking relationships?

Not only does obsessing on details tend to distract or detract from overall proportions, but it steals motion from art.  The more I focus on a mouth or nose or ruffles or whatever my brain fixates on, the less time I spend moving my pencil or brush around the page grabbing the flow. Flow seems like a touchy-feely abstract-y kind of term, but going back to DaVinci's observations, it's not just about finding the right proportion of forearm to upper arm or shoulder width to torso length, but proportioning the negative spaces under an arm, or discovering why the extension of a hand in gesture is so elegant and dance-like, why the fall of a skirt or the texture in hair is pleasing to the eye, why one shadow on the wall creates drama while another overwhelms or creates a distraction, and why when you make a particular change from reality (say, pile on more hair than the model has or alter the angle of the head) it works better.  If you find the squares and rectangles, find the curves, find the S, find the concentric ovals, find the diagonals and triangles and deepest shadows and lightest lights and all the neat things that make a piece of art inviting before you nail down the details it's far more likely that you'll create something that will take your breath away.  Focus on the details at the cost of overall composition, and that's what the viewer will usually do too.  If the details are perfect, the viewer will see the art as perfect too (and sometimes it's a very static, still-life kind of perfection--great if that's what you want to transmit, not so great if it's meant to transmit life and motion.)  If there's the tiniest problem, that problem will leap and shout and generally make a nuisance of itself.  Great composition overwhelms the positive and negative quirks inherent in detail, and reveals a world of fire and shadow, wind and stillness, distance and intimacy.

It's possible to create vibrant original art by focusing on details--through reference materials that themselves have excellent composition.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking reference photos or movie posters or your favorite family portrait and creating Boris Vallejo-type art.  Go for it.  That's the way I went, actually.  But I wish that I'd learned the other way from the beginning.  It's been (relatively) easy to copy what I see from photographs and magazine ads and books on facial expression and all that.  I could have drawn grids on paper and rendered exact copies of images on a square-by-square basis at any stage of my art education.  But to learn how to scribble and block and circle and confine and explore form rapidly on a page and develop raw excitement--I've had to unlearn so much to progress, especially that impulse to put every eyelash in the right place.  The eyelash is only as important as I make it.  If I make the play of complementary colors more important than the eyelash ... see how that works?

I imagine I'll arrive at the same artistic destination eventually, but I strongly feel that I would have created so much more original beauty on the way if I stepped back and explored the squares, rectangles, spirals and raw shapes of the universe rather than spending hours with my sketch pad drawing a model's eye.  Something to think about, the next time I pick up a pencil and draw.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I remember fondly the 15 - 30 second drills they used to have me do as a life model. The dynamic of holding a position for just a few seconds as students frantically tried to find my shape and form....some of the best stuff came from those speed sessions....not from the 2 hour long marathons.