|Bill Sienkiewicz (@sinKEVitch)|
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"True art, when it happens to us, challenges the 'I' that we are," Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap. "All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation," young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, and the object of that contemplation, directly or obliquely, is precisely that discomfiting disconnect between the ideal and the real that drives us to strive for reform. Art, argued the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, "is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth."
A century earlier, the pioneering social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818–February 20, 1895) made the most exquisite and enduring case for this function of art in an essay titled "Pictures and Progress," penned in the mid-1860s and found in the indispensable The Portable Frederick Douglass (public library).
To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.
Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.
Reason is exalted and called Godlike, and sometimes accorded the highest place among human faculties; but grand and wonderful as is this attribute of our species, still more grand and wonderful are the resources and achievements of that power out of which come our pictures and other creations of art.
This faculty of the imagination, Douglass argues, isn't merely the source of aesthetic stimulation but the inner hand outstretched toward our highest ideals — the one which gives us, to borrow Susan Sontag's penetrating phrase, "the model of self-transcendence." He writes:
Art is a special revelation of the higher powers of the human soul. There is in the contemplation of it an unconscious comparison constantly going on in the mind, of the pure forms of beauty and excellence, which are without to those which are within, and native to the human heart. It is a process of soul-awakening self-revelation, a species of new birth, for a new life springs up in the soul with every newly discovered agency, by which the soul is brought into a more intimate knowledge of its own Divine powers and perfections, and is lifted to a higher level of wisdom, goodness, and joy.
This power of the critical imagination, Douglass argues, becomes our mightiest means of bridging the real and the ideal, which is at the heart of all progress:
The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress… It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not felt where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.
Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.
But, writing with an eye to photography as a new technology of picture-making, Douglass adds an admonition that applies to every new technology that ever was and ever will be:
This picture-making faculty is flung out into the world like all others, capable of being harnessed to the car of truth or error: It is a vast power to whatever cause it is coupled. For the habit we adopt, the master we obey, in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the one important thing to ourselves and our surroundings. It will either lift us to the highest heaven or sink us to the lowest depths, for good and evil know no limits.
Art, he cautions, should harness beauty but must always be governed by truth above all else:
Truth is the soul of art, as of all things else.
With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.
Complement this portion of The Portable Frederick Douglass, a timelessly rewarding read in its totality, with James Baldwin on the artist's role in society's progress, Alfred Kazin on the power of the critical imagination, and Walt Whitman on how art bolsters democracy.
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Concept art by Moebius, for Jodorowsky's Dune
Albert Gleizes (French, 1881-1953)
Cubist Views of Brooklyn Bridge, 1915-1917
Illustrations by Gösta Adrian-Nilsson ("GAN") (Swedish, 1884 - 1965)
The first step is learning how to do it. Finding and obtaining the insight and the tools and the techniques you need. Understanding how it works.
But step two is easily overlooked. Step two is turning it into a habit. Committing to the practice. Showing up and doing it again and again until you're good at it, and until it's part of who you are and what you do.
Most education, most hardware stores, most technology purchases, most doctor visits, most textbooks are about the first step. What a shame that we don't invest just a little more to turn the work into a habit.
The heads and hands of two apostles, c. 1519–20.
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing
with some white heightening.
One of the highlights of my regular stays in Oxford is visiting the Ashmolean Museum. With its fine collections of all periods, especially Medieval Europe and Ancient Egypt, it's a place I and my family keep going back to. It also has excellent special exhibitions. I wrote up last summer's exhibition on Underwater Archaeology for Black Gate, and this year we got to enjoy the treat of studying some little-seen drawings of an Italian Renaissance master.
Raphael: The Drawings brings together 120 rarely seen works by the Italian master, including 50 from the Ashmolean's collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world. They came to the museum in 1845 following a public appeal to acquire them after the dispersal of the collection of the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who had amassed an unrivalled collection of Old Master drawings. A further 25 works are on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which will show the exhibition in autumn 2017. The remaining drawings come from various international collections.
Study for the Three Graces, c. 1517–18 Red chalk over
some blind stylus. © The Royal Collection Trust,
HM Queen Elizabeth II.
The drawings range in date from Raphael's early career in Umbria through his radically creative years in Florence to the apex of his career in Rome, working on major projects such as the Vatican frescoes.
I must admit that as a non-artist much of the subtlety of this exhibition was lost on me. I could only gape at the detail of the lines and the almost magical effect of some of the techniques he used to create shading and light. One of the things I found interesting was how his drawings often had more detail and more refined techniques than his finished paintings, such as the details of the drapery on the Madonna in the Studies for the Madonna of Francis I (c. 1518).
Studies for the Madonna of Francis I, c. 1518 Red chalk
over blind stylus. © Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto
dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence.
The final painting that same year. Much of the work was
possibly done by his workshop assistants and not Raphael
himself. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Putto holding the Medici Ring, c. 1513–14 Black chalk with
white heightening, later framing lines in black chalk.
© Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Raphael used a variety of media including charcoal, earthy chalks, ink, and metalpoint. The exhibition includes a small display of these tools for those of us who can't draw a straight line. I finally found out what gum arabic looks like and what it's used for. It had always been one of those terms I occasionally heard but had never bothered looking up.
Raphael himself realized that his drawings were more than mere preliminary sketches. He knew they had artistic value in their own right and presented them to such prestigious figures such as Duke Alfonso d'Este and Albrecht Dürer. We're lucky he did, and we're lucky the recipients realized the value of these drawings too and preserved them.
Raphael: The Drawings runs to September 3.
A seated mother embracing her child, c. 1512 Metalpoint with white
heightening on grey prepared paper, selectively indented for transfer
Portrait of a youth (self-portrait?), c. 1500–1 Black chalk
on white heightening, now largely lost.
Images copyright The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, unless otherwise noted.
Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his post-apocalyptic series Toxic World that starts with the novel Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author's page.
When you get comfortable creating figure drawings or sketchings, you watch your whole world change. Every person — waiting in line in front of you, sitting at a table across from you at a cafe, on the bus or passing you on the sidewalk — is a figure waiting to be captured in your sketchbook. To put you at ease and in the rhythm, so you can start to fill up page upon page with sketches, here are five tips you will want to learn about simplifying the shapes of the parts of the body. From there, you'll find every figure much easier to draw.
Use your non-drawing hand as a model to practice creating gesture sketches. You can also use an ordinary mitten as a model to capture the essential mass of the hand. Try drawing the mitten in a number of positions, then divide this mass into four fingers.
Practice drawing the basic arm and leg structures by thinking of them as cylinders. Initially, ignore any details that change with your viewing angle. Drawing from life is always the best approach, but if you don't have a model handy, try substituting sections of PVC pipe, straws connected by modeling clay or pipe cleaners.
Use the peanut shape to quickly construct a human or animal figure in any position. Then simply refine this basic shape with details. To better capture this shape, try making a model out of foam rubber, clay or another pliable substance. This model can be twisted or bent into any position for drawing.
To get the basic form and positioning for feet, draw them as a three-dimensional, rectangular form similar to a brick. Practice drawing them in perspective and in a variety of positions.
Initially, avoid getting enmeshed in the features and other details of the head. Instead, practice representing the head using a ball for the main portion of the skull and a bucket shape for the jaw.
When you find yourself doing this automatically, begin lightly indicating the shape and position of the nose, eyes and ears.
Once these are in place, draw the nose more definitely and add the mouth, relating its size and placement to the bottom of the nose and the bottom of the chin.
Next, add the eyes, relating them to the width of the mouth. Finally, sketch the ears, using the eyes and nose to gauge the proper size and position.
Spend 10 minutes sketching people passing by. Then the next time make it 15 minutes. Then 20. Start tacking on the minutes but the consistent rule is don't stop. Fill the page! And then another! Soon the figure drawings will flow, especially if you couple that sketchbook time with all the lessons and fun exercises Brent Eviston teaches you in Figure Drawing Essentials: Getting Started with Gesture & Shape. Get Figure Drawing Essentials now and enjoy!
Show off what you've done by tagging your work #artistsnetwork! We are excited to see what you've been working on in the studio and in the pages of your sketchbook!