Friday, April 24, 2015

GJ Book Club: Chapter 4: "Line Drawing"

On the GJ Book Club, we're studying Chapter 4, "Line 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.

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915) Oil on canvas; 52 1/4 x 63 5/8 in.
1. Attention to line can give a work an "innocence and imaginative appeal" that is often lost in work that is concentrating on "the more complete realization of later schools."

Harold Speed will give us a later chapter on the practicalities of line drawing, but for this short chapter he concentrates on the aesthetics of line. He associates line with the sense of touch, but also with more primitive and stylized perception, and that's the core of what he's exploring here. 

He makes reference to Botticelli and other early artists who used line predominantly. In the centuries that followed, chiaroscuro and form modeling came to dominate the thinking and made people forget about the power of line.

Artists in Asia were not as obsessed with chiaroscuro in the photographic / impressionist side of things. I was reading a book about the history of photography (Photography: The Definitive Visual History), and it said that when photographs were first introduced in Japan, people didn't like them because they thought they missed the essential truth of what they saw. Now, with the ubiquity of photos, we tend to regard a photograph as a true and complete representation of our vision, but people in Japan and China didn't think so.

2. The eye only sees what it is on the look-out for.

Speed makes this point only in passing, but it's something that I think about a lot. We see what we want to see. This was the theme of an episode in Dinotopia: The World Beneath (see previous post on Pareidolia and Apophenia).

Detail from Titian's "Three Ages of Man"
3. All through the work of the men who used this light and shade...the outline basis remained. Leonardo, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, and the Venetians were all faithful to it as the means of holding their pictures together; although the Venetians, by fusing the edges of their outline masses, got very near the visual method to be introduced later by Velasquez.

Line and tonal modeling aren't mutually exclusive, nor must one use a hard edge throughout a picture to have a good sense of line. The Titian above combines a fine sense of line with a sophisticated feeling for edges.

4. The accumulation of the details of visual observation in art is liable eventually to obscure the main idea and disturb the larger sense of design. 

The problem, according to Speed, comes not only from losing a sense of the contour, but also adding so many small details and textures that the larger shapes are lost.

Speed's cautions about the late 19th century obsession with naturalism, and he points to a time in the academies when line drawing fell out of fashion. He says the use of the stump for blending charcoal added to the problem. Does someone out there know why Speed was so negative about the stump? He doesn't really explain his reasons for disliking it.

5. Art, like life, is apt to languish if it gets too far away from primitive conditions.

It's notable that the Fauvists and other neo-primitive movements were becoming active in Western art as he was writing this a hundred years ago. European and American artists were also appreciating the currents of art coming from China, Japan, and India.

Speed says that if you're going to study past movements, "to study the early rather than the late work of the different schools, so as to get in touch with the simple conditions of design on which good work is built."

6. No wonder a period of artistic dyspepsia is upon us.

Perhaps even truer now than it was in Speed's day!

Animation model sheet of Disney's Bambi by Milt Kahl
7. Line as contour vs. line of action

One last thought that I had in reading the chapter is that Speed seems to be talking about line mainly as the outer contour, but I think it's equally important to think of the line of action, the central gesture traveling through the center of all the forms. The great animators carried Speed's ideas forward into a whole new art form, and it is probably in the realm of animation that the art of line was most perfectly developed in the 20th century.

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)

Overview of the blog series


Ramon said...

4- Hi James, I haven't read the book in awhile, but it seems to me that he's referring to the shift (around 1830 ish) from modeling with linear hatching to modeling with pure tone.

In the later 19th century, the bulk of modeling in academic drawings seems to be done with the stump. The result is a greater optical naturalism, but it's obtained at the expense of the beautiful formal qualities of linear drawing. Hatching allows for rhythm and gesture to conspicuously exist not only in the outline or initial lay in, but throughout the modeling as well.

And what is hatching if not a trail left by an artist's pencil feeling its way over the forms of the model? I think the loss of this way of drawing is what Speed is lamenting.

Ramon said...

PS. Speed's own drawings show his interest in (and success with) this kind of rhythmical modeling. Interestingly enough, England experienced a revival in linear drawing when Legros and Tonks became influential instructors, Augustus John is an example. If memory serves, John Collier is perfectly fine with the stump.

James Gurney said...

Ramon, "a trail left by an artist's pencil feeling its way over the forms of the model"—what a beautiful way of putting it. Thanks for the explanation; now I understand Speed better.

I wonder if any of the Bargue-based people can comment on opinions about the stump in contemporary ateliers?

Ramon said...

I'd like to hear that too. Most opinions I've heard on the matter are negative. Still, there's no denying the stump's popularity in mid to late 19th century academic drawing. I've read reports of its use in the academy at Antwerp, and in his book, Frank Fowler mentions it as the common method at the schools.

Contemporary atelier drawings seem to take quite a bit longer than drawings from the Ecole or Julian's. The examination drawing for the Ecole was only 12 hours, at Antwerp, drawings were allotted about 16 hours. The only place I can recall that had month long poses is the Munich academy after the 1870s.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Another illuminating read this week.

1. I was very interested in Speed's references to Botticelli when discussing how line lends a work "innocence and imaginative appeal." Years ago I was fortunate enough to see several Botticelli paintings in person at the Uffizi Gallery and was particularly affected by the painting here (I've never seen a reproduction that does it justice)

I think part of the reason I was so struck by it is that despite the strength and solidity of the architecture and the density of characters in the space, the painting still feels light and kinetic. Considering Speed's thoughts on line as primitive and emotional has helped to further deconstruct and articulate why viewing works like this one can be such a moving experience.

4. I'm loving the discussion in the comments about the stump.

"...line went out of fashion and an awful thing called the stump took place of the point..."

Tell us how you really feel, Harold. ;)

Unknown said...

7. Literal vs. implicit lines is such an interesting point to consider. Thank you for mentioning this!

Rich said...

7. John White Alexander's Lady to me looks like a good example of rhythmic "lines in action".
(They used to give female names to hurricanes and tropical storms
:-) Looking at this painting I just remembered that...

"Nature abhors outlines!" Cézanne is supposed to have said somewhere, "show me any drawn lines in nature."
Partially true, I would say.

Warren JB said...

"1. Inexpensive softcover edition from Dover, (by far the majority of you are reading it in this format)"

Ordered! Eventually...

Tom Hart said...

I appreciate Ramon's insight on Speed's negative comments on the stump. I couldn't quite understand Speed's extreme (to me) feeling about that piece of equipment.

As for the Dover edition, I have and read that, but the reproductions are poor quality. The Project Guttenberg version has much better reproductions of the plates, and I often keep that fired up on my computer to see better quality images.

Unknown said...

Thanks, James for setting up this book club. And everyone else for the insightful comments.

I understand what Cezanne means, however his approach in painting is also just another way to interpret the world around us. As James mentiones, in asia a line drawing was considered more ' real' than a photograph. That is very interesting and says a lot about how we perceive things

Unknown said...

1,6 I've always been struck by the powerful images of the Chauvet cave drawings. While they do have some fillers, they rely completely on flowing line. It's amazing that the closest modern art would probably be cartoons!
The more simple and line based a drawing or painting is, the more powerful it is, I think.