DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Books for Artists

Most artists could name a few books that have helped to light the path for them.  Here I’ll share some of those books that have been important to me as an artist, with brief excerpts to give you a little taste of each.  I hope you will be inspired to seek out and read some of these books, or to comment here on books that have been important to you.  Excerpts appear below an image of the cover of each book, in regular type.  My own comments are in italics.

One of Annie Dillard’s great themes is learning how to see – a subject far deeper than it might initially seem.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (1974)

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

“It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

Kimon Nicolaides writes with great passion about the art of drawing, and his approach is about a method of learning that helps you develop your own way of drawing, rather than about imparting his own tips and tricks, as most drawing instruction books seem to try to do.  Nicolaides would be the second thing I’d recommend to a beginner in life drawing study, after James McMullan’s excellent introduction to learning the art of drawing in “Line by Line“, his recent series of posts on the New York Times website.

The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaides (1941)

“YOU SHOULD DRAW, NOT WHAT THE THING LOOKS LIKE, NOT EVEN WHAT IT IS, BUT WHAT IT IS DOING.  Feel how the figure lifts or droops – pushes forward here – pulls back there – pushes out here – drops down easily there.  Suppose that the model takes the pose of a fighter with fists clenched and jaw thrust forward angrily. Try to draw the actual thrust of the jaw, the clenching of the hand.  A drawing of prize fighters should show the push, from foot to fist, behind their blows that makes them hurt.
. . .
“To be able to see the gesture, you must be able to feel it in your own body.  You should feel that  you are doing whatever the model is doing.  If the model stoops or reaches, pushes or relaxes, you should feel that your own muscles likewise stoop or reach, push or relax.  IF YOU DO NOT RESPOND IN LIKE MANNER TO WHAT THE MODEL IS DOING, YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU SEE.  If you do not feel as the model feels, your drawing is only a map or a plan.”

If I had to pick one all time favorite book about the work of the artist, it might be Salvador Dali’s “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”.  This book is, in part, a hilarious parody of such classic handbooks of master techniques as Cennino Cennini’s “Il Libro dell’ Arte“, but its suggested techniques, while preposterous and described in overblown language by a supremely conceited madman, manage to convey a great deal of real nitty gritty craft knowledge, along with a sense of the odd mixture of discipline and calculated derangement that drives many of the great artists.

50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, by Salvador Dalí (1948)

“The apprentice’s Secret Number 22 is that of the drawing of the geodesic lines of his model.  Nothing will reveal itself more useful for the understanding of the mysteries of the nude figure than the knowledge to be derived from the assiduous practice of this method.  Preferably you must choose a plump model, the curves of whose flesh are as turgescent as possible.  The best poses for this are the recumbent ones.  You need a provision of strings of back cotton which have been previously soaked in lnseed oil to which venetian turpentine has been added, in a proportion of five to three.  these strings should be hung up the day before using them, so that they may drip off the excess oil, but without drying altogether.  Once the model is lying down in the pose which you desire you begin cautiously to lay the strings on the model’s body in the places where you wish a clearer indication of the forms.  the curve which these strings adopt will naturally be the geodesic lines of the surface which you want made clear.  You may then draw your nude, but especially these geodesic lines which, if they are in sufficient quantity, will suffice – even should you efface the nude – to imprint its absent volume.”

Qualia, the subjective aspects of experience, have become a major problem in the philosophy of mind.  For example, a physicist can tell you that different colors are simply different wavelengths of light, and that theory can be proven by experiment, but a difference of wavelength does not account for the very different impressions made on us by red and blue.  Wittgenstein was one of the first philosophers to tackle this subject.  This posthumously published book consists mostly of question after question about what we can know and what we should doubt.

Remarks on Colour, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1978)

“‘The colours’ are not things that have definite properties, so that one could straight off look for or imagine colours that we don’t yet know, or imagine someone who knows different ones than we do.  It is quite possible that, under certain circumstances, we would say that people know colours that we don’t know, but we are not forced to say this, for there is no indication as to what we should regard as adequate analogies to our colours, in order to be able to say it.  This is like the case in which we speak of infra-red ‘light’; there is a good reason for doing it, but we can also call it a misuse.  And something similar is true with my concept ‘having pain in someone else’s body’.”

Josef Albers’ “Interaction of Color” is based on his course for artists, a series of experiments that powerfully demonstrate the relativistic nature of color perception.  There are many books for artists about understanding color, but none are as illuminating as Albers.

Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers (1963)

“Imagine in front of us 3 pots containing water, from left to right:
WARM        LUKEWARM        COLD
When the hands are dipped first into the outer containers, one feels – experiences – perceives – 2 different temperatures:
WARM (at left)                (at right) COLD
Then dipping both hands
into the middle container,
one perceives again
2 different temperatures,
this time, however,
in reversed order
(at left) COLD – WARM (at right)
though the water is neither of these temperatures, but of another, namely
Herewith one experiences a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect called, in this case, a haptic illusion – haptic as related to the sense of touch – the haptic sense.
In much the same way as haptic sensations deceive us, so optical illusions deceive.  they lead us to “see” and to “read” other colors than those with which we are confronted physically.”

Here are a pair of classic books of art appreciation.  John Berger’s writings aim to expand the ways we think about the artwork we see.

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger (1972)

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is.  Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures.  This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.  In this special sense all paintings are contemporary.  Hence the immediacy of their testimony. Their historical moment is literally there before our eyes.  Cézanne made a similar observation from the painter’s point of view.  ‘A minute in the world’s life passes!  To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that!  To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate . . . give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time . . . ‘  What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.”

About Looking, by John Berger (1980)

(On Grünewald’s Altarpiece)
“. . . the European tradition is full of images of torture and pain, most of them sadistic.  How is it that this, which is one of the harshest and most pain-filled of all, is an exception?  How is it painted?
It is painted inch by inch.  No contour, no cavity, no rise within the contours, reveals a moment’s flickering of the intensity of depiction.  Depiction is pinned to the pain suffered.  Since no part of the body escapes pain, the depiction can nowhere slack its precision.  The cause of the pain is irrelevant; all that matters now is the faithfulness of the depiction.  This faithfulness came from the empathy of love.”

Finally, recommended for artists’ models, artists that work with models, people that book models for life drawing classes or groups, or students that attend such groups, at this site.  This book is the real deal about the profession of modeling for artists:

The Art Model's Handbook, by Andrew Cahner (2009)


Exercising Perception

"Innenperspektive", illustration from "Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen", by Ernst Mach, 1886, G. Fischer

 Your ability to draw what you see is limited by your ability to see.  Vision is not simply a mechanical process that is naturally perfect.  Seeing takes place more in the brain than in the eyes, and it can be transformed and expanded by serious practice, just like any other skill that involves the interaction of body and mind. 

The complexities of human visual perception, and techniques for training or honing your vision, are a topic for a whole book.  This post offers a collection of links and ideas as a very basic introduction. 

If you’re up for an experiment, this link describes a “Selective Attention Test” involving counting basketball passes in a video.  Read the description and then take the video test before reading further. 

Part of learning to see is simply learning to notice things.  Most people actually notice very little of what passes before their eyes.  What they do see is what they have been taught or told to pay attention to.  Stage magicians can make you not see something simply by directing your attention to something else.  (Unfortunately marketers and politicians have also mastered such manipulations of attention.) 

Cover of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard, first edition, 1974, Harper's Magazine Press

 In the classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes eloquently about learning to see in the natural world.  Dillard is a poet, philosopher, artist, and keen observer of nature.  Her words helped awaken me to the rich and strange mystery of seeing.  Read chapter 2, titled “Seeing”, or better, get the book and treat yourself to one of the literary masterpieces of our time.  Learning how to see more and better is a primary concern of the whole book. 

Nearly any craft or specialty involves learning to see what most eyes would miss.  For example, the ancient Polynesian navigators, who crossed thousands of miles of ocean in simple boats without any instruments, learned to see land beyond the horizon by observing light reflected on the bottoms of clouds.   Noticing and naming the phenomenon awoke their vision to it. 

Surface Anatomy of the Back, fig. 477 from "Applied Anatomy: The Construction Of The Human Body" by Gwylim G. Davis, 1913, Lippincott

Surface Anatomy of the Back, fig. 477 from "Applied Anatomy: The Construction of the Human Body", by Gwylim G. Davis, 1913, Lippincott

 This is why figurative artists study anatomy.  When you learn the names and locations of bones and muscles, you can see them because you know what they are.  The subtle and sometimes confusing bumps and curves on the surface of the body are more clearly seen because you understand them as manifestations of an underlying structure. 

But there’s a contrary principle.  Sometimes what you know can actually make it hard to see what you see.  For example, you know that the legs, for instance, are long shapes.  But when they are foreshortened, that is, when they face you along their axis, they may not appear long at all.  Thinking of the leg as a long shape may interfere with your ability to see it as a foreshortened, oval form.  So there are cases in which you need to forget what you know in order to draw what you see. 

"The Dead Christ" by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1480

 The illustration at the top of this post is from The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical,  by Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, whose name has become the scientific term for the speed of sound.  Mach’s philosophy starts from the idea that all we can know, we know via the senses, so understanding how the senses work is fundamental to understanding anything.  In the illustration, he is attempting to represent the view from inside his head, through his left eye.  You can see his nose and mustache to the right of the eye socket. This is a pretty good representation of what you can see with one eye, sitting in one place, keeping the head still, but moving the eye around. 

Everything in the Mach illustration is in sharp focus.  If the eye does not move, only a tiny fraction of what it takes in is actually seen sharply.  The fovea is a dense cluster of light-sensitive cells in the center of the retina, the image-receiving surface in the eye.  The fovea sees in high-resolution and full color, but it only covers a very narrow spot of the complete field of view of the eye.  The eye does take in close to a 180 degree view, but away from center it becomes increasingly lower-resolution and less sensitive to color.  If you could capture a snapshot of sensor output from the retina for a single instant, it would look something like this simulation: 

Rough Simulation of Foveal and Peripheral Vision, illustration by Fred Hatt derived from "Fisheye Domilise's", photo by Editor B

 The eye provides a wide-field view, like a photographer’s fisheye lens, but not very sharp, superimposed with a very sharp narrow-angle view like that of a telephoto lens.  The wide view, or peripheral vision, is useful for noticing movement coming from any direction, and for orientation and aiming of the foveal center of attention.  Of course we’re just describing the raw data coming in from the eye.  The eye scans about and the visual cortex, or image processing center of the brain, knits all of this moving data together into a seemingly sharp view of everything.  But fix your eye on one word on the page of a book and see if you can read a word a few inches away without moving the eye, and you will see that the area of sharp vision is quite small. 

In observational drawing, we’re using these eyes, a sharp foveal scanning element combined with an unsharp peripheral image.  The foveal vision cannot see the whole shape or composition, just one small area at a time.  The peripheral vision can see the whole shape but without much clarity. 

Certain practices and exercises can train you to make better use of this dual data stream.  Artists understand this instinctively.  Often you’ll see artists squinting at their subject or at their work.  Squinting is a way of partially disabling the foveal vision, throwing the whole visual field out-of-focus.  Since foveal input usually dominates the processing functions of the visual cortex, disabling the fovea allows attention to take in more of the peripheral view.  This can help you to see the whole general field at once, understanding it as a simplified and unified shape.  If you are an artist trying to turn vision into a picture, that is just what you need.  It helps you to see compositionally, and to maintain proper proportions and spatial relationships. 

I do many practices to improve my visual perception, not just when I’m drawing but when I’m moving about in the world.  For example, I squint or cross my eyes to bring awareness to my peripheral view when I’m walking down the street.  It is not unsafe, as your peripheral perception, important for navigation and collision avoidance, is actually heightened when you’re doing these things.  Still, I don’t advise doing it while crossing a street as the unfamiliarity of looking at the world this way could be disorienting. 

I also use photography as a tool for honing perception.  If you carry a camera with a single focal-length lens, not a zoom, you will learn to look for images that fit within the angle of view of that lens.  Your brain will be composing your visual world into a rectangular frame as you look at it.  You are learning to see the world in terms of compositions and patterns, another vital skill for an artist. 

Whether you are an artist or not, exercises to improve your ability to perceive the world can open you up to more of the beauty the world has to offer, and can liberate you from some of the marketers’ attempts to manipulate what you notice. 

Illustrations in this post link back to their original online sources.

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