Monday, August 23, 2010
Observe! You Budding Artists
At the art school at the University of Washington I was exposed to a number of training practices that, in retrospect, weren't very useful. Check that: even at the time I had my doubts, but was too naïve and trusting to fully realize that I was being shortchanged.
I'll provide more details in future posts, but for now will deal with the matter of viewing subjects. When presented with a still life setup or human model or whatever, an instructor would often tell us to "observe" or "see."
Just what we were supposed to observe was seldom made clear. They did teach us to hold a paintbrush handle between us and the subject, arm stiff, to measure or compare dimensions of what we were painting. And that's about all the "observing" I could manage given my state of ignorance.
The problem that cropped up again and again in many of my art school classes was that the faculty was collectively afraid to actually teach us much of anything in fear of destroying our precious creativity. Or maybe it was art school policy. I don't know for sure, but those were the vibrations I absorbed; lord knows we got little actual instruction.
Many years later, I'm beginning to understand what they were talking about -- at least in the case of drawing or painting a human likeness. Provided an artist knows the shapes and proportions for the expected or average case, then, when he studies a subject, he can compare what he sees with the norm. That is, he might notice that the distance from the bottom of the nose to the chin tends large or small and the eyes are narrower or wider-set than expected.
Clearly such observations can be made by fledgling, under-trained art students such as I was. But the process of observing becomes faster and more sure when looking for variations about a norm rather than trying to figure things out from scratch.
Another example might be rules-of-thumb dealing with light and shade. These hold that, in most cases, warm light results in a cool (blue tinted) shadow and cool light produces warm (i.e., with touches of brown, purple, etc.) shadows. I was never taught these rules. If I had, then I might have been better able to "observe" my subject and decide whether or not the rules held in that instance. Put another way, why were we supposed to discover such things on our own? I didn't "discover" this information until I read in in books -- and might never have.
What, then, was the point of having an art faculty to "teach" us if they would not teach?