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A Few Real Secrets of Drawing
and other thoughts

by Miles Mathis

The demand for perfection is always a sign
of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.—

In returning to the Hockney debate recently, I was reminded how many misconceptions still persist about drawing. In my opinion, a lot of the content of the Hockney debate is manufactured from nothing: that is to say, it is little more than lies. But let me give everyone the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume that some of the mistakes are just misconceptions. They are errors, not lies.

One of these persistent errors is the claim that it is more difficult to draw from life than from photos. There are lots of good arguments for drawing and painting from life, and I have made them myself, but I have never argued for life because it is harder. In some ways it is harder, in some ways it is easier. As I show you the ways to make it easier to work from life and from photos, I will run down the various differences, so that you will have an honest account of both methods.

A longstanding belief, held by many artists in the past and present as well as many connoisseurs and scholars, is that drawing from the photo is easier because the photo is already in two dimensions. They will say that the main hardship in drawing from life is that you have to transfer from three dimensions to two. This argument makes some sense, and I held to it myself for a long time. But it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. We now know that the brain sees the world in two dimensions and then recreates the third dimension using after-the-fact knowledge of various kinds. What you are seeing, cast upon your retina, is a picture, a
two-dimensional image, very much like a picture inside a camera. Yes, the brain works like a fancy camera, remember? Of course you have two eyes and therefore two images, and the brain uses both images to create depth, as most people also know. But the brain creates depth with other tricks, like shadow analysis and color analysis and so on. That is why the brain gets tricked sometimes. The brain is not given a 3-D image, it is creating one.

The image you see right now, whatever it is, is a 2-D image. That is why babies reach for the Moon, bump their heads very often, and so on. Their images haven’t completely jelled, as far as dimensions go. As we get older, both our hands and our brains learn the third dimension.

Conversely, when we look at a photograph, we are building the third dimension there, too. The brain treats the photograph just like life, and adds the third dimension in the same way. That is why people sometimes mistake photographs and paintings for real people. In the first instance, the brain cannot differentiate between a photo and life. If you can’t see that the photo is a photo, by finding a back to it or a border or a fault in it, you have no other way of knowing it is not life. The brain reads both in the same way.

This must mean that when you are painting from life, you are transferring two dimensions to two dimensions. There is no dimensional difference; therefore if painting from life is harder, it must be harder for other reasons.

Now, it is harder in some ways, as I said, but the difficulty is not one of dimensions. It is mainly a lack of a border. What helps with a photograph is that you have a rectilinear border near the image you are drawing. A large part of making a correct drawing is achieving all the right distances and slants in the image, and the border is the most important tool you have in helping your brain to see these distances and slants. In the first place, the vertical border of the photo acts as a sort of plumb bob, giving you the vertical hook you need to read all the slants in the picture. Your brain compares each slant of each line in the image to the border, and tells you immediately how much each line is leaning relative to that vertical border. To a lesser degree, the brain does the same thing with the horizontal border.

Armed with this simple knowledge, you can use it to make drawing from both life and the photo much easier. Lets apply it to life, to begin with. In drawing from life, you have an image without a border. For this reason, all the slants in the image have no real hook. It can be very difficult to find your vertical hook, which is why artists use a plumb bob. They are looking for the vertical foundation of the image, so that they can compare all their main lines to it. Much better than a plumb bob is a frame. You may have seen artists using these in movies about Old Masters and wondered what the heck is going on. I believe I remember Vincent using one in
Vincent and Theo. These artists are looking through a little frame, either with a grid or without, in order to impose a structure on this borderless image. By far the most important thing in this frame is the vertical border, which acts as the hook of the entire image transfer in the brain.

You will have seen many artists misusing these devices as well, since in the movies they often seem to be handheld. But it is crucial that the frame not move relative to the image. You have to fix the frame firmly, and then fix yourself relative to it and the image. If either you or it move, the angles are destroyed and the tool becomes a hindrance.

It is quite easy to make one of these devices, and no one could call such a device a cheat--since it just gives you a border. To make one, first set up your life model or still life just the way you want them. Then set up your easel at a proper distance from the scene, so that you see the whole image and a bit more. Then, set up a second easel between you and the scene, nearer you than the scene. Put an empty frame on this easel, of your chosen dimensions, either square or rectangular, either horizontal or vertical. Move the frame a bit to one side or the other, to get it away from the center post of the second easel. Then adjust the height and tilt of the second easel until the frame is in the right place. Make sure the frame is flat with regard to you (it does not have to be flat with regard to the scene). In other words, all four corners of the frame should be equidistant from your eye, when you are standing or seated at your easel.

Voila! You have created a photo to work from. As long as your model does not move, your drawing will be as easy to create as a drawing done from a photo.

Of course this is to admit that one of the difficulties of drawing or painting from life is that models do not sit still. You have to keep firm control of your model. A good trick in doing that is to fix a piece of mat board or something behind her while you are painting her head. The head is the most likely to move, and it is the thing most likely to matter, if it does move. Just get her set and then make some marks on the mat board that you can see from your easel. I usually make one mark at the highest point of her crown (to keep her from slouching) and one mark at her nose. Those are enough, usually, but you can make as many marks as you like. Once you get your drawing set on your own canvas or paper, you can remove the mat board. Or, if she is especially slouchy, you can leave it there to keep her honest.

We have similar methods to help you with drawing from photos. I never use projection, calipers, or grids, but I often use photos. Unless I am working on a really big painting, I normally use the standard 6 or 7 inch prints you can get from the drugstore. There is plenty of detail in those, enough for all but the fussiest. But it isn’t the size of the photo that is of primary importance. Use whatever size feels right for your brain. The primary importance of the photo is that you use it correctly. The first thing to know is that photos add contrast and distort color. So you need low contrast film or a low contrast setting on a digital camera. Then you need to spend some time getting the color right. The first processing will not do it. You almost always have to send the important photos back to the lab and have them tweaked to suit your purposes. Tourists and other non-artists like very orange photos, so your lab will probably send you oversaturated photos leaning heavily to the red. Tell them you want low contrast, low saturation images, and you want to see blue in every image, even if it is an image of a tangerine in a yellow bowl. After a while they will know how to satisfy you.

By the same token, if you are using a digital camera, you have to learn to use photoshop. You have to make the proper corrections to match the photo to life. You are making the tweaks the lab used to make. Many artists get cute in photoshop and start adding saturation and contrast and so on, but you should avoid this. You want to push the photo as close to life as you can, and that is all. Save your interpretation for when you have a pencil or brush in your hand. Overusing photoshop is a small form of cheating, and it is counterproductive anyway. It will tend to make your paintings look fake and modern, like a Shrek still or a CGI monstrosity instead of like a rich Old Master painting.

This is one reason that working from life is actually easier than working from photos. In life you have correct colors and correct saturation and correct contrast. You don’t have to make any corrections. You just paint what is there. With even the best photos, you have to push the contrast lower, push the color balance, and search for middletones. You have to look hard for green and blue in the skin and play down the oranges. You cannot hope to do this in the right way unless you have also done a lot of work from life. You cannot know what is wrong with a photo without knowing what is right about life.

The next thing to be fussy about is the cropping. Don’t bother the lab with cropping, just tell them to print everything full frame. You do the cropping at home, with scissors or a straight edge. In cropping, don’t just consider the parts of the image you want to include, consider the fact that all your edges are being used by your brain to read the image. Meaning, use those vertical edges like a plumb bob. If the image is not balanced, if people are leaning a bit, straighten them up with your trim.

Now, once you have your photo, you are only halfway there. You still have to use it. I have seen more students go wrong here than any other place. It is very important that you affix it very near your paper or canvas, and it is very important that the verticals align. You cannot hold the photo in your hand, allow it to shift all over your drawing board, or affix it so that it moves. You have to get it in the right place and it has to be rock solid.

What is the right place? If you are right handed, the right place is probably to the left of your paper; if you are left handed, the right place is probably to the right of your paper. But if this feels very awkward, do what feels good. It may be that you are ambidextrous to some weird degree, and there are no hard and fast rules here. More important is the height at which you affix the photo, relative to your drawing. You want to affix the photo so that you only have to transfer the image in one direction. You don’t want to have to transfer the image in your head two directions, because that just makes things harder for no reason. Since your photo is unlikely to be the same size as your drawing, you will say it is very hard to affix the photo so that it is transferred in only one direction, but there are two ways to do it. One, line up the center of the photo with the center of the drawing. This gives you an average transfer in only one direction. Or, if you are drawing a head, you can line up the eyes. This is what I do. This makes the transfer easier, since the eyes are an even more important hook than the center of the head.

Needless to say, it is also very important that the photo and the drawing are on the same plane. You cannot have your painting on an easel and the photo on a table. Nor should you have the painting on one easel, and the photo on another one, unless the two easels are at precisely the same tilt. Ideally, you should have the photo as close to the painting as possible, preferably taped right to the canvas. This is what I do.

This brings us to another difficulty of painting from life. I often see people trying to paint from life from a drafting table, a watercolorist’s easel (horizontal) or a tilted easel. If you are very talented it can be done, but it adds another variable to the transfer, another difficulty for your brain. You want to make things as easy as possible, and the way to do this is to put your canvas in the same plane as the scene you are drawing. In other words, it is best if your easel has no tilt at all, or only enough tilt to account for your height. If you are looking down at your model or scene, then this is a reason to have some tilt, but otherwise you should have your easel very near straight up. You would be amazed at how many people have never considered this.

Using these methods, you should find drawing in any circumstance a bit easier. But if you still have difficulty, please realize that using rulers, calipers, or grids is not considered cheating by anyone, and never has been. I don’t use them because I don’t find them useful, but I don’t look down my nose at anyone who does use them. Personally, I think grids can get in the way, and limit the freedom of the line, but some artists have used them without ill effect.

What of projection? I consider projection bad for two reasons. One, it is cheating. If you are working from a projected image, you aren’t drawing, you are tracing. Every first grader knows that. And for the record, I would rank camera lucidas and camera obscuras with projectors. If they were used to create images to trace, they were cheats. But even more important is that projection destroys all character in a drawing. If the hand isn’t free to move as it wants, to some degree, the drawing can’t have any character in it. Drawings and paintings done by projection look like drawings done by computers: they have no emotion. What most people don’t understand is that you don’t want your drawing to be absolutely correct, you don’t want a precise verisimilitude, because precise verisimilitude is photography, not art. Art must contain a degree of interpretation. A good artist makes interesting mistakes, and a great artist makes great mistakes. Art is pushing an image in beautiful or poignant ways, and the best mistakes are not done consciously.

For this reason, it is best to give yourself some leeway. You can demand precision early on, as a sort of practice, but eventually you will have to dispense with this attachment to precision for its own sake. If you are too attached to precision, you will not leave a large enough gap in your technique for the entry of character. Likewise with projection. An artist who uses projection can’t get any better, past a certain point. He or she will always be attached to the projector, as with an umbilical cord, and the push toward real art will be limited because the push toward interpretation will be limited.

Some people say the same of photography, but this is not true. If you are drawing from a photo freehand, you are no more limited in your interpretation than if you are drawing from life. Your hand is free to wander, if it likes. There are only two real dangers of using photos. One, if you aren’t careful, you may disconnect from life by forgetting what true color balance and contrast is. Two, you may disconnect from life because you never work with real people or things. In this case, your interpretation becomes cold and clinical, and all your objects, even people, look objectified, like meat on a cold slab.

But painting from life has similar dangers. Artists who paint solely from life can go off track for countless reasons. They see so many colors, even in skin, that they may fall in love with color for its own sake. They begin to over-saturate everything and soon their paintings look like Disneyland reconstructions. Or perhaps, due to the limitations of what can be painted easily from life, they drift into a stilted nowhere land of wooden poses and lazy models, with nothing but reclining figures and drapes and piled bric-a-brac.

But let us return to projection, since this is what the Hockney debate centered on. I have shown in no uncertain terms that Hockney was wrong, but that does not mean that artists in the past didn’t use projection. The novelty of my position in the Hockney debate is that I can show he is wrong while at the same time admitting that some artists may have used projection. The reason for this is that Hockney’s thesis isn’t and never was that projection existed in the past. His thesis always was that projection explained the giant advances in naturalism around the time of the Renaissance, and that it explained the optical qualities of many great realists, like Van Eyck and Caravaggio and Ingres. This thesis is not just demonstrably false, it is absurd. We know what paintings done with the use of projectors look like: entire galleries in New York City are filled with this photorealism. Projected images now account for a large part of the realist market, in all genres. None of them look the least bit like a Van Eyck, a Caravaggio, or an Ingres. They all look much flatter and much less complex.

We don’t have to return to the 15th century to disprove Hockney’s thesis, and this is another reason the debates have been so absurd. We can go no further back than Sargent, a hundred years ago, when we have lots of documentation and eye-witness accounts. We have clear evidence of Sargent’s methods, from his models and colleagues, and there is no indication he routinely used projection, or even photos. If you are using a projector, you don’t need 85 sittings with a child, as he had with Marie-Louise Pailleron. They were both so relieved when it was over they threw the furniture out the windows. What does this prove? Well, we only have to prove one artist could paint that well without projection to disprove Hockney’s thesis. If Sargent could do it, then so could a thousand others, and if they could do it without projection, then projection was not the cause of the advance, or the cause of anyone’s career. For Hockney to be correct, ALL the great realist painters had to be using projection, not just one or two. If we can show even one painter of high realism who did not use projection, then Hockney must explain where his ability came from. Again, Hockney has claimed that lenses and projectors were the cause of the advance, and if that is so, then no artist should have been able to advance without the cause. If you have some artists advancing without the cause, then the cause is not the cause.

In the few times that Hockney has been pushed on this, he has retreated to the nebulous idea that ability is a culture-wide phenomenon. Maybe Van Eyck used a projector and Memling didn’t, but Memling learned from Van Eyck’s use, for instance. This means something like, if I use a sharper razor, you also get a closer shave. If I buy a bigger bed, you sleep in greater comfort. If I eat two pies for dessert, everybody in the world gets fat.

So you can see how it is. Vermeer’s use of a tool, whatever it may be, cannot have any effect on Sargent’s hand-eye coordination centuries later. Hockney claims that these tools “changed the way we see,” but there can be no evidence of that. These lenses and tools didn’t change the way sculptors saw, since sculptors have always had to deal with the third dimension. Where did Michelangelo’s talent come from? Did Michelangelo’s ability leap onto him during a shower with Perugino? Before Hockney came along, we were taught that Michelangelo’s technical inspiration came from Greek and Roman statuary. Sculptors were producing very real sculptures at least by the time of Praxiteles. Does Hockney mean to imply that the Greeks were also projecting, and that the projecting was rubbing off from the painters onto the sculptors, in 400BC?

But enough of that. Hockney was as full of holes as a sponge to begin with, and I have long since squeezed him dry. What of projection now? We know it is pandemic in the modern markets, both in realism and in the avant garde. What are its effects? I have already shown that one effect is a flat, unenriched, emotionless, and characterless image. This is its artistic effect. But its effect in the market is to create mass confusion among the buyers and aficionados. Most normal people can’t seem to tell the difference between a work from a projection and a work not from a projection. They can’t tell the difference between a mediocre drawing and a good drawing, or the difference between a poorly painted head and a head that is alive and breathing. To make matters worse, they get no help from most quarters. In fact, they get the opposite of help: they get marketing.

Everyone knows that tracing is cheating, so almost no one wants to admit to it. A majority of realists are using projection, and a majority of that majority is lying about it. Everybody claims to be working from life, although, as I have shown, working from life is no proof of anything. I have seen terrible paintings done from life, terrible paintings done from photos, and terrible paintings done from projection. The difference is, I have never seen a great painting done by projection. I have seen some paintings from projection that were amazingly realistic, but that is not the same thing.

When you get a confluence of dishonest artists and ill-informed clients, it can’t help but corrupt the market. The clients can’t tell who really has talent for drawing, since a lot of marginally talented people can create realistic images with projection. And they can’t tell who has a talent for expression, because the realist market has been divorced from expression for decades. The market split years ago: accuracy went to the realist market and expression went to the avant garde. If your line becomes expressive now in realism, people think you don’t know how to draw. If Corot entered the contemporary realist market, he would be dismissed as a clutz.

In other words, the clients rarely have any taste or education, and the artists and galleries prefer to keep them that way. It is much easier to sell to people with bad judgment. This fact was first discovered and mined by the avant garde, and it has devolved to the point where rich people will pay millions for silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe or for piles of rocks. But it is also true in realism. Most people don’t know how to look at a painting, they don’t want anyone to tell them how to look at a painting, and they don’t want to read a book to discover it for themselves. They just want to make a purchase.

To make matters even worse, most contemporary books mis-educate viewers by telling them they should have "critical distance" or that they should deconstruct everything or that they should read the blurbs or that they should listen to critics or audiotapes. They never get told why one Old Master painting is better than another one, based on an artistic reading. So reading books and articles is most often counterproductive.

Obviously, you can’t make artists stop using projectors and you can’t make artists tell the truth. You can't shut critics or art historians up, and you can't prohibit physicists and computer scientists and social workers and propagandists from blabbing endlessly about things they know nothing about. You also can’t, in most cases, educate rich people. This appears to make the situation hopeless. The only crack in this armor is that some people with enough money to buy art do have the ability to look at a painting. Some of them have a natural eye, some of them have studied somewhere, somehow, something besides Dada and the Bauhaus, and some of them are eager to learn. We are at a low point in history, and there is no denying it, but even now the possibility of a patron lives on.

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