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.
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 havenít 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 canít 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.
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.
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 tweeks 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.
The next thing to be fussy about is the cropping. Donít 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, donít 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.
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 watercoloristís 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.
What of projection? I consider projection bad for two reasons. One, it is cheating. If you are working from a projected image, you arenít 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 isnít free to move as it wants, to some degree, the drawing canít have any character in it. Drawings and paintings done by projection look like drawings done by computers: they have no emotion. What most people donít understand is that you donít want your drawing to be absolutely correct, you donít 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 canít 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 arenít 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 didnít 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 Hockneyís thesis isnít 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 donít have to return to the 15th century to disprove Hockneyís 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 Sargentís 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 donít 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 Hockneyís 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 anyoneís 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 didnít, but Memling learned from Van Eyckís 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. Vermeerís use of a tool, whatever it may be, cannot have any effect on Sargentís hand-eye coordination centuries later. Hockney claims that these tools ďchanged the way we see,Ē but there can be no evidence of that. These lenses and tools didnít change the way sculptors saw, since sculptors have always had to deal with the third dimension. Where did Michelangeloís talent come from? Did Michelangeloís ability leap onto him during a shower with Perugino? Before Hockney came along, we were taught that Michelangeloís 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 canít seem to tell the difference between a work from a projection and a work not from a projection. They canít 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 canít help but corrupt the market. The clients canít tell who really has talent for drawing, since a lot of marginally talented people can create realistic images with projection. And they canít 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 donít 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 donít know how to look at a painting, they donít want anyone to tell them how to look at a painting, and they donít 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.
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