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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Notes on Drawing

As previously remarked, I have been making an effort to pursue drawing more seriously. This has been going on about 7 months now, I've worked through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and I've been trying to draw every day. There has been some success.

The central problem of drawing is that of seeing what is actually there.

The goal of a drawing "from life" is to reduce the visual reality to a sheet of paper, with marks on it, which evoke more or less the same response as the visual reality. You want to perceive in the page more or less what you perceive in life. The constant persnickety difficulty is that you tend to mark on the page not what is there, but what you perceive.

A child draws a human head as an oval with two ovals for eyes near the top. The eyes on the human head are in reality vertically centered, but this is not the percept of the head, it is the reality.

If you draw what you perceive than upon re-perceiving that, a double layer of perception (with the accompanying intense interpretation the brain does) the second order perception is all wrong.

In short, if you want your drawing to look like Bob, you have to draw what Bob actually looks like, not "how you see Bob."

This is all standard stuff. Arnheim wrote about it at length, and any modern book on drawing or painting will probably go over it.

The central act of drawing is thus to see what is actually there; to somehow step around the perception, to see what is actually there. Teaching drawing, to a large degree, consists of teaching gimmicks to trick yourself into skipping the perception step, the step that interprets and classifies and reduces visual data to things and people and stuff we can think about. To draw a recognizable portrait of a person is to observe and replicate an incredible mess of extremely exact proportions and shapes. I find it quite difficult.

Interestingly, to draw non-people, you can work largely from vibes. You don't have to get the proportions very close, but if you get the various more emotionally accessible bits and pieces right, the drawing will feel about right. We see faces quite differently than we see trees. I think the same applies to painting. It's a lot easier for someone like me to paint a sunset that feels like the sunset I'm looking at than it is for me to draw a picture of my wife's face that looks like my wife.

Photographers know this all too well.

It's easy to make a photo of someone that looks like them. The camera preserves in agonizing detail all those little proportions and relationships that make a face recognizable. It's hard to take a photograph of a sunset, because the impact of the sunset does not lie in the precise geometrical, optical, relationships of the parts. A sunset's impact is as much context as anything.

To bring these two ideas together: it's quite difficult to make an emotionally "truthful" portrait. It will look like the subject, you can recognize them. But it might not feel like them, it might not portray their kindness, or their mood, or the way you personally feel about them.

The point I want to make here, though, is this: photography makes it possible to create a visual reduction of something onto a flat piece of paper without ever examining what is actually there.

I think was, as of 1830ish, almost unprecedented. If you wanted to reproduce something, you had to look at it. I guess you could dip an object in pigment and press it on a surface, prior to photography, but it's hard to think of anything else.

Even the use of a camera obscura required you to look at what was actually there. The device was simply another way to sidestep the machinery of perception.

Indeed, perceptive photographers tend to recognize their photographic failures specifically as failures to see what was actually there. We react to the vibes of a tree, or a sunset, and snap it. We are disappointed with the result, because we didn't want to photography the visual reality, but rather how we felt.

I don't want to propose that you can't Truly Make Art without the deep insights offered by drawing, a position that is of course tempting to me as a recent convert. Still, there's something here.

Does one approach art-making with the camera as a sort of variation of drawing, and demand that the photographer see what it truly there before taking the picture?

Or, is there something else? Is this a new way of art-making, in which perception proceeds directly to new perception, without examining the underlying reality too closely? Perhaps you can make the argument that this is what some schools of modern painting were actually about in the first place?

I happen to suspect that the impressionists and cubists and whatnot in reality began with a traditional drawing-artist's wrestle with what was actually there. They simply declined to reduce it to the page in the traditional way, choosing instead to render a new thing, perceived in a different and yet related way. I could be wrong!

It is worth noting, I think, that "AI Art" also skips the underlying reality comma examination of. To paint even an imaginary scene, you must wrestle with the imagined visual reality. How is he holding his head? How do her eyes tilt? Where is the light hitting the rock, and what is in shadow? AI Art allows you to skip all that nonsense, and move right ahead to how you feel about it. As with photography, you pick out the good ones, the ones that actually vibe the way you imagined. As with photography, you don't notice 95% of what's even in the frame.

I honestly don't know what to make of this all. I do know that I look at things much more closely now than I used to. I have an unhealthy relationship with the ratio of "nose-to-mouth distance" to "mouth-to-chin distance" as well as the overall shape of people's heads.


  1. It is possible with a camera to create a synthesis of “underlying reality” and our perception.
    Here’s my method. You know how to work on bringing out a sitter’s personality in a portrait session. Find a relatively inanimate object that you can walk around, like a tree. I chose standing stones. Make a portrait of it that brings out its personality.
    Easier said than done, but patience rewards.

  2. Ink these fuckers for a whole new ballgame.

  3. What you describe is, of course, precisely the sort of exercise that no longer happens in most of our art schools -- few are now taught to sidestep their complex high-level perception into a more basic but "accurate" perception, or how to transfer that new perception onto paper using certain established conventions of mark-making. Which is a shame.

    All theory aside, it cannot help but affect your photography. A re-trained eye-brain combo won't see everything, but will see more, and will see better. A simple example is the moon: that half degree of arc can dominate our perception of a scene out of all proportion, but can never be photographed satisfactorily with the more accurate "perception" of a normal focal length lens. The challenge is either how to bring both perceptions together (some trickery required usually) or, better, how to see a scene that *will* photograph successfully.

    As you suggest, photography has the advantage of being a "before and after" art. You can look at what you actually got, and assess its effectiveness. But the lessons learned from drawing should also help in that assessment: the photo is as much a 2D artefact as it is an illusory window onto reality, and the same disciplines apply.

    Above all, though, drawing is fun!