Friday, April 10, 2015

Harold Speed, Chapter 2, "Drawing"

John Elliott Burns by Harold Speed, 1907

Today we continue with the GJ Book Club. Together, we're studying Harold Speed's classic The Practice and Science of Drawing.

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

1. The expression of form upon a plane surface.

Speed's definition of drawing emphasizes form. That is consistent with most academic training. For the purposes of this chapter at least, he is not focusing on other qualities of drawing, such as the ability to capture texture or atmosphere.

2. Apelles

Apelles was a renowned artist of ancient Greece. His actual original paintings and drawings are lost to history (except for supposed copies), but he is known from his reputation in written sources. More on Wikipedia.

3. Drawing, although the first, is also the last thing the painter usually studies.

Many great artists such as Rembrandt kept drawing central to their practice throughout their lives. Some, such as Adolph Menzel, pursued drawing relentlessly into their old age. For composers like Beethoven and Bach, keyboard or chamber music occupied a similar place. 

4. Colour would seem to depend much more on a natural sense and to be less amenable to teaching. 

As an author of a book about color, I have to disagree with him here. There's a lot to teach about color, especially given what we've learned since Speed's time about visual perception and optics. Even though color can be approached subjectively and personally, the aesthetic aspects of color can be taught. In fact, Speed himself must have changed his mind on this topic, because he includes two excellent chapters on color in his subsequent book on oil painting (Oil Painting Techniques and Materials), which we'll study after we get through this one.

5. To express form one must first be moved by it. There is in the appearance of all objects, animate and inanimate, what has been called an emotional significance, a hidden rhythm that is not caught by the accurate, painstaking, but cold artist. 

Speed's definition of rhythm recognizes how emotion drives artistic choices. Rhythm therefore is not merely a design principle.

Charles F. A. Voysey 
by Harold Speed, chalk, 1896

6. Selection of the significant and suppression of the non-essential.

These choices, so central to a successful work, usually happen unconsciously, driven by the emotion the artist feels at the outset. The challenge is hanging onto that guiding feeling in the labor of making the picture.

7. Fine things seem only to be seen in flashes.

In my experience, I find this to be true not only of the process of drawing, but in my creative life more generally. In the fields of character development, scriptwriting, and world-building, the deeper inspirations come unexpectedly in torrents, separated by periods of steady craftsmanship.

8. Art thus enables us to experience life at second hand.

Through great art, we see the world in a more meaningful or enhanced way. After a visit to the picture galleries, our senses are heightened. This effect is even stronger to a student who makes a faithful copy of a master painting or drawing.

9. One is always profoundly impressed by the expression of a sense of bulk, vastness, or mass in form. 

Later he talks about lightness. It's always good to think about gravity when drawing. Muscles are always pulling against gravity. Wings struggle to lift a bird through the air against the pull of the earth. Drawing someone off-balance generates interest, but balance and imbalance are factors of gravity.

10. In these school studies feeling need not be considered, but only a cold accuracy....These academic drawings, too, should be as highly finished as hard application can make them, so that the habit of minute visual expression may be acquired.

In the French schools at least, there were different aesthetic criteria applied to studies from the model. Student studies were expected to be as accurate and finished as possible, and more interpretive works, which allowed for much more distortion and interpretation. A lot of schools in recent decades, needing to cover a lot of ground, tend to skip over the exacting practice of these coldly accurate school studies. It is like playing scales for the musician, or knowing the rules of grammar for the writer, as Carol Berning mentioned in the comments last time.

11. Drawing, then, to be worthy of the name, must be more than what is called accurate.
Harold Speed (Dover ed.)
This point was illustrated by Sargent's portrait of Carolus-Duran in a recent blog post. Speed concludes that "Artistic accuracy demands that things be observed by a sentient individual recording the sensations produced in him by the phenomena of life." Art, then, becomes life filtered through a consciousness. This is a very idealistic view of drawing, and it sets up for next week's Chapter 3: "Vision"
The Practice and Science of Drawing is available in various formats:

1. Inexpensive softcover edition from Dover,
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


Jim Douglas said...

11. As a practicing architect and illustrator, I often wrestle with the difference between Scientific & Artistic accuracy. Speed writes, "Science demands that phenomena be observed with the unemotional accuracy of a weighing machine." While Art "demands that things be observed by a sentient individual recording the sensations produced in him by the phenomena of life."
An architect struggles to represent a design with Scientific accuracy (which allows counting of members, cost estimates, perhaps measuring of dimensions etc.) and Artistic accuracy (which conveys the feel of a place, the grandeur of an approach, forces counterchange to improve legibility, etc.). Both types of accuracy are critically important. It is often a challenge to determine what is truthful. As Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Jim Douglas said...

9. It is important to understand why Speed contrasts the work of Michelangelo, characterized as expressing “a sense of bulk, vastness, or mass in form,” with the work of Botticelli, characterized as expressing “a feathery lightness” that gives “a delightful feeling of otherworldliness.” Speed makes it clear that these men, while their emotional inspiration leads them to entirely different outcomes (one heavy, one light), are both master draftsmen. This stresses that lack of one correct artistic vision. All are welcome to express “the excitement of strong feeling” regardless of where it leads.

Kevin Rice said...

10, 11 I very much agree with speed on these points. At the beginning the eye must be trained and that can only be accomplished by executing many drawings done carefully and as accurately as possible. Once the eye and hand are trained, then the artist can begin to produce expressive works while remaining true to the subject at hand. This applies to gallery art, concept art, illustration, cartooning, etc.

Lindsay said...

8. I think what Speed is describing here is what in modern times we normally describe as empathy. "The small man may enjoy what of the wider experience of the bigger man, and be educated to appreciate in time a wider experience for himself." In the paragraph before this he also describes how we are influenced to feel in ourselves what we see in a work of art.

This is not only true in visual art, but in literature and music. I think books especially allow you to experience the mind of the author.

When I read this in the book, it seems almost obvious. However I rarely see this phenomenon expressed in words. I also get the impression that people who are not familiar with art are not aware of the influence art can have on the mind. A painting requires engagement and imagination on the part of the viewer, and that's not something everyone immediately understands.

Jackson Hall said...

7. Fine things seem only to be seen in flashes.

Such a nice way of expressing this.

Sometimes the flashes that I catch I don't notice until later. It makes me worry that I am erasing and painting over all my fine things.

arturoquimico said...

3. Yep, even omelet making must be continuously practiced..
4. Day job = chemist; so no such color as "brown"; pigments are different, etc.... however, it seems that todays approach to color with Munsel, digital color wheels has improved the thinking.
10. I couldn't draw for most of my life until someone showed me the "cold hearted" atelier way of measure, measure, measure... and now I can draw... but I still struggle to keep things from looking lifeless...

Allen Garns said...

it is this selection of the significant and suppression of the non-essential that often gives… more vitality and truth than are to be found in a highly-wrought and painstaking drawn…vital things have been lost …and the nonessential, which is usually more obvious, has been allowed to creep in and obscure the original impression.

I find this to be so true! Being able to see beyond the obvious, nonessential to the essence.

Carolyn Arcabascio said...

Another interesting conversation this week! Lindsay, great point about the Speed's implicit thoughts on empathy.

I was also struck by the statement about color in point 4., and Speed's assertion that "Art probably owes more to form for its range of expression than to color." I find this perspective very interesting, and maybe it's a bi-product of the time in which Speed was writing and working. But while reading I was reminded of a story from one of my art school painting professors. He had an epiphany as a young artist, staring at a Jackson Pollock -- despite the apparent chaos and formlessness, the painting had a great sense of depth, thanks solely to the skillful layering of color. While my professor's painting style was very naturalistic, this concept of using color to open the space and build form was the driving force behind his work.

I'd be interested in reading Speed's later writings -- I can't help but feel that he shortchanged the power of color a bit here.

Glenn said...

Point 4. stood out to me as well, although It does seem to have been a common mindset at the time.

Sargent said: "Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire.”

Frank Reilly (one of yesterday's gangsters) and Munsell were defiante turning points for me in my colour understanding both conceptually and practically.

The colour books that I reference the most these days are James' book, "Color and Light" and Margaret Livingstone's "Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing".

seadit said...

8. "It is difficult to know why one should be moved by the expression of form...the measure of the feeling...will be the extent to which the artist has identified himself with the subject when making the drawing, and has been impelled to select the expressive elements in the forms. Art thus enables us to experience life at second hand."

I've always been fascinated by inspiration - why I feel it either in my own experiences or in those of others - but I think Speed explains this perfectly. And not just in drawing. The most gratification I get is in the experience or reaction of others in what I've done, but especially when they've experienced what I have.

Old dog learns new trick and new perspective. Love it. Love the comments and discussion. Thank you all.


LizPryz said...

Hi everyone! I've hopping in a bit late since my copy didn't arrive until Wednesday (Amazon was sold out!) Anyways I have a feeling I am the most novice artist here, so I will likely have more questions than insight. This is my first time reading this book and I am already learning so much from all of you!

A few passages from above did catch my attention:

5. I definitely agree that art is emotionally driven. I have always found it difficult to draw something just for the sake of drawing it. I find that my best works are always of things/people/places that hold some deeper meaning for me. I suppose those who are truly skilled can infuse their work with emotion even if they don't naturally feel a connection to it. I have yet to master that skill!!

7. Flashes of greatness do always seem to be sandwiched between layers upon layers of mundane practice and plodding along. I think that is very reflective of #5. You can be gazing at an incredible view full of beautiful things. But usually it will be something amidst all that beauty that speaks to you emotionally and makes you say yes! That is what I want to create!

10. So here's where my question(s) begin. How do you go about practicing accuracy? Is it best to copy photos/pictures? Or to try to draw still life? And is it more about repetition of the same object until you get it right, or drawing as many different things as you can? Or both? :) Should you actually measure things and draw them to scale? How would one (specifically me!) structure a focused practice of accuracy? I am a pianist and violinist so I totally understand the analogy of scales. What are the scales of drawing? (And is there a book that would be good to help guide this study in accuracy?)

Thanks everyone, especially James for organizing this and being so approachable. I admit I was a bit intimidated by day 1's discussion, but I'm enjoying all of your insights and thoughts and learning so much!

James Gurney said...

LizPryz, about learning accurate drawing, I'd say to stick with Speed. His chapter 8, "Line Drawing Practical" will put you on the right road. As for me, as a kid, I loved the book "Drawing Made Easy" from the 1920s, which gets at the elementals of shape-based drawing in a fun way. The Charles Bargue book and method taught at modern academies is very thorough and a good way to go deeper. I also recommend the Loomis books, especially Figure Drawing for All It's Worth.

Seadit, you said it well. A person's way of painting or drawing is the distilled essence of their way of seeing. So looking at art is as close as we can get to looking through another person's eyes.

Glenn, it's fun thinking of Reilly as a gangster. I second your recommendation for Livingstone's book, which comes at color and vision from a neuroscientist's perspective.

Carolyn, I suppose there is some merit to the idea that the perception of form and of color are in two separate spheres, as they are processed in different parts of the brain. See one of my earlier posts on "The Two Streams Hypothesis."

Allen, yes, and in order to focus on the essential, it's so valuable to do a thumbnail sketch, or at least verbalize what it is about the subject that interests you.

Arturo, well said. We must learn the science to be able to express the art.

Jackson, it's so hard to erase or rub out and start over, but each time I do, I find it easier to concentrate on what's important.

Jim D, thanks for bringing out that point about Michelangelo and Botticelli, which I had kind of missed.

Kevin, I'm always most amazed by artists who get that "life" or "character" or "interpretation" while being (I think) accurate and faithful to the subject, such as Repin and Menzel.

Lindsay, Empathy is indeed a great word for what he's getting at. Thanks, all for your helpful thoughts.

Carolyn Arcabascio said...

Thank you for pointing me to that post, James. So interesting -- will keep this in mind during value/color studies!

Karin Fediw said...

Number 7 hit home. And James' elaboration is what made me realize that's what I'm trying to do. It's surprising and very gratifying to see what you're doing put into words--and to realize you're not alone. Here it is again. 7. Fine things seem only to be seen in flashes.

In my experience, I find this to be true not only of the process of drawing, but in my creative life more generally. In the fields of character development, scriptwriting, and world-building, the deeper inspirations come unexpectedly in torrents, separated by periods of steady craftsmanship.

John Fleck said...

"4. Colour would seem to depend much more on a natural sense and to be less amenable to teaching. "

I have had a teacher of mine speak of composition in a similar way. Not that it is unteachable, but that good composition is innate in some people and can be difficult to teach. Personally, I have had a very hard time with color, partially because I spent so many years working (drawing) monochromatically. But like composition, I think so much can be "absorbed" by looking at work with good color and composition. And just plain working (painting) with color again and again. I feel that through simple effort I have increased my sensitivity to seeing colors. As far as teaching goes, there are many exercises (limited palette, etc.), copying from the masters, and so on that increase color awareness and ability to handle (choose) color combinations. I remember having my eyes opened by a complimentary neutralization mixing exercise that one of my teachers had us do. Books like Color & Light don't hurt either!

Caitlyn Rooke said...

6. I find focusing on the "essential" throughout the entire drawing process extremely mentally taxing. It's all too easy to allow the "non-essential, which is usually more creep in and obscure the original impression." For myself, this search for the "essential" creates a continuous puzzle that I very much enjoy piecing together.
8. In the past, I've had difficulty understanding how someone might find simply looking at art challenging and enjoyable. For me, I could never be content by merely looking; I've had to try it myself. However, reading Speed's comments about becoming a more complex version of yourself through empathy, as Lindsay said, makes it more understandable. I used to think a challenging work meant complicated, detailed, and impressive. However, perhaps that view reflects my artistic insecurities; I'm challenged technically by what I cannot presently achieve. I see now that a piece rife with emotion can be even more challenging to many people, as it forces the viewer to become more involved personally. As an artist, I find this encouraging, I don't have to be the best draftsman to make interesting work. Although, I'll certainly keep trying. (If anyone else on the forum is interested in psychology and creativity, I highly recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's books on Flow and Creativity.)