Friday, May 1, 2015

GJ Book Club: Chapter 5: Mass Drawing

FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2015

On the GJ Book Club, we're studying Chapter 5, "Mass Drawing," of 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.
In the last chapter, Speed discussed the aesthetics of outline-oriented artwork. He emphasized the innocence and imaginative appeal that such work can have, and he recognized that linear quality in non-Western and earlier European painting. In this chapter, he concentrates on a more impressionist or tonal kind of visual expression, which he calls "mass drawing." Here's his definition:

1. This form of drawing is based on the consideration of flat appearances on the retina, with the knowledge of the felt shapes of objects for the time being forgotten.

Harold Speed, who was born in 1872, was living through two revolutions in how we visually experience the world. One was photography, which was becoming accessible to everyone, and the other was Impressionism, which revolutionized painting. 

To me it's really interesting to see how he was rationalizing this change in consciousness. Speed's explanation of this change of seeing is one of the most articulate in any art instruction book, and I find it inspiring even today. 

2. Las Meninas by Velazquez
Speed recognizes that mass drawing wasn't an entirely new idea, and he credits Velazquez with creating a "painter's picture" from this point of view. I haven't seen the original, and I wonder whether some of you would agree with his discussion of the painting's impact.

3. The Impressionist movement has produced chiefly pictures inspired by the actual world of visual phenomena around us, the older point of view producing most of the pictures deriving their inspiration from the glories of the imagination, the mental world in the mind of the artist.

I think this was largely true in his day, but the two ways of seeing and painting are not mutually exclusive. There have been many artists who have reconciled the two; that is, they painted imaginative pictures with an Impressionist's sense of light and color and edges. 

The illustrators N.C. Wyeth, E.A. Abbey, Tom Lovell and Harry Anderson, whom I've discussed a lot on the blog, come to mind. Ilya Repin's early historical pictures did this, too.

4. Art has gained a new point of view
Speed recognizes not only a new way of painting, but a new range of subject matter that was deemed "ugly" by the older generation. 

And he's quite right to say that the impressionist way of interpreting things allows artists to tackle immensely complex light effects or a profusion of small forms, such as "sunlight through trees in a wood." Once you free yourself from thinking about rendering solid forms, and think instead of capturing visual appearances, anything can be reduced to a retinal impression. 

In Speed's day in Britain, a lot of the impressionist ideas were coming from artists who had gone to the Continent for French training. The "French look" didn't go over too well at first. The old guard of Britain's Royal Academy, such as Poynter andLeighton, were more concerned with traditional subject matter and methods of painting, while the Newlyn School and the Glasgow School were more under the sway of the juste-milieu sensibilities of Bastien-Lepage.

4. Michelangelo / Degas comparison
Speed says that in the Michelangelo, "every muscle and bone has been mentally realised as a concrete thing and the drawing made is an expression of this idea," whereas the Degas was created with a sense of mass shapes. 

According to Speed, Michelangelo's drawing is more of an idealized type, while Degas captured more of a specific individual in a particular moment. So for Speed, these are not superficial distinctions about technique or method, but a whole different way of seeing the world.

I look forward to your thoughts, and I enjoyed the discussion last week.
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)
Original blog post Announcing the GJ Book Club


Carolyn Arcabascio said...
Thank you again, James, for offering your thoughts for the discussion this week.

4. I appreciate that you provided some more context about the different schools of thought around the time Speed was writing (the Royal Academy vs. the Newlyn School and the Glasgow Boys). At times in this chapter I found Speed's own artistic biases tended to overshadow the heart of the discussion, but knowing more about the historical context is quite helpful in understanding his perspective and reasoning.

3. However, I found the underlying concept of this chapter fascinating. The fundamental distinction Speed draws between line drawing and mass drawing as a matter of "tactile" and imaginative observation vs. translating a subject's "flat appearances on the retina" is brilliantly explained. It is helpful to also read the remarks regarding particular artists whose work challenges this duality.

2. I was also fascinated by Speed's analysis of Velazquez as an example of mass drawing, in which "all sense of design is lost." I was a bit startled to read this bit of analysis, but it's an interesting challenge to see the work as Speed sees it and to understand it within this kind of framework.
Rich said...
How nice to read your remarks after having gone through the chapters before. Besides being an accomplished painter and movie director, you're a gifted teacher as well.
Universal Gurney;-)

2. Velazquez' mass drawing example somewhat escapes my understanding. What I know is that Manet and all the impressionist deeply admired Velazquez. Looking close up at Las Meninas, I always do admire his own hand holding the brush, the rendering of which perhaps may serve as an example of "mass drawing".?

(the other hand holding his palette is worth considering as well; just for the fact that there is such a reduced number of colors there, almost b&w with a bit of red and yello.)
Dean Johnson said...
2. Speed's analysis of this painting is clear to see when looking at a detail such as the one of the girl, below, especially when contrasted to a Botticelli painting, such as was referenced by Carolyn last week, . The Las Meninas seems to be an application of paint to evoke a particular play of light at a moment in time, whereas the Botticelli seems to be conceived of as lines bounding preconceived forms, which are then shaded in a way that makes the form appear to have the correct 3d shape.

I saw the painting in person years ago on a study abroad trip, and wish I had been exposed to Speed's ideas! I would have taken a closer look:),_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez.jpg
seadit said...
Two things have become clear to me as I've read this book and the comments posted each week: first, while I had the natural ability to draw well (or learn to draw?) when I was very young, I've always tended towards the Michelangelo or Da Vinci classic style of drawing, even still as I've gotten back into drawing the past several months, and yet the Impressionists have been and continue to be some of my favorites (go figure!). I never thought much about why or the differences between the two schools of thought and how that affects what I do as an artist, even back when studying art in school. Come to think of it, I'm not sure it was ever even presented to me in such a way as to give me reasons to. I now believe that has a lot to do with why I abandoned art when I was younger - I couldn't reconcile my ability with what to create or do with it. As a graphic designer it's easier: someone presents you with a problem to which you solve it visually. Easy that is until it comes to one's own problems of brand and associated materials, at least for me.

Second, in spite of my education in and love of art, until more recently I don't believe I have really understood the concept of art - real art (granted I suppose that is still something of a subjective thing). Maybe it's not so much a lack of understanding as it has been a lack of desire to really think about it too deeply. For so long it's not been important to me to know why some consider a work good or great (or not), I've simply been satisfied by the experience of getting lost in something and enjoy it for what it is to me without having to think about why. As far as I have been concerned, if I enjoyed it, then it was good or great, regardless of what the experts or pundits thought.

What I like so much about Speed is his ability to explain things in a way that not only makes sense but is easy to follow while holding my interest. Strangely, even with a by-gone style of speaking or language (in fact it ads to the charm). It's the same thing I enjoyed about your book about light and color James.

I think what it boils down to is that what we give our attention to is what's most important - there's only so much time in a day - and at this time in my life these things are important to me, but I'm a little sad that I have spent so much time in museums, galleries and books over the years without really understanding what I was looking at, both in terms of the subject matter and why they chose that, and how they did it. That's the beauty of learning something new even at an older age. Assuming (hoping) that I have many years still ahead of me, I'm looking forward to new and deeper experiences, even if it's revisiting old friends.

As always, thank you all for your comments and thoughts.
Michael Whynot said...
James, concerning point 4: I believe the major difference between Michelangelo's and Degas' drawings to be the process of drawing what you know verses what you see. Michelangelo understood form wonderfully and drew around the form, whereas Degas masterfully rendered the flat shapes he saw before his eyes. While both methods led to beautiful drawings, I feel Michelangelo's method produced drawings which showed a sense of dimensionality and movement which was lacking in Degas' two dimensional renderings.
Phil Moss said...
This passage stood out for me:

'The early formula could never free itself from the object as a solid thing, and had consequently to confine it's attention to beautiful ones... But from the new point of view... nothing is ugly when seen in a beautiful aspect of light...'

This rings very true when I can find a 'beautiful' scene in a pile of rotting longs, or in those road side diner signs I've seen you draw James, where the layman (horrible term!) might see them as boring or ugly until they see someone paint it.

Whatever the academics behind it, being able to see 'beauty' in any scene certainly makes life much more enjoyable :). And this isn't confined to high art (or even art at all), I work in fantasy/fictional illustration and can get enthusiastic about the colours and play of light passing across a painting entirely regardless of content.

Speaking of illustration though, his earlier comments on the use of line (or defined imagery I suppose) to highlight objects is a very useful way of looking at things, especially when your client is asking to to clearly show A,B & C in your otherwise 'beautiful' painting ;)

Thanks for this great series of posts, really enjoying it
dkpierce said...
When Speed compares the styles in M.angelo's work to Degas', he's pointing out that the style of the former communicates a stronger sense of rythmn and mass. But Degas' style has a sense of character and scene.

When Speed mentions Degas' followers becoming mechanical, I think there is a useful caution there. Some styles, such as Degas, have a more nuanced theme. It will be valuable for us to pick up what that is, so when we adapt similar methods, we keep the heart and 'feeling' of that style alive.

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