Friday, June 5, 2015

GJ Book Club, Chapter 10: Rhythm

On the GJ Book Club, we're looking at Chapter 10: Rhythm from Harold Speed's 1917 classic The Practice and Science of Drawing.

The following numbered paragraphs cite key points in boldface, 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. Speed's definition of rhythm in painting.
He says, "Rhythm is the power possessed by lines, tones, and colours, by their ordering and arrangement, to affect us, somewhat as different notes and combinations of sound do in music."

He goes on to say that the impact of these features affects us apart from the subject matter. "There is," he says, "an abstract music of line, tone, and colour." Speed reminds us to never lose sight of this musical quality, especially when painting realistically: "It is the business of the artist to relate the form, colour, and tone of natural appearances to this abstract musical quality, with which he should never lose touch even in the most highly realised detail of his work."

So rhythm is the holistic combination of design elements, not the narrower sense of repetition.

2. How apt is the term "rhythm" to refer to abstract design?
Comparing painting to music was not a new idea. (See Walter Pater 1839-1898: "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.")

People have used musical terms to describe art's abstract appeal. Color relationships are often discussed in terms of "harmony," and shapes are spoken of as "discordant." And in the musical field, people speak of tone "color" or even Debussy as an "impressionist" composer.

Speed connects his interest in rhythm with recent discoveries in science that understood light, heat, and electricity in terms of the wave form model.

The term rhythm is an interesting one to connect with visual art, given that rhythm has such a strong reference to time—the dimension that painting lacks. Film editing has rhythm; animation has rhythm; speaking has rhythm. But can we really speak of painting having a rhythm? One can speak of patterns in space in a visual work as analogous to the movement of the metronome in music, but the eye doesn't move evenly through a picture.

But again, Speed is not talking about rhythm in this narrow sense.

Still frame from Fantasia's "Nutcracker Suite" ©Disney
3. Is abstraction the most basic impulse in art?
Speed says: "Art appears to have developed from its most abstract position." A hundred years ago, there was a lot of interest in so-called "primitive" art and music, as the early modernists embraced the power of African masks and other non-European abstracted forms of expression.

It is to Speed's credit as a realist to acknowledge this as a legitimate source of inspiration, and he advocates a path for fellow realists to absorb these influences without losing sight of natural appearances.

4. Did naturalism lead artists too far away from design consciousness? 
He makes the case that the pursuit of naturalism led painters away from the elemental power of design. Aware that some artists were trying to adopt the "primitive" eye as a stylistic fashion, he warns of the impossibility of faux innocence. Picasso said he was trying all his career to paint like a child. Speed would probably say this idea is nonsense and impossible.

While recognizing the value of the impressionists' innovations, he has a caution there, too. As valuable as that contribution is, he argues, "so far the evidence of results has not shown anything likely seriously to threaten the established principles of traditional design."

5. Unity and variety
Here's the basic idea in Speed's words. "Unity is concerned with the relationship of all the parts to that oneness of conception that should control every detail of a work of art. All the more profound qualities, the deeper emotional notes, are on this side of the subject. On the other hand, variety holds the secrets of charm, vitality, and the picturesque, it is the 'dither,' the play between the larger parts, that makes for life and character."

Speed develops this idea with wonderful examples, comparing Greek and Roman architectural moldings, and even suggesting that you can tell a Greek from a Roman sculpture even from a small fragment, and the quality of the superior work comes from the way it manages unity and variety.

Alphonse Mucha
Speed's aesthetics always seek for the middle path between two problematic extremes. Too much variation leads to ugliness. But too much unity and sameness can lead to a lifeless appearance, which he says compromises a lot of ancient Egyptian art. Asymmetry and imperfections are vital—as long as they're not taken too far.

6. Hey, what's with the raggin' on donkeys?!
I must say, however that I can't stand idly by while Mr. Speed insults donkeys and calls them ridiculous. Excuse me, but they're extremely wonderful and beautiful animals, even when they're braying!
Harold Speed (Dover ed.)
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 on Pinterest (Thanks, Carolyn Kasper)
New GJ Facebook page, credit Jenna Berry

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...

Point #2 (Rythm) is the part of this chapter that I could least grasp. I didn't understand quite why that was until I read your observation that rhythm is " interesting one to connect with visual art, given that rhythm has such a strong reference to time—the dimension that painting lacks." Well put! Maybe it's a matter of the word he chooses. (Would harmony be better, I wonder?)

Point #5 (Unity and variety), on the other hand, resonates best with me compared to the rest of the chapter. I like the concept of "dither" which I understand best as "the artist's hand" - which is the way I think of that quality. It's the reason that I find studies and sketches frequently to be a more pleasant viewing experience than the finished work.

Jenna Berry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
d-vallejo said...

Wonderful post. I throughly enjoyed reading Speed's book a while back and love your summary. Regarding the point on Naturalism (4) I would agree but I wonder about an audience who increasingly has difficulty understanding the difference between something designed and something pretty much copied from a photo as is.

seadit said...

With Speed I find myself time and again reevaluating my opinion and understanding of things relating to art as it were (in this case, rhythm, unity and variety as they relate to beautiful). As a graphic designer (print) by trade, my learning and experience with design happened once I switch majors from painting and drawing to design in school, and I have never really given much thought to design in fine art before or since. I'm not sure if the same thing happens with fine artists as it does in graphic design in the corporate world, but sometimes you get in the habit of cranking things out for the sake of unrealistic deadlines, hoping that somewhere along the lines your experience and knowledge will ensure at least a basic level of good design, yet for certain things like beauty and sublime are never given a chance (and clients, particularly the left brain types tend to have neither the appreciating or discerning eye for either).

After many months of resurrecting my fine art roots, I find myself considering everything I do from a completely different place, whether professionally related or otherwise. For the first time in a long, long while I find myself trying to really see again, and in the process put more thought and reflection into the why and what. I love Speed's comments about beauty ("...whereas I think beauty always has some elements of the sublime in it, while the merely pretty has not. Mere prettiness is a little difficult to place, it does not come between either of our extremes, possessing little character or type, variety or unity. It is perhaps charm without either of these strengthening associates, and in consequence is always feeble, and the favourite diet of weak artistic digestion."). How often has something 'pretty' made me look twice, while something beautiful has stopped me in my tracks. In my own experience I've found in both design and art, that it's often difficult to objectively judge one's own efforts. I wonder if the creator of something beautiful realized (or planned this out), or was simply the receiver of dumb luck, never realizing they had created something so sublime. I believe the masters had this in mind, and never settled for any work that was not planned to be such by design. Others though, I'm not so sure.

Of course, being one to often go too much on gut feelings I should give them all a benefit of doubt and set my own sights higher :)
As always, thanks all for the comments and perspective.

Roberto Quintana said...

This chapter on Rhythm seems very important as far as creating art is concerned. It seems to be more about creating an image that resonates on a deeper aesthetic level, rather than simply making a competent drawing or likeness.
I am very impressed by Mr. Speeds sensitivity to the abstract qualities inherent in the design process, and his openness to abstraction as a legitimate approach to picture making. While he remains skeptical of the ‘Modern’ abstract movements of his time, he seems to have a clear understanding of the benefits of incorporating the lessons learned from exploring abstraction, whether it is from the ‘primitives’ (African masks, Japonisme, children’s art, etc.) or from the ‘Avant-Guard’ ( Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Orphism, etc.) He warns against the dangers of the extremes and, as you point out, seeks a middle path. (but to find the middle requires one to at least explore some of the boundaries).
I am really enjoying this book club, and I appreciate your guidance and thoughtful insights. -RQ