In Art as in Life

On a cool Wednesday we put away our easels at the end of our morning session and pulled up stools or sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Juliette. Our teacher favors explaining her points of view in allegory which I find both intriguing and handy. It’s always easy to remember what she says and this is extra helpful because her words take a while to sink in. When talking about art it’s incredible where her mind will go to illustrate her meaning. So it makes sense that when she talks about life her metaphor is art.

This discussion was about life in the atelier and as an artist. It’s a long path full of stumbling blocks, second guessing, overthinking, and a constant need to assess yourself even as you are struggling to learn something completely new.

Many of us want to start our drawings by measuring. We’re all so hesitant to risk a false mark on the paper. We want to pick up our skewers and measure the head so we can then count how many heads the model is in height. We’re desperate to compare the angle of the shoulders to the angles of the hips and knees.

For many reasons, measuring is not the first thing we do in the atelier. We decide whether the drawing is taller than it is wide and place parameters. We start with a vertical line on which we note the top, bottom and vertical center of the drawing. But that’s all we’re encouraged to do in terms of measuring at the start.

Juliette says in drawing we must always start by looking. Create a vision. First look for big, fun shapes so that you can identify the principle shape. There’s a feeling associated with the shape, an emotional sensation resulting from that organization.


(Block-in lesson on drawing by Anthony J. Ryder)

From there, to draw is to take a leap of faith and believe you’ll land firmly on the other side. Your vision starts as a perfect idea, but as soon as you lay down your first mark on a piece of paper your vision is distorted. That first line and the next several lines look nothing like your idea. The whole process is about finding your way back to your original vision.

Juliette warns you can get a technically accurate drawing every time, it is possible, but it will rarely happen the way that you plan. Gathering vertical and horizontal information, gridding out your design meticulously is only one of the important approaches to getting information down for a drawing. Measuring is a way of checking your gut. It’s useless unless you have a vision. Make loose plans. Draw shapes and gestures to remind yourself of your original intention. Then you can move onto your lines and measurements. And when you do start measuring:

Be hungry, relentless for the truth. That keeps your drawings interesting throughout your whole life. – JA

Do not formalize too early. Formal lines placed too early arrest development, as they do in people. Better to be uncertain than it is to think you’re right and be wrong when you’re first starting out. Know how to find your true vertical with a plumb line so you can base your assumptions on something real.

Remember, “a tired eye doesn’t see distinction.” Pay attention to how you work. If you get sleepy every afternoon at 3:00, take note of it and make sure you can take a break or a walk. Don’t plan to do heavy thinking at a time when you routinely need a break. And the same goes for when you feel energized or focused. Make sure you’re set up to work during those periods of inspiration each day.

Near the end of the discussion, Juliette shifted gears slightly. She handed out a page from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972)which she doesn’t necessarily recommend because he recants some of his ideas in his later books. Nonetheless it’s a seminal work on seeing and art. One of the ideas that stands the test of time is discussed on this page:

Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on the wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. In this special sense all paintings are contemporary. Hence the immediacy of their testimony. Their historical moment is literally there before our eyes. Cézanne made a similar observation from the painter’s point of view. ‘A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that! To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate … give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time …’ What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.

Juliette said she was struck by the idea of a painting closing the distance in time and providing immediacy for a moment in the past. She asked us to spend some time deciding for ourselves what is the value of making a drawing or a painting.

She asked us to expand that question in all the ways we could think. Why is something you can touch different from something mechanical?

Much of the art made today relies on some kind of mechanical production. Artists paint from photographs to help them continue working after they’ve left a venue and in some cases artists use photographs as a source for their original vision. Moving further down the mechanical spectrum, we have digital art which is impressive in its own right and is created using software. In this atelier we use no apparatus beyond the brush or pencil. We don’t even use a straight edge or skewer to help us nail those elusive straight lines. We work from what we see in life, all lines are drawn by our hands, and all visual information is first processed by our own eyes.

Is there distinct value in this practice? I often admire art that was created mechanically in one way or another. I am sure I will also create art in this way at some point in my career. But while I’m partying like it’s 1499, I am curious how is purely analog art different from other kinds? How is seeing a play different from watching a movie?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this. You can comment by clicking the title of the post and scrolling to the bottom.

(Featured image: Allegory of Spring (Primavera) by Sandro Botticelli, 1482)