Friday, April 17, 2015

GJ Book Club: Chapter 3 "Vision"

On GJ Book Club, we're studying Harold Speed's 1917 classic The Practice and Science of Drawing.

The following numbered paragraphs cite key points in italics, followed by a brief remark of my own. If you would like to respond to a specific point, please precede your comment by the corresponding number.

1. The photographer's camera and the camera obscura are constructed on the same principle as the human eye.

There has been a lot of scientific research in recent years about the differences between the eye and the camera, as summarized in this recent video "Eye vs. Camera":

(YouTube link) True, light goes through the lens and forms an image on the retina, but who is looking at the retina? In fact, image processing begins happening right away at the level of the photoreceptors. In a way, this new science confirms the fundamental point that Speed is trying to make, which is that we don't see with our eyes, but rather with our brains.

Recent science also tells us that our  perception of edge contours or lines is a basic part of visual processing. See previous post "Lines and the Brain" or Wikipedia on "Edge Detection."

2. The sense of touch vs. the sense of sight.

This notion of connecting drawing with the sense of touch is a powerful one. As I understand it, Speed is making the distinction between the sense of touch and the sense of sight in order to build toward his overarching teaching idea, which is to distinguish line drawing from "mass drawing." By mass drawing, he means tonal, impressionistic drawing.

I've been thinking this week about this idea of drawing as an extension of touch, and it occurs to me that a lot of the things we draw are kind of untouchable: a cloud, a mountain range, the silhouette of a skyscraper—or that cute model at the sketch group.

But for small still life objects, having an awareness of the feel of things can add so much to the conviction of the drawing.

3. The commonplace painter will paint a commonplace picture... 

In this section, he makes an interesting point that you can put two artists side by side painting the same scene, a beginner and a seasoned painter, and the experienced artist will recognize greater depth and power in the same scene. This is not due to technical tricks or better materials, but to their different way of seeing.

4. A. Type of first drawing made by children showing how vision has not been consulted. 
B. Type of what might have been expected if crudest expression of visual appearance has been attempted.

Harold Speed (Dover ed
I love the "A" and "B" diagram! At first I thought he was saying one way of seeing was better or more advanced than another, but I think in the end he's saying that they're just two different ways of seeing, and that we have to cultivate both.

Am I getting this right? Maybe I'm missing something. I look forward to your thoughts. 
The Practice and Science of Drawing is available in various formats:
1. Inexpensive softcover edition from Dover, (by far the majority of you are reading it in this format)
2. Fully illustrated and formatted for Kindle.
3. Free online edition.
4. Project Gutenberg version
Articles on Harold Speed in the Studio Magazine The Studio, Volume 15, "The Work of Harold Speed" by A. L. Baldry. (XV. No. 69. — December, 1898.) page 151.
and The Windsor Magazine, Volume 25, "The Art of Mr. Harold Speed" by Austin Chester, page 335. (thanks, अर्जुन)
GJ Book Club Facebook page  (Thanks, Keita Hopkinson)
Pinterest (Thanks, Carolyn Kasper)

Overview of the blog series

Announcing the GJ Book Club
Chapter 1: Preface and Introduction
Chapter 2: Drawing
Chapter 3: Vision
Chapter 4: Line Drawing
Chapter 5: Mass Drawing
Chapter 6: Academic and Conventional
Chapter 7: The Study of Drawing
Chapter 8: Line Drawing, Practical
Chapter 9: Mass Drawing
Chapter 10: Rhythm
Chapter 11: Variety of Lines
Chapter 12: Curved Lines
Chapter 13: Variety of Mass
Chapter 14: Unity of Mass
Chapter 15: Balance
Chapter 16: Proportion
Chapter 17: Portrait Drawing
Chapter 18: Visual Memory
Chapter 19: Procedure
Chapter 20: Materials


Tom Hart said...

Regarding point #4: I have always been deeply touched by children's drawings. (I know that's not uncommon, but I wonder if those of us who are so focused on our own picture-making are particularly touched.) I love that children's art provides an insight - in a way that I find hard to completely verbalize -into how children translate what's "out there" to a two dimensional surface.

I can't quite agree with Speed - at least not strictly speaking - that the child isn't "consulting vision". I think that vision was consulted but probably not simultaneously with the act of drawing. (How many children are consulting a reference? Usually they are drawing from memory.) That's not to discount his theory about the importance of touch to an infant or child's understanding of the world. That's undeniable, it seems to me.

Jared Cullum said...

2 | I really enjoyed and was fascinated by what he said in distinguishing the differences between line and mass drawing. It's embarrassing to admit but being largely self-taught I never considered or had the vocabulary for the differences. I've been drawing for years now but based largely on the advice from an illustrator-pal who said to draw constantly and only in fountain pens. For a long time my primary concern has only been contour lines but the book opened me up to mass drawing and considering it differently. I guess I should leave blabbering on about that until he goes more in detail about them in their chapters.

I agree and like what Tom said, above. I guess kids draw on the initial vision but there is a great deal of symbol iconography (Yeesh, I'm in over my head with that word. I hope I'm using it correctly.) When kids draw houses or the sun, there's a repeated symbol for the idea. I guess vision and memory is what connects us to symbols. I don't know- I should probably leave that to a smarter person to talk about.

Carolyn Arcabascio said...

I found this chapter incredibly insightful. Speed has a tremendous gift for translating the intuitive into words and bringing practices that are largely subconscious to the forefront. "Connecting drawing with the sense of touch" (point 2) is a concept that immediately resonated with me, although I don't often consciously consider it while working. But having a constant awareness of this idea would certainly bring more clarity and intentionality to the work.

Tom, great observation about children consulting visual and tactile memory. And I really enjoy the leap Jared made in expanding on this thought and how it applies to symbolism and iconography.

As always, thank you for your insights, James!

Sesco said...

2. I like to keep it simple, and there is an old adage that says "Paint what you see". Albeit 'touch' may inform 'seeing', I do not find it a requirement for a satisfying painting. There are artists who struggle to 'loosen up', apply medium in a 'painterly manner', and not include so much detail, and so they 'see' in a different way than a photo-realistic painter. There are children who are considered gifted because of the unique way they see, not because they translate what is before them in a realistic manner, although this too can be prodigal. Therefore, I do not find touch to be at the heart of seeing. For myself, I am attempting to 'see' tonally, impressionistically, because that is what brings me joy whenever I go to museums. The play of color and mass to suggest form is like a poetry of seeing.

Joe Onorato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Onorato said...

2 - I found this idea of a sense of touch and sense of sight related very intriguing. So much so that I spent most of the week looking at random objects to see how my mind would make the associations. I was shocked how almost innate it was that my mind would recall some form of tactile recognition. As far as things that are untouchable would we not mentally make the leap to something more recognizable? For example would a mountain range become a jagged piece of rock? Or a sky scraper cold smooth metal and glass? We could even relate to the softness or firmness of the models body. Of course the associations would depend on the artist and the scene. Either way I think it's a very interesting way of observing. Something to be considered when drawing that may add a level of depth beyond just 'seeing'.

Kevin Rice said...

4. That's pretty much what I got from it too James. We need to be aware of and cultivate both ways of seeing.

krystal said...

I def think they're two different ways of seeing and one isn't better than the other necessarily. The first for me just represents how someone who has drawn a lot with line would draw (maybe even etched), and how a person who has painted a lot would interpret space and mass. Differences between shape and depth, etc. Similarly, someone who has sculpted a lot (I've done all three) would see things a bit differently. They all have merit, I think.
I think architects who draw, paint, etc are interesting also because they've been taught accurate perspective (using vanishing points, etc), but you can also see paintings (like those of LeCorb) which are quite "flat" and based on mostly ideas about shape and overlap. In the same breath, they also use things like contour maps to show depth, and elevations and plans to interpret a space, a moulding, details, etc.And of course, systematic diagrams that show things like water use, air pressure, etc.
I agree that we "see" with our brains. For example, the way someone who has spent their lives sewing versus someone who has welded their entire life or an engineer sees things is different from that of a fine arts painter. I find that stuff fascinating; my friend and I (years ago) went to San Juan de Capistrano to the mission and were drawing an Arch. She is an architectural designer and started with the keystone, whereas at the time I was studying art and started drawing the general shape of the arch. She was drawing from knowledge, and I from what I saw/interpreted.
That's part of why I also think it's so important to read and travel. You're also 'drawing' (not to use a pun) from knowledge.
The part about the eye and the camera reminds me of that film, Man with a Movie Camera, which is quite wonderful!

krystal said...

Yeah; his views are also a bit Eurocentric, too. I am happy I grew up in a culture that not only can appreciate the beauty of academic drawing and painting from observation and repetition, but also that of work that may appear (to Speed) "amateurish". And guess what; some of those works (like one of a recent guy in the UK) sell for 11 mill POUNDS a piece because of their uniqueness and character.

seadit said...

I think what summed up this chapter for me best is when he said "It is the privilege of the artist to show how wonderful and beautiful is all this music of colour and form, so that people, having been moved by it in his work, may be encouraged to see the same beauty in the things around them. This is the best argument in favour of making art."

I think it's safe to say that we've all seen ugly art or art of things ugly, but it's still about connecting with what the artist 'saw' or experienced, and seeing things differently around us afterwards. Where I used to see old and or decaying buildings or structures, I now see a beauty in them that I hadn't before until I saw them thru someone else's eyes (art). I also think it's why I love so many different styles, subjects, mediums, etc. - I've seen so many wonderful works that I'm forever changed in the way I experience the world, and see no end to the journey.

I also love how Speed works thru each concept, building on the nature and understanding (responsibility?) of the artist in making something worthy of art (connected or shared vision or experience).

Rich said...

Also interesting how he notices "the shocking state of neglect" in which "the average adult" finds himself from a visionary point of view. The examples he gives how the artist's vision differs from the utilitarian outview of the general public.

Nowadays everyone carries a camera. Probably something beyond Speed's wildest imaginations. So everybody has become a photographer. Leaves me just pondering about the general educative effect on people's artistic outlook on the world and things. Have things improved?

Jonathan Gironi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Gironi said...

A piece of art is defined 'amateurish' if it lacks in technical qualities and clarity of vision, not if it only fails to reproduce reality correctly [who's ever said that, by the way?]. That's a colossal misunderstanding. Also, selling for millions of pounds says nothing about actual artistic value. A Titian is (usually) very good regardless of its commercial value; a Hirst is (usually) very bad even if it costs a fortune.

Jim Serrett said...

Chapter III
My take is a bit different for I do not think Speed was talking about the literal touching of objects to understanding them but to think in those terms as if you were sculpting them out of the air, or more precisely our minds eye. And with the comparing of the drawings once again I think he was attempting to describe how we should see with our brains to describe “form” not our eyes, that we should use our intellect. I think as Speed moves on through this book it becomes clearer that Speed believes an artist should work from his intellect first and emotion second, and without the second there is no art. But I may be getting ahead of things.

Elena Jardiniz said...

My first life drawing teacher told us, in his introduction to the class, that he'd taken life drawing for the first time in an 'advanced placement' class - all of 15 years old and... seeing naked women, in person, for the first time. "I hid behind my board for the first week or so." He laughed, "Then I relaxed and was able to really start drawing - to SEE what I was looking at." And the best life drawing teacher I've ever had said the same thing. We don't draw 'the thing' we draw a symbol of 'the thing' - until we learn to get past the assumptions and the symbols to see what is really there. The best way to do that is to draw and/or paint and delight in the process.

Caitlyn Rooke said...

1. Great video, thanks for sharing! The idea that we see with our brains becomes painfully apparent when you understand how this can go terribly wrong. One of my favorite authors, Oliver Sacks, conveys this through several case studies in his book, "The Mind's Eye". As well as, the beautiful adaptations our minds are capable of if we lose the function of our eyes.

It seems to me as well, that Speed is advocating for an understanding of both mass drawing and line drawing, and that one without the other will not satiate the viewer's visual appetite for long. In my own practice, I have a natural inclination for mass drawing, and generally content with that. But Speed's quotation has made me question my contentment: "If the student neglects line drawing, his work will lack the expressive significance of form that only a feeling for lines seems to have the secret of conveying; while, if he neglects mass drawing, he will be poorly equipped when he comes to express form with a brush full of paint to work with."

Thanks to everyone for your varied insights!

Daulat Neupane said...

Regarding point 4: As children, we have more important things to address first than spending time on properly viewing and observng things, like recognizing them, categorizing things under labels, to assist in recalling things when needed. This is the result of our survival instincts acquired over thousands of years of evolution. As a child, we make sure first of our survival and then begin to actually observe things in detail when we realize there isn't immediate cause for concern. And so children's drawing are so symbolic, as we would make if we would want to be able to recognize a lot of information in a short amount of time. As important as that is for our survival, it really hinders proper observation required for drawing. So Speed has quite nailed the process by saying children aren't "consulting vision". That doesn't however make children's drawing less fascinating. They always seem to nail the composition every time. And drawing gives the rarest insight on how are they dealing with their immediate surrounding and the fact of being alive. Thanks James for bringing this jewel of book to discussion. You never cease to inspire.