Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Cultivation of Imagination

The May issue of American Artist is sometimes here and gone from the newsstands before May even arrives, but you still might be able to get a print copy.

It has a special feature on the art of imagination, with a focus on the upcoming "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic" exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum, and an article that I wrote on "Howard Pyle and the Academic Tradition." The article begins like this:

One afternoon in Wilmington, Delaware, six of Howard Pyle’s top students were working on their drawings when a new student entered. The newcomer had just been admitted into the select company, and he was eager to prove himself.

He already had some art training under his belt — drawing from the plaster cast and the figure, a grounding in perspective and anatomy. Mr. Pyle set him to work in front of a cast of Donatello’s portrait bust of the “Unknown Lady.”

The next morning, when Pyle glanced at the results of his careful effort, he dismissed it with a gesture. “I don’t want you to go at it that way,” he said. “You are thinking of that head as a piece of plaster.”

Pyle urged him to see beyond the surface, to look for more than mere outline and shading: “I’d like you to think of the beautiful Italian noblewoman who sat for it; of her rich medieval surroundings, of silks and damasks; of courtiers and palaces; of the joy with which Donatello modeled the curve of that eyebrow, the sensuous lips, and the delicate feathering of the shadow over that cheek!”

Pyle asked him to start over, and walked away. The student stared into space, speechless. But his heart was soaring. This was a new sort of language. Pyle, the upright Quaker who painted dashing pirates and bloody battles, believed that what art students need most is “the cultivation of their imagination.”
The bust shown is actually by Desiderio da Settignano, ca. 1430-1464, Florence.
Photo of Pyle students from Howard Pyle Blog


Tristan Dugan said...

Thank you for sharing this encouragement, Mr. Gurney. I love your work and I have learned so much by following your blog. I found today's post very uplifting.

I often find my drawings end up a bit lackluster and without inspiration, maybe because I just look for the shape and lighting of a subject.

That's why this idea is exciting to me. I guess imagination can bring expression to the forms and shading to capture the essence rather than just the appearance. This allows a person to discover something more profound behind the most ordinary subjects.

Dan Gurney said...

I agree. Cultivation of imagination is paramount.

It's why I feel it is so wrong-headed to push literacy and numeracy instruction down from elementary grades into preschools. Stunts the proper development of imagination! Big mistake.

Tristan Dugan said...

That's a great point. I see what you mean about early schooling focusing more on literacy and math rather than imaginative thinking.

When I taught in a 1st grade classroom (this was during college, I just graduated in elem. ed. last year), I was astonished at how relentlessly the schedule focused on reading. The school really pushed for this. Granted reading is very important at that level, but it seemed out of balance with more creative activities. It seems many underestimate the virtue and benefit of creative thinking.