Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square

Richard Scott's new book, "Sketching - from Square One to Trafalgar Square" is a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation.

The book presents practical advice for achieving accuracy, including measuring angles and organizing value shapes. One tip is that you can size up an appropriate cone of vision by holding your arms out at the width of your shoulders in front of you.

Scott includes a variety of excellent examples of sketch techniques, including pen and ink, marker, pencil, and wash drawing, all in black and white.

He discusses not only linear perspective, but also the simplification of a subject into tonal shapes, with fresh ideas that will appeal to painters, too. He acknowledges not only objective features of the scene, but also subjective aspects of visual perception, such as how certain edges go in and out of focus when you squint.

Scott's background is in architectural rendering, so he approaches subjects from the built environment with particular authority.

Although his approach is clear and analytical, it's not just technical. He has an artist's eye throughout. One of the inspiring qualities of the book is the focus on conveying feeling, and the emphasis on digging into why a subject appeals to you in the first place and how to play up that emotional quality.

The book lays out useful methods that anyone can use to see better, think better, and draw better. The result is a practical drawing manual that is a worthy successor of classic sketching books by Betty Edwards and Arthur Guptill, one that will improve the drawing skills of the beginner and master sketcher alike.
Details: 192 pages, 8" x 10" (horizontal format), softcover (with covers that are a bit too thin, unfortunately). The book is organized into three parts, with 10 chapters and 419 illustrations. It is priced at $29.95.-----
Available on Amazon: Sketching - from Square One to Trafalgar Square
Official website: Sketching from Square One


Craig Daniels said...

You're forgetting your own sketching book when you are talking about classics:)

jeff jordan said...

Thanks for this post, Jim. Measuring is something I'd like to understand better, so looking forward to it.

Dan said...

Betty Edwards and Arthur Guptill seem almost polar opposites in approaching learning to draw. I'm going to pick this book up on your recommendation, James, and cross my fingers and hope that it's more on the Guptill side of things.

[steps up onto soapbox]

"Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is kind of a funny phenomenon: Here's a book that couches drawing instruction in terms of neuroscience, but then appeals to the reader to approach the subject in a non-analytical way?

I had a college beginning drawing course based on that book many years ago, when I was young and impressionable. My personal experience was that it got me started squarely on the wrong foot, and it took quite a bit of effort and time to finally unravel all the psychobabble and understand the error of my ways.

Drawing isn't Zen Buddhism, nor is it neurology, nor is it Transcendental Meditation, nor hypnosis. It's not training in achieving altered states of consciousness that we need, it's simply training in drawing that we need. (As well, to understand Shakespeare's words, it's not training in achieving a transcendental state of empathy for Hamlet that we need, it's simply training in understanding 17th-Century English.)

Does art training lead to new mental states? Undoubtedly, just as musical training does, or training in mathematics, or dance, or any other kind of education. Expanding the mind through education is a great thing. Art education at its best greatly deepens one's sensitivity to beauty and leads one to contemplate more fully the human condition. Art is ultimately a deeply spiritual affair; no argument there.

Is education in art best accomplished by reading about brain physiology, metaphysics, and eastern religions, then seeking out a special trance state while trying to draw?

Well, I'm dubious of that, as you can probably tell. :)

[steps down off soapbox]


Anonymous said...

I have this book, it has great examples and tips. The author has a good way of approaching the beginning of a sketch. It covers edges, tones and contrast very well. The only downside is no instruction on adding color.

Lee Ekland said...

Great review!

I love this book, pure drawing wisdom, wonderful examples and exercises. It has substantially helped my drawing.

A must-have for those aiming to improve their drawing skills.

Adam Hreha said...

Here's a great interview with the author...


James Gurney said...

Thanks, Adam, for that podcast link. I wasn't aware of that series.

Dan, I haven't looked at Betty Edwards' book in a while, but my memory of it was pretty positive. Talking about drawing in terms of right-brain experience seems old hat to us now, but she did some pioneering work in getting us to think about what our brains are doing when we draw. Being conscious of the vagaries of visual perception is an important key to good drawing, and the new Richard Scott book approaches the subject in a fresh way.

Thanks, Craig!

Dan said...

James, I appreciate your point of view. Obviously I have to defer to your expertise on such things, but my experience with Betty Edwards is quite different.

I can't speak with authority yet about learning to draw; I can only speak of my own journey so far, such as it is. But I can say with authority that there would really be nothing to be gained by thinking of what our brains are doing when we play the piano or sing (both of which I have done professionally), or when we design software (which I do for a living now).

The idea that the best way to learn something--anything--involves understanding what the brain is doing, or figuring out which part of the brain is supposed to be responsible for the activity in question, seems patently silly to me now. And as I recall about the book, the science in it is not very good to say the least. I mean there is no research that really backs up the idea that artistic skill is equivalent to an ability to psych yourself into an altered state of consciousness while you work.

It's kind of an old gimmick by now: A book for aspiring artists that purports to be scientific. Art students aren't going to insist on the proper degree of scientific rigor, so you can use your scientific claims to back your views with impunity. A statement such as "science has proven that art happens in your right brain while math happens in your left brain" is ridiculous. The reality is far more complicated than that, and at any rate it's of very little use for learning to draw, IMHO.

I'm certain that the process of drawing involves a certain mental state, which is different from the mental state involved in the process of conducting experiments in biology (or whatever). I think that was well understood long before this book was published. The thesis of the book, though, is that one learns to draw by fostering the mental state. This is upside down. One gains the mental state by learning to draw. Since this is obvious in every other endeavor, it seems it should be obvious in art as well. Certainly when I play the piano, it leads to a special state of consciousness that is different from any other, and generally quite relaxing and enjoyable. But to get there required learning scales and chords and doing finger exercises, not reading about neurology and pursuing the state of mind directly.

I doubt one can gain the skill of accurate representational drawing without countless hours of practice with the eye and hand, and I'm highly dubious of the claim that being told that it's a "right-brained activity" and subsequently seeking a sort of trance state while you do it will get you there any faster.

But that's just me :).


Unknown said...

Thanks for the kind review, James. Enjoyed reading the comments as well. Tracey, I felt that drawing was complex enough subject matter that it deserved its own study. When it comes books on color, James' book "Color and Light" is one of the very best.

Roberto said...

@Dan. You make some very good points about drawing and brain science, and your descriptions about what is required for learning to play the piano/drawing and the ‘brain-states’ achieved from playing/drawing/painting is right on. While I enjoyed Ms. Edwards’ book, I never considered it useful as a ‘How to learn to Draw’ primer for beginners, but much more helpful as an alternate view/approach to the purely mechanical approach of learning by rote. Trying to understand what the brain (and the eye) are doing is much more helpful, and more interesting, after one has established a level of proficiency.
Suggested books for further reading:

‘Vision and Art- the biology of seeing’ by Margaret Livingstone

‘Seeing the Light- Optics in Nature, Photography, Color, Vision, and Holography’ by David S. Falk, Dieter R, Brill, and David G. Stork.

(And check out James’ posts on eye-tracking in this-here blog archive)

I look forward to adding Richard Scott’s new book to my drawing library.
Thanks for the Journey Mr. Gi! -RQ

Dan said...

Today I received my copy of this book, and I've read through the first part of it. So far I'm enjoying it. It's really very basic, but it's interesting to see how a seasoned artist explains the very basics of drawing.

Where it intersects with the Betty Edwards book is in the admonitions that you need to learn to stop abstracting (which Edwards calls "left-brain" thinking). Instead of seeing an object, recognizing it for what it is, and then thinking about what you know it is while you draw it, you need to see proportions, angles, shapes, spaces, relationships.

When I went through the Edwards book way back when in college, it had the effect on me that every time I sat down to draw, I became intensely focused on trying to achieve a certain state of mind, and especially with how not to have a "left brained" state of mind. But then there is no surer way to wreck your ability to concentrate on and become absorbed in an activity than to spend the time actively trying not to think of something else. I wasted a lot of time and energy that way.

Also, Edwards, whether intentionally or not, gives the strong impression that people who are not very good at abstract thinking will be better artists, or at least learn to draw more easily, than people who are strong abstract thinkers--the old "if you're good at math you'll be a bad artist" mentality. As a person who's good at math, I take exception to this view.

This book is less prejudiced against "left brain" thinking, and is not full of psychobabble and pseudo-brain-science the way (IMHO) Edwards' book is. But any book that purports to teach you how to think while drawing may still be on shaky ground. It is true that an artist thinks a certain way, but this way of thinking is, IMHO, best learned not by trying to think a certain way, but by trying to do certain things. It's especially unproductive, I think, to sit down to draw and actively try to forget certain things. And it's totally unnecessary. There's no need at all to disparage our capacity for abstraction in order to teach drawing. It's completely sufficient to simply explain the process of drawing in positive terms. ("Do thus and such," instead of "stop thinking this way.") In other words, abstraction is not a mental block, and what you already know about the subject is not harmful to your ability to draw it. If anything it helps.

Another thing in this book that I've seen repeated in many drawing books, almost like a mantra, is that it's all about how you see, not about your drawing technique. One consideration that's being omitted, which I think is a very important consideration indeed, is that visual acuity is gained by improving your technique. This is so because much of your ability to recognize and remember proportions, angles, alignments, shapes, and so forth lies in the use of "muscle memory." When you can draw better, you can see better, and vice versa.

I think this book (so far) is interesting, and may be quite helpful, especially in encouraging people who think they can't draw because they lack some basic talent in it. But then there are no easy tricks or mental states that will magically make someone an artist overnight. It's not a simple matter of "forgetting what you know." I say this not because I think the author is really suggesting such a thing, but because I know where this line of thinking led me originally, and how unproductive that turned out to be.


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