Sunday, August 16, 2009

Catch Phrases Used as Excuses

For a while now I have been dealing with a lot of misconceptions and concerns coming from students, prospective students, teachers and professional artists about modern academic art education. Many of these people are very sincere in their search for correct principles in art and methods of teaching that will help them understand those principles. This post is to try, in a simple way, to answer some of these concerns. I'm sure that I won't fully address every angle of the concerns, but hopefully this will act as a springboard for some discussion that will allow me to provide answers more fully. First - There are many people out there who are getting caught up in the negativity of sight-size drawing. For the most part this negativity is coming from people who know very little or nothing about it, but are more than happy to pass on the negativity based on hearsay. It's more than ridiculous that so many young and otherwise sincere students are being swayed by this uneducated and biased jargon. So here is my answer. Most of you who are negative towards sight-size should really ask yourself why. Is it because you have heard bad things, read bad things, or assumed bad things about it? Or is it because you have tried it with proper teaching and didn't like it? It seems like the only way you could really make a conscious decision on whether you like it or not is if you had personal experience with it. Sight-size drawing has become a catch phrase for those who want to undermine Academic study. Sight-size does not in any way define Academic study. The majority of real academies out there do not use sight-size drawing, but they do teach the same drawing principles as those academies that do use sight-size. It's not about sight-size, it's about the knowledge you gain from teaching based on proper principles. Sight-size does not provide artists with all the answers. It is not a mechanical method of drawing. It still requires that the student uses his vision to judge the subject and compare it's parts to refine the whole. The results are obvious. Take a good student from the Florence Academy of Art and one from the Grand Central Academy. The one from the FAA is being taught drawing principles using sight-size, the student from the GCA is learning the same drawing principles without sight-size. Compare the results. They are both coming out with high levels of accuracy and great sensitivities for life. On the other hand, look at the results of those students who study drawing outside of the top academies. I'm hard pressed to find any school that has good student drawings. This is due to the lack of principles being taught. Sight-size is not the problem. The lack of principled teaching is. There is more to this discussion on sight-size. There is also more to the discussion beyond sight-size. I'll leave it just this for now, and address more later. Please let me know what you all think and maybe we can spark a discussion.
I grabbed some images of student work off the GCA and FAA websites. The top left image was done by Cornelia Hernes from the FAA, top right was done by Michael DeVore from the FAA, the one below those was done by Emilie Lee from the GCA and the last one was done by Angela Cunningham of the GCA.


Sakievich said...

Which are the correct principles? And why are they correct? If you are speaking within the context of a specific well-defined and familiar technical narrative, then what is it?

For me the issue is not about rules and should never be. There is a lot of great art that would never have been developed in any age of man had they been forced to only work and learn within specific set parameters. The ancient Egyptians are a good example of this. They maintained a specific set of principles that they applied to their art for thousands of years. Within that time there was virtually no change with a minor exceptions. It was when the Greeks took what they had learned about proportion from the Egyptians and applied it to their own work and then focused their curiousity onto it that then allowed for the eventual expansion of Greek art to the hallowed place that we hold it now.

The issue is about having tools in your toolbox. Each tool may have specific uses that are necessary to apply to a situation, but not all tools are necessary at all times. And there are always innovative ways of applying old tools in new ways (i.e. when the palette knife became a painting tool not just a mixing one or when color came to be used to influence a specific psychological response and not just to replicate visual life).

This isn't to say I approve of a willy-nilly approach to art education or production. Such things are to be the efforts of focused and purposeful minds. I would never disagree with learning to draw and paint with exceptional exactitude. That's an education I continue to pursue on my own and with the assistance of others.

I become concerned when I see people who can produce exceptionally accurate drawings under controlled circumstances, but absolutely fall apart when trying to develop an image from their imagination or to even sketch out simple ideas without immediate reference. These are issues largely ignored (there are exceptions of course) by most ateliers contending that they are teaching "correct" principles. The tools of exactitude only matter when applied to vision of the individual artist.

rsbart said...

I like the Egyptian example and I agree. But I look at it also from the standpoint of the evolution of thought and understanding. We have the good fortune now to look back at 2500 years of that evolution of thought, which found its peak towards the end of the 19th century. Of course that point is debatable and some modernists would argue that art didn't even exist until Marcel Duchamp. But based on my belief that art and art education reached its pinnacle in the 19th century, I feel it is imperative that we look at the systems that made that happen. First we need to understand what they were doing that made them so brilliant. We are on track to doing that, but still have missing pieces. Then we have to master the principles ourselves and then try and evolve further, like the Greeks did, and every genereation after them.
It is my contention that there are no schools beyond the Academies (and there are only five or six of those that do it extremely well) that are giving students the tools they need to accomplish their visions. I'm sure I'll have to explain that statement further as well, but I'll do that another time. What are the essential tools? First, vision or accurate seeing. There is so much more to this concept than being able to accurately render a subject. You can't know this until you've gone through it. There is also knowledge of value, light, edges, form, atmosphere, weight, volume, space, anatomy, movement, gesture, proportion, etc. etc. that students must develop extreme sensitivities for. All of this comes before composition, narrative and concept. But those principles and concepts have become mere catch phrases used in most art schools, spoken of but not understood. And this is evident in the art that stems from these schools. Concept reigns supreme and even though they might make feeble attempts to discuss these topics, they never really help the student develop them properly. And so back to concept they go and the art suffers. I have nothing against peoples concepts. My problem is with the mediocre execution of those concepts. I'm getting off point here.
I largely agree with your last statement about teaching correct principles without helping the student bridge the gap towards imagination and creativity. I don't think it is as large an issue as people outside of the academies are making it out to be. It seems that argument along with the sight-size issue have sadly blinded many young students to the brilliance of what they can achieve at these academies that they can otherwise get nowhere else. But part of the greatness of the 19th century was the teaching of composition, imagination and narrative. These are pieces that need to be put back into place. When they are, they will be built into the system properly. Other art schools throw them in at random and discuss them with no foundation or context to understand them. I'm excited to talk more about this when you visit the studio. Thanks for your insight.

NC said...

"Sight-size is the best thing that has happened to art since Lead White."-Marc Dalessio
You've gotta love it:)

Joseph Price said...

I wonder if your views of visual art carry over to other areas such as music. The changes in various media seem to parallel one another as the 20th Century progressed. Do you hold as strictly to the superiority of classical music, for example? Here is a great piece I just heard on the radio about modern music. It explores some aspects of the creative process that I feel can carry over to the visual arts. I especially enjoyed the discussion of an interview with jazz musician Ornette Coleman. If you have a chance do listen and tell me what you think.

It originates at this website:

Here is the link to the audio:

jeff f said...

I think one huge difference is that Jacob Collins studied with Ted Seth Jacobs as did Tony Ryder. Ted Jacobs has a very different view point on how to see and how to use vision in the production of a drawing. I would urge anyone interested to check out his book Drawing with an Open Mind.

I have not done much site size my self, only a few still lives using this technique. I mostly use what is called relative measuring.
I also studied with the late Frank Mason who in turn studied with Fran DuMond who studied with Jules Joseph
Lefebvre. Mason was influenced by and obsessed with Rubens, Hals, Velázquez and Rembrandt to name a few. I think there is a relationship between using academic tools such as sight size and accurate measuring. I think both have valid places as teaching ideas and methods. I think all good realist work needs a good foundation and the more technique one has the better. The art comes from talent and know how to use the technique one acquires.

Joseph Price mentions Jazz an Ornette Coleman but the example is a red herring for me. The reason is music operates on a different set of ideas and functionality in as an art form. Painting is not the same thing at all. There might be similarities in how music can conjure up colors and how painters sometimes use words such a notes and triads but these things function differently in context to each discipline.

By the way Ornette Coleman practiced hours and hours to get to the level of musicianship he has.
A better jazz analogy would be John Coltrane who used classical practice books to develop his amazing technique. Trane's genus was his capacity to practice and be a critical thinker.

To me learning sight size or a the relative measuring techniques are one and the same, it's the ability to use these techniques to help one develop a good mind. To be able to think critically and to understand how to solve the many complex problems drawing and painting from life present.

jeff f said...

Musicians who go to school and that includes jazz through classical are all academically trained. I think the rigorous study most musicians go through is a lot closer to academic study of the ateliers than art schools or colleges which don't really teach anything.

rsbart said...

Thanks Jeff, I agree with everything you said. Well sated and great arguments. I also agree about the sight-size, relative drawing methods being the same. It's all about seeing and feeling our subjects accurately. It is strange how in the arts we have been blinded by the false idea that the methods and mentalities of past masters don't matter and that training takes a back seat to creative vision. I believe creative vision is important, but can be much more full and broad when built on a strong foundation of proper learning.

Joseph Price said...

At the root the insistence on classical training and standards could certainly be applied to music and jazz in spite of the differences in the mediums. Or perhaps more to the point, that all that training must be brought to bear, the requisite time spent, etc., in every work in order for it to be valid, pronounced beautiful, etc. It was an honest question and not a red herring.