Friday, May 22, 2015

GJ Book Club, Chapter 8—Line Drawing: Practical

On the GJ Book Club, we're studying Chapter 8, "Line Drawing: Practical," from 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.

This is one of the core chapters of the book, with many good illustrations. Rather than try to comprehensively summarize the content, I'll just call out a few key points to provide a memory jogger and a discussion starter.

1. Appearances must be reduced to terms of a flat surface.
In many modern academic ateliers, one proceeds from a 2D shape analysis in an early stage, to a 3D construction stage later. Seeing the forms in front of you as flat shapes can be a challenge, and Speed offers various methods for doing so, including......

2. Method for creating a drawing grid: cardboard with cutout hole, and black thread held in with sealing wax.
Over the years I have experimented with various forms of this grid, including one with black threads woven across. By the way, sealing wax is a sticky wax people would melt and then stamp with a tool for sealing letters. You could use hot glue for the same purpose. 

I've found a more useful grid is a set of lines drawn with an indelible marker on a piece of acrylic or plexiglass sheet. In order to get accurate measurements, the observer must maintain a constant distance and position relative to the grid. Holding it at arm's length is one way, but there are others. Maybe in a future post or video I'll show some other methods.

3. The drawing grid or frame should be held between the eye and the object to be drawn in a perfectly vertical position.
This needs a bit of clarification. Rather than being held in a "perfectly vertical position," the grid or viewfinder should be held perpendicular to the line of sight, which is a different thing in the case of an upshot or downshot. Holding the grid vertically in such an up or down angled view would negate the normal convergent effect of vertical lines. In fact, in photography, "tilt-shift" lenses are sometimes used to artificially hold the lens vertically to negate the normal perspective of verticals.

4. It is never advisable to compare other than vertical and horizontal measurements.
A corollary to this is the importance of being able to judge a true vertical, often aided by a plumb line.

5. Three principles of construction.
A. Block out shape by analyzing into straight lines (Figure X, above)
B. Breaking down the shapes of curves.  (Figure Y).
C. Vertical and side measurements. (Figure Z).
These three basic geometric methods, used in conjunction with each other, are used in the demo of the figure block-in below.

6. Method for blocking in a figure, with the prime vertical drawn through the armpit.
He also says, "Train yourself to draw between limits decided upon at the start." This is so important for placing figures accurately in multi-figure work. Some other methods, such as building outward from the center, will not serve as well for producing figures that must fit within strict limits.

7. In the case of foreshortenings, the eye, unaided by this blocking out, is always apt to be led astray.
This is so true, and in the case of foreshortenened lengths that I try to always remember to make measurements.

8. In blocking-in, observe the shape of the background as much as the object.
In many modern books, this advice is put in terms of judging "negative shapes."

9. Lines bounding one side of a form must be observed in relation to the lines bounding the other.
He continues, "The drawing of the two sides should be carried on simultaneously so that one may constantly compare them." 

10. In line drawing, shading should only be used to aid the expression of form.
Even though this drawing has some tone, Speed uses it to show the way parallel lines can express form and textures like hair.
11. Diagram of a cone (seen from above) next to a window at left.
Speed proceeds to go into some detail about the theory of what we would regard highlights, terminators, core shadows, and cast shadows. But he's not primarily concerned with accurately producing a tonal analysis of form. That will come later in "mass drawing." He is still thinking in terms of a drawing conceived primarily in linear terms. That's why he suggests using the soft frontal lighting of an open window at the observer's back.

12. You seldom see any shadows in Holbein's drawings; he seems to have put his sitters near a wide window, close against which he worked.

13. Lines of shading drawn across the forms suggest softness, lines drawn in curves fullness of form, lines drawn down the forms hardness, and lines crossing in all directions so that only a mystery of tone results, atmosphere. 
In his book Creative Illustration, Andrew Loomis recapitulates these same points, not only for drawing, but also painting techniques.

14. In the method of line drawing we are trying to explain (the method employed for most of the drawings by the author in this book) the lines of shading are made parallel in a direction that comes easy to the hand, unless some quality in the form suggests their following other directions. 

15. Don't burden a line drawing with heavy half tones and shadows; keep them light. 
He says, "The beauty that is the particular province of line drawing is the beauty of contours, and this is marred by heavy light and shade." 

16. Analysis of forms of the eye, the eyebrow, and the eyelashes.
There are many good pieces of advice in the text.
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)
3. Free online edition.
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)


arturoquimico said...

Having a scientific background, I built one of those “grids” much to the irritation of other real artists in class. Glad to see Speed approved, and wouldn’t be poking fun at me, although he would want me to get rid of it after a few semesters… Having just read Vibert’s treatise on the chemistry of painting and noting what Speed had to say about the availability of quality paintings/drawings to study… we are a very lucky generation… reference materials are readily available, and minimal chemical mixing (the home made White Lead Carbonate recipe was mind blowing). Lastly, I think I need to do as Speed suggested… look at half tones as light, not shade. Thanks for these “Socratic Dialogs” on art.

Mark Szymanski said...

This chapter I found to be one of the best on basic line drawing, the ideas of how Ingres must have approached his pencil drawings are detailed in this chapter. The power of line drawing I find to be almost lost in art except for comics and some graphic novels.

Having the idea that in line drawing that the shading was only used to help turn the form and not representative of the true tone values was a thunderclap of understanding. It explained how the drawings by Ingres were so powerful and yet so spare.(beside the sheer brilliance of the man) When I understood the idea of compression of values and the compression of shapes (removing those shapes which don't convey life and movement)took my line drawings to a better and richer place. This was really a wonderfully instructive chapter, and one I have re-read many times. I extract more with each reading.

sketchbookblue said...

Ah Ha! I've just had a "eureka" moment reading a keen amateur artist without "fine art education" I just realised that every drawing I've ever done has been purely tonal! I've always adored line drawings but never worked out that the contour line can over-ride the shadow in order to create shape...duh...seems so blindingly obvious now. I'm really loving this art book review, I look forward to your blog everyday and never fail to find something new and intellectually stimulating not to mention beautiful picture to view. I'm still astonished that in this digital age we can all converse in almost real time all around the globe (I'm in Australia). My grandfather was a keen amateur radio ham and used to get such a kick out of talking with someone down his headset on another continent. I've just started my own blog and now fully appreciate the time, research effort and discipline in maintaining the postings. Thank you so much for sharing the "secret knowledge".

Sesco said...

I wonder if you would expand upon, or clarify with examples of your own sketching, the points being made at 13 14, 15 ? I'm not sure I understand, in the way Mark understands above.

seadit said...

I always thought of such things beyond holding up a brush or pencil as cheating. Now, I'm curious why my teachers on the University level never even mentioned it.

Interesting side note: I found an article about Van Gogh's use (possibly extensive) of a 'perspective frame' - a similar device used for aiding in the quick drawing/accuracy of perspective, on the blog 'Beyond Architecture' that you (James) referenced in your post about Hugh Ferriss (December 14, 2014) see

I love how each week my limited view on drawing, art and painting are expanded. Cheers!

Viktoria Berg said...

I haven´t been able to read along, due to unfortunate circumstances, but I have been following the Friday discussion anyway. You have all provided me with some real insight this time, and I think I will boldly jump into reading chapter 8 this minute! I always looked at Ingres a bit like I would watch a David Copperfield act ("huh?"), but now I see more clearly what he is doing. Thanks!

Alex Singer said...

13. I understand using curved lines to suggest fullness of form and sporadic lines to create atmosphere. However, I'm confused as to what Speed means when he says across the form for softness and down the form for hardness. Does he mean slanted lines for softness and vertically downward lines for hardness as related to the picture frame?

James Gurney said...

Alex, my understanding is that he's talking about hardness coming from painting down the long axis of the form, while softness comes from painting across that long axis. This different stroke direction would lead directly to softness of edges because of the way the paint would blend with the background.

Seadit. The idea of "cheating" implies that there are some laws or rules that are laid out by some authority. Who wrote those rules, and what are they? My advice is to experiment with any method that serves your goals in picture-making. If a method doesn't serve, try another.

Sesco, I'm not sure I can add much more! I'm a bit at my limit. Maybe someone else can have a go at it.

Daniel New said...

His description on blocking in is just incredible. I've never seen it anywhere else so well described and helpful.

However, I have to say I was pretty confused with the later part of the chapter, mostly sections 13 and 14. He talks about leaving tone out of the line drawing and focusing on form expression/stimulus, but then he starts talking about how to add tone. But it's not really "accurate" tone, its just form? He also starts talking about how to light the subject so you get minimum shadows, similar to drawings by Holbien. But if you should leave out tone for line drawings, why does this matter so much? His (beautiful) line drawing on plate XX has rather dramatic lighting.

As far as the shading technique he's talking about, I second Sesco's and Alex Singer's questions. I don't quite understand that either.

I am absolutely loving this book club.

seadit said...

Ha! Point taken James. It wasn't so much about rules as much as a John Wayne sort of mentality that real artists don't need help. The older I get the more I realize I how much don't know, but I've also learned that old dogs can learn new tricks. Onward we go!

Bobby La said...

Holbien, Ingres, Vermeer used a camera obscura. So says David Hockney in a compelling book "Secret Knowledge". He convinced me at any rate.

Alex Singer said...

Thanks Jim, that makes more sense in my head when I think of the drawing tool as a brush suggesting softness or hardness rather than a pencil. I guess what he is getting at is how you perceive the edges of a form to either be soft with an indefinite edge or hard with a very definite edge. (My artistic vocabulary is lacking here...)

Like the others on here, I'm really enjoying this book club. It's a great way to improve my own art and connect with artists much better than myself. Thanks for putting it on!

Tom Hart said...

I'm catching up on my reading, having just dipped my toe into Chapter 8. I have to add my thanks to you for staring this book club, James. The subtle peer "pressure" to keep up with the reading and to consider the points contained has been a really positive stimulus for me.

As to point #1, I was really happy to see Speed's mention of closing one eye as a way to convert our 3D perception to 2D. I suppose I should/could have intuited the reason for this (knowing that our eye placement is what gives us depth perception), but I somehow hadn't made the connection. And I actually wondered if there was something wrong with my vision because I close one eye so frequently when drawing or painting from life! :^)

To Bobby La's point: I don't mean to rekindle the camera obscura discussion, but I have to add that Hockney's conclusion is the subject of some debate. Even though many of us have come to believe that the camera obscura was probably used by some artists like those you mention, the extent to which it was used, and exactly which artists used it, is unclear. Artists can, and have been, able to draw with the sort of precision that Ingres did, whether or not he used the c.a.

Tom Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobby La said...

You have piqued my interest Rob. I see there is quite a bit of debate going on which I have been unaware of, so I'm off to bone up on the topic.

...however....I still think Hockney/Falco are on the money, but should the facts change, then so shall I.

Bobby La said...

Oops sorry Tom, don't know where I got Rob from.

Tom Hart said...

No problem on the name confusion, Bobby :^). Also, just to clarify a bit, I'm not saying that I think Hockney is completely wrong, but I think he exaggerates, and possibly greatly, the extent to which the camera obscura was used. I believe that, at most, the camera obscure was used as a tool on occasion, and not by every artist who drew with consummate skill. He is on particularly thin ice, I think, when he claims to be able to tell with some certainty if a certain drawing (e.g. by Ingres) was done using that device.

Toby Haynes said...

I'm also of the opinion that Holbein used a Camera Obscura, at least on some of these portraits and especially on the one featured in this blog post.

I recently watched the "Tudor Manor Farm" series (BBC) and in episode 4, an artist uses a camera obscura to paint Tom. The position of the sitter, the lighting on the face, the use of outline to define and ensure a consistent representation all match up to the way a camera obscura would need to be set up to be viable.

Bobby La said...

Apparently the camera obscura is a complete mongrel of a tool to use, so full credit to those who manage to make sense of it. Personally I pretty much abstain from any mechanical aids other than a grid in my work.

I adore Ingres, but hold the polar opposite view to yours Tom. I think his drawings deeply smack of the use of optical aids, though it all remains as pure conjecture until some hard evidence turns up which is highly unlikely.

Fascinating topic. Shame I'm ill equipped to pursue it, I don't know how the toaster works, so we can only really choose sides on who has the greater perceived authority. Tricksy business!


Tom Hart said...

Bobby, I don't think we're as far apart as you might believe. And my opinion on this has changed over the past couple of years. You could well be right about Ingres. I agree that most likely we'll never know the answer. My reaction to Hockney has more to do with what I understand to be his suggestion that the camera obscure was widely used historically, and the inference (that I -rightly or wrongly - read into his thesis) that any precise drawing was more than likely done with such an aid.

Bobby La said...

I must have missed that inference Tom when I read his book. Mine was from the library, but I note that there is a revised edition available. Might just buy it and find out.

Should point out too that I don't have a Facebook page and I'm just using my wifes (Bobby La) ID, because I'm lazy and don't have a google account.

Regards Ross

Chris James said...

If you go by second hand accounts, the folks over at the ARt Renewal Center claim that Hockney was inferring that such realistic and precise work was only capable because of a camera obscura, which we know to be objectively false. But again, that's ARC's take on Hockney's words, and I've long since believed those ladies doth protest too much.

If one thinks of artistic method in relation to the art market, then the use of such a device would be a practical matter. Taking manual measuring out of the process is expedient. Someone, I think an art teacher, once said to me that those old master artists strove to make the working process easier, not more challenging. This stuck with me and I believe it to be true. The search for faster drying oils, faster drying pigments, the use of apprentices, the use of optical aids, etc. all testify to this. Why would a professional not want to work more efficiently?

James Gurney said...

I really appreciate this thoughtful discussion about Hockney's thesis, and by extension the demonstration of the method in the recent documentary "Tim's Vermeer." I've read Hockney's book and seen the documentary, and I think there's a lot of good sense to the basic idea that artists were influenced by the various effects of images seen or projected through lenses.

But using a full-on camera obscura is not too practical in most situations. Even a combination of a concave mirror and a camera lucida requires that everything be perfectly aligned and locked off. After reading Hockney's book, I tried using a concave mirror to project a scene outside a window, and I found it to be workable but really cumbersome and only usable for very particular situations.

The thing that "Tim's Vermeer" and David Hockney's book overlook is that there are much easier and more efficient methods to get "photographic" accuracy. Those methods range from camera lucidas, to a gridded pane of glass, to a black-threaded viewfinder (which Speed recommends), to a basic system of plumb lines and measurements, as used by contemporary ateliers. I've used all of these methods, and they can be amazingly precise, but more importantly, practical, portable, and adaptable to real world situations.

So I'd agree with the conclusion that Bobby La (Ross) and Tom seemed to be arriving at, which is that there's some truth to Hockney's premise, but that it's overstated.

Bobby La said...

Appreciate your sentiments here James. With your background and expertise, you are amongst that greater authority we rely on. "Tim's Vermeer" was fascinating. The resulting picture was an extraordinary achievement for someone that had never picked up a brush before, but the result was clunky to say the least. I give full credit to his single minded perseverance though.

Chris James - You completely threw me with your analogy of the pressures of the art market driving technique. Slightly embarrassing to realise I've spent close to 30 years with my nose pressed into the varnish without that thought ever occurring to me.

Regards Ross

M Junaid said...

Hi James,

At last I've found this discussion on Speed's Book. I want to thank you for doing this. I was asking Alphonso Dunn (YouTube tutor) to do an exegesis on this book as it can be quite a daunting read for someone who hasn't had any formal training in drawing. I'm on my second reading and all the pages so far are full of notes and highlights.

It would be great if in the future if these posts are collected and expanded in the form of a book as a reference guide for unexpected readers like myself. (With alot of pictures and clear 21st century text) or it can be done through YouTube Tutorials as we are a Youtube Generation!

It would be great to see a video of how to use the viewfinder and other methods. Please let us know when you do.


M Junaid said...

Hi James,

At last I've found this discussion on Speed's Book. I want to thank you for doing this. I was asking Alphonso Dunn (YouTube tutor) to do an exegesis on this book as it can be quite a daunting read for someone who hasn't had any formal training in drawing. I'm on my second reading and all the pages so far are full of notes and highlights.

It would be great if in the future if these posts are collected and expanded in the form of a book as a reference guide for unexpected readers like myself. (With alot of pictures and clear 21st century text) or it can be done through YouTube Tutorials as we are a Youtube Generation!

It would be great to see a video of how to use the viewfinder and other methods. Please let us know when you do.


M Junaid said...

I don't get what Speed's trying to say at 9. '...the lines bounding one side of a form must be observed in relation to the lines bounding the other side...' is he talking of comparing the 'background' negative forms with the forms of the object?

M Junaid said...

I don't get what Speed's trying to say at 9. '...the lines bounding one side of a form must be observed in relation to the lines bounding the other side...' is he talking of comparing the 'background' negative forms with the forms of the object?

James Gurney said...

M Junaid, I think he's talking about comparing the kind of lines on one side of the form to the opposite side of the form, such as the inside and the outside of the knee.