Saturday, April 11, 2015

Harold Speed, Chapter 2, "Drawing" [feedly]

Harold Speed, Chapter 2, "Drawing"
// Gurney Journey

John Elliott Burns by Harold Speed, 1907

Today we continue with the GJ Book Club. Together, we're studying Harold Speed's classic The Practice and Science of Drawing.

The following numbered paragraphs cite key points in italics, followed by a brief remark of my own. Your thoughts are most welcome in the comment section of this blog. If you would like to respond to a specific point, please precede your comment by the corresponding number.

1. The expression of form upon a plane surface.

Speed's definition of drawing emphasizes form. That is consistent with most academic training. For the purposes of this chapter at least, he is not focusing on other qualities of drawing, such as the ability to capture texture or atmosphere.

2. Apelles

Apelles was a renowned artist of ancient Greece. His actual original paintings and drawings are lost to history (except for supposed copies), but he is known from his reputation in written sources. More on Wikipedia.

3. Drawing, although the first, is also the last thing the painter usually studies.

Many great artists such as Rembrandt kept drawing central to their practice throughout their lives. Some, such as Adolph Menzel, pursued drawing relentlessly into their old age. For composers like Beethoven and Bach, keyboard or chamber music occupied a similar place. 

4. Colour would seem to depend much more on a natural sense and to be less amenable to teaching. 

As an author of a book about color, I have to disagree with him here. There's a lot to teach about color, especially given what we've learned since Speed's time about visual perception and optics. Even though color can be approached subjectively and personally, the aesthetic aspects of color can be taught. In fact, Speed himself must have changed his mind on this topic, because he includes two excellent chapters on color in his subsequent book on oil painting (Oil Painting Techniques and Materials), which we'll study after we get through this one.

5. To express form one must first be moved by it. There is in the appearance of all objects, animate and inanimate, what has been called an emotional significance, a hidden rhythm that is not caught by the accurate, painstaking, but cold artist. 

Speed's definition of rhythm recognizes how emotion drives artistic choices. Rhythm therefore is not merely a design principle.

Charles F. A. Voysey 
by Harold Speed, chalk, 1896

6. Selection of the significant and suppression of the non-essential.

These choices, so central to a successful work, usually happen unconsciously, driven by the emotion the artist feels at the outset. The challenge is hanging onto that guiding feeling in the labor of making the picture.

7. Fine things seem only to be seen in flashes.

In my experience, I find this to be true not only of the process of drawing, but in my creative life more generally. In the fields of character development, scriptwriting, and world-building, the deeper inspirations come unexpectedly in torrents, separated by periods of steady craftsmanship.

8. Art thus enables us to experience life at second hand.

Through great art, we see the world in a more meaningful or enhanced way. After a visit to the picture galleries, our senses are heightened. This effect is even stronger to a student who makes a faithful copy of a master painting or drawing.

9. One is always profoundly impressed by the expression of a sense of bulk, vastness, or mass in form. 

Later he talks about lightness. It's always good to think about gravity when drawing. Muscles are always pulling against gravity. Wings struggle to lift a bird through the air against the pull of the earth. Drawing someone off-balance generates interest, but balance and imbalance are factors of gravity.

10. In these school studies feeling need not be considered, but only a cold accuracy....These academic drawings, too, should be as highly finished as hard application can make them, so that the habit of minute visual expression may be acquired.

In the French schools at least, there were different aesthetic criteria applied to studies from the model. Student studies were expected to be as accurate and finished as possible, and more interpretive works, which allowed for much more distortion and interpretation. A lot of schools in recent decades, needing to cover a lot of ground, tend to skip over the exacting practice of these coldly accurate school studies. It is like playing scales for the musician, or knowing the rules of grammar for the writer, as Carol Berning mentioned in the comments last time.

11. Drawing, then, to be worthy of the name, must be more than what is called accurate.
Harold Speed (Dover ed.)
This point was illustrated by Sargent's portrait of Carolus-Duran in a recent blog post. Speed concludes that "Artistic accuracy demands that things be observed by a sentient individual recording the sensations produced in him by the phenomena of life." Art, then, becomes life filtered through a consciousness. This is a very idealistic view of drawing, and it sets up for next week's Chapter 3: "Vision"


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