Friday 10 May 2013

Drawing On Your Inhumanity

Over the past few months I’ve been hard at work making the comic,
But I recently took a weekend off to make this drawing:

The process of making a drawing can seem very simple, but in reality there can be a lot of trickery behind the magic.  To illustrate this I took a series of scans of the drawing as it was being developed.

So what is the big secret?

The short answer is; there’s a photo in there. 

I can understand that this might seem like cheating, but I hope I can make an argument that this is art in its purest form.

First I’ll show you exactly how the drawing was made, then I’ll talk about how tricks and technology have been a driving force behind the development of art.

How to draw like a machine:
You have to be accurate.  Ridiculously, unbelievably accurate. 

First up, I took a photo of Clare (took about 70 actually, and then selected one), I put it into photoshop, cropped it, and resized the image to match the physical dimensions of my paper.

Next I put a grid of guides over the face and other critical areas, and ruled up the exact same grid onto the paper.

From here I used the grid as a reference for outlining all of the features of the drawing. 

Then I carefully erased the grid, leaving the line drawing as the new reference. 

Each of these work-in-progress scans was overlayed onto the photo in photoshop in order to find out what was slightly off.  Throughout these first few images I was correcting the placement of a lot of these lines by as little as half a millimetre. 

It might be just me, but I always find it hard to progress past the perfection of this blanched-white phase in a drawing.  It always seems like each step from here just increases the murkiness.

From here on out it was a long process of filling in the drawing, and scanning to measure the accuracy of the overlay.

It’s important to try to and achieve the darkest you plan to go, early on in the drawing, in order to give you a good frame of reference for all of the tones.

The following set of images are just a matter of patiently translating the tones on the screen to the blocked-out image on the paper.

At this point the drawing stage is essentially over, but it still looks nothing like the finished product.  This is because the image above is a scan without any editing.

Every drawing that you view on a screen requires digital editing, even for the purpose of creating an image that actually looks like its hard-copy counterpart.
This particular drawing required a lot of editing, the details of which are quite technical, but I’ll try to briefly summarise the steps in a paragraph.  Feel free to skip to the next bit. 

The drawing has to be perfectly aligned over the photo, then I use an adjustment layer for Levels (try to be as subtle as possible with this).  Next I use adjustment layers to almost entirely desaturate the original photo (still keeping some colour), and amp up the contrast with levels (can be less subtle here as it is all about showing through the drawing).  I took the drawing’s opacity down to about 55%, which is a fair bit lower than any other time I’ve made something like this, but I felt it was at the cusp of where I personally could notice the combination.  Then I made several layers of varying opacities directly below the drawing where I painted in a lot of blacks and some whites, in order to even out the tones, and to get more drawing texture around the edges and less around the centre.

This is the image I finished up with:

I could have made the photographic element much more subtle, but I wanted to push it to the point of blurring the line between tradition and digital media.
Incidentally, this is an example of one of my drawings with a much more subtle photographic presence:

Now we come to the question: Is this still a drawing? Isn't it cheating by relying so heavily on a photo?

This is not something I considered at all until after the drawing was complete, when it occurred to me that the image could appear as though it’s claiming to be nothing but pencil and paper. 

As to whether this is morally justified I include, for anyone interested, my own opinions below.

The evolution of Western art has been closely tied to technological advancement.  The development of new art materials is one aspect that has consistently opened the door to new possibilities. 

The pigments of colours, for one example, all originally came from different places; blue from ground up rocks, purple from sea-snail shells, and so on. 

When Turner or Van Gogh used the newly developed Viridian Green (created from a chromium oxide dehydrate) in order to get a richer saturation of green, I don’t think anyone would describe this as cheating.

Technology has also contributed to artistic processes.

This woodblock print by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) shows almost the exact same grid process that I used to map out my drawing.

Another example by Durer has the subject of a picture described as a series of points where a length of string intersects with a screen.

Clearly Durer did not feel that these methods should conflict with the purism of drawing.  The point of artistic process is to reach the endpoint of the artwork.  Durer used any available technology to improve his work, and is recognised as one of the greatest artists of his era.

A few centuries later Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was painting pictures like this:

It is now theorised that Vermeer used the newly developed glass lens to create a camera-obscura effect to project an image onto a canvas where he could very accurately trace the picture and develop it into a painting.

The point is that Durer and Vermeer are not great artists despite incorporated technology into their practice, they’re great because of this.

It comes down to how you define the role of the artist.  I personally feel that the point of an image is to affect someone, based as completely as possible on the content of that image.  I would prefer to like a painting because of how it affects me, rather than because I know that it’s famous or expensive.

This gap is magnified in examples of books which are apparently autobiographical, but turn out to be fiction.  People tend to feel that they were lied to, but I feel that the point of the book was to get people to feel like they experienced something. 

Nowhere in Oliver Twist does it explicitly state that the story is not a true account of actual events. Stories are basically all lies, designed to trick you into feeling something.  There’s no point complaining when the illusion becomes too convincing.  Its job is to be convincing.

As an artist my job is to trick people into enjoying the visual experience of an image.  Often this involves creating the illusion of a three-dimensions where only two exist.  Sometimes there can be tricks that play on the idea labour. 

Most visual art is largely about novelty, and one of the most basic ways to be novel is to have put a lot of labour into something.  Labour has always been greatly valued in visual art, but not necessarily for reasons that are consistent with the function of art.

When James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) pioneered the abstraction of painting in his “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”:

He ended up being forced to argue the validity of his work in court, from which the following exchange was transcribed:

Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..." [the painting measures 24 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches]
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

(This last quote by Whistler I often see wrongfully attributed to Picasso)

In my own picture it’s true that it would’ve taken a lot more time and effort to achieve the level of detail evident without incorporating the photo. But creating a free-hand drawing accurate enough to seamlessly overlay onto a photo is exceedingly difficult.  

In the 20 or so years I’ve been drawing, this is the first time I’ve been able to achieve this effect properly.  I’m certain I could’ve drawn an equally effective drawing without involving a photo, given a larger (and much smoother) piece of paper, but it would’ve taken me several more days of work, for a similar end result.  Knowing where to cut corners is essential to being proficient in any field.

As Whistler argues above, judging an artwork based on the time spent working on the project fails to take into account the lifetime of skill and knowledge that can enrich that time.  Furthermore, when experiencing something has real value, the duration of time spent in its production becomes fairly arbitrary. 
When I’m watching, reading, or listening to something amazing I don’t tend to be pondering the finer details of production.

And finally, if this set of reasons is ultimately unconvincing, my position is and has always been that:

As a note to anyone who actually knows a lot about the history of art (I'm looking at you, Liz), the above claims were made from memory and whilst probably factual are subject to varying degrees of minor inaccuracy.