I was hurrying across the shopping centre this morning when a painting stopped me. It was a print. A generic composition of an urban scene. You’ve seen it. A street disappears into the horizon, lined with lovingly water-coloured buildings.
The scene itself was forgettable. But I was engrossed. I located the vanishing point and traced perspective lines along the rooftops and windows. I was counting gradients, absorbing the contrasts.
I was, I realised, entirely focused on the mechanics. I was trying to figure out how it was constructed. Looking past its impact and into the raw execution. This is a new one for me.
I’ve been reading and watching a lot on sketching and drawing recently. But even as my scribbles have improved somewhat, my whole approach has apparently, drastically, changed. I think about it more. I consider the process.
I’ve been frustrated at my slow progress. Even as I manically draw box figures and practice laying down values. But while my eye, dexterity and muscle memory aren’t there, I have come a long way. My perspective has changed.
It’s really easy to be caught up with the ending and ignore the journey. Resultism, I think it’s called. “Lifelong learning” is steeped in credentialism and “if you learn X you can finally do Y”. But it’s often these little changes in perspective that stick with you.
I studied economics in uni and can barely remember any of the models. But I regularly employ concepts like opportunity cost and marginalism. Learning, processing, radically changed how I think and approach subjects.
Maybe I’ll never be able to properly shade a sketch into appearing three dimensional. But I can see the value in trying to. Lifelong learning could just be about luxuriating in these tiny changes in perspective.
Education researchers have known for decades that being good at something and being good at teaching something are two completely different skill sets. In fact, universities are mostly ranked on the strength of their research, and, of course, the brand name can be worth a lot. Something similar holds true for MasterClass, whose impressive roster of talent feels like a who’s who of elite professionals, a gallery of the meritocracy’s winners.
The easy, obvious heuristics are, often, just so bad. How many simple signals of what’s good or proper are actually just status quo bias rather than reliable indicators we should use to make decisions?
From an interesting article on Masterclass in The Atlantic.
To make significant progress in drawing, it is important to be aware of your strengths and challenges. Don’t just say, “I’m not good at drawing faces.” Try to learn specifically why you find it challenging to draw faces? Is it getting the proportions right? Shading? Anatomy? Break down challenges into small steps and tackle them one at a time. The clearer you are, the better prepared you will be for devising a solution.
This is another gem from Pen and ink drawing: a simple guide.
I don't really think much of my drawing skills. That's why I like the word "scribble". I am always getting better, though.
So many don't even get past the first step. I regularly ask others to join me. But my invitations and provocations are usually, immediately, shut down with "I can't draw".
They're apparently so bad it's not worth bothering at all. Maybe I should start asking why and how.
All art is an artist’s attempt to share their consciousness with others...
Is it, though? Or, rather, is that why we consume and value art? This quote is from a brilliant Medium piece I've been thinking about the last few days.
Is the reason we consume art because we value the intention behind it? Put another way, is it about the agency of the creator? Is it about the viewers? Or, once let out into the world, does art take on something separate from either?
Consider how recently European art broke free from dogmatic classicism and realism. And how many such works are still counted among the masterpieces. I think it's a bit problematic to be so definitive about subjective perspective.
From the same piece:
The Mona Lisa has become the Mona Lisa because of the legendary stories that have accumulated around that rather “unremarkable” little portrait. The Mona Lisa cannot be assessed as a painting anymore. It is inextricably linked to value, by the international idolisation of Leonardo Da Vinci to the status of a demigod, by Napoleon’s secretion of the painting into his bedroom, by the infamous thefts which transformed her into an icon of France, by its successful concealment through the resistance from the Nazis during the Second World War, by its transatlantic journey from Paris to New York in an hermetically sealed box...
I don't think I've ever had a conversation about the Mona Lisa that touched on its artistic qualities. Or even the feeling it conjures. Rather, it seems like a binary. An event. A necessary pilgrimage. Have you seen it or not? Rather than whether you love it and why. The painting has taken on so much more than the conscious of its creator. The brushstrokes themselves almost irrelevant.
I'm also reminded of seeing Starry Night a few years ago in MoMA. The room was absolutely packed. People lined up to take selfies with an image they'd seen plastered on bags and postcards. But how many know Vincent van Gogh painted it while in an asylum? That he painted it in between breakdowns, through the bars in the window?
Is it the wonderful exaggerations, the possible product of visions, that we are grasping at? Is it the galaxy or the cypress trees? Or is it all the context that has built up in the intervening years?
Vincent van Gogh seems to be particularly suited to a world where textual analysis rules. The hundreds of surviving letters between the van Gogh brothers and others are a peerless treasure for those wishing to grasp the consciousness of the creator. But how many have read them? I didn't. I haven't.
This all may seem academic, but it would necessarily shape the kind of art being produced even now. Some artists, famously, evolve significantly throughout their careers, picking up new styles and mediums. But if the value of art is something outside the artists then many are likely to be trapped by expectation. Their work only valued if they embrace the context that has surrounded their work.