Perception and Drawing: Part 1,
What is Drawing?
We cannot effectively teach subjects in the arts, such as perception and drawing, that we do not understand conceptually or intellectually. Institutions that give art instruction often argue that visual art is an intuitive process and, therefore, cannot be taught. If the statement is true, we can reasonably ask why these institutions exist at all. It may be true that many artists in our time have learned to draw using a completely intuitive process, but this is an anomaly in the history of art. Drawing instruction in our time is generally lamentable, and critics often point out the poor drawing ability of contemporary artists. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at no other time in the last 500 years have so many people studied any subject outside of drawing with so little success. The only possible reason for this pervasive failure is that we no longer understand what drawing is. Many people are passionate about art and study drawing for decades without attaining mastery. Sadly, many artists attribute their lack of success to a personal lack of “talent,” but this is not the case. These artists have most often crossed the subtle line between two kinds of artistic problems; the difficult and the impossible. A difficult problem can be solved in time and with effort, but an impossible problem can never be solved. We cannot know if we have “talent” if we are tackling an impossible task.
It is impossible to master the art of drawing without attaining the following realization:
We do not see “like a camera” and, therefore, cannot “draw what we see.”
Albrecht Durer’s famous etching shows how difficult it was to invent perspective geometry. If we naturally perceived the world as a photograph, we would not need to work so hard to learn figurative drawing or perspective theory.
Understanding the relationship between perception and drawing is an intuitive process for almost all artists. Still, most artists fall into the trap of assuming that there is some version of “objective reality” (exemplified by the photograph) with which they must compare their efforts. This assumption is usually deadly to the study of drawing. Two hundred years ago nobody had ever seen a photograph. A human being had drawn or painted every image on the face of the earth. In our time, we tend to assume that the degeneration of figurative art was caused by the invention of photography because artists were no longer needed to produce imagery such as portraits, landscapes, or still-life paintings. There may be some truth to this narrative, but the real problem with photography was that it made it more challenging to create representational art. Artists began to feel that they had both the capacity and responsibility to portray their subjects with the detached and mechanical precision of the photograph. They lost sight of the real purpose of figurative art, which was to pursue an idea.
Wenner. Oberon. If drawing were entirely based on observation, it would not be possible to imagine figures.
The truth is that no comparison between human vision and photography exists. We do not see objects like a camera and cannot draw like a camera. We also do not see drawings, paintings, and photographs in the same way that we see objects. We get this sensation because when we look at depicted images, we glean the same information from them that we perceive from actual objects. In both cases, the information we obtain is in the form of symbols, sometimes called visual cues. These cues may change from person to person and from culture to culture. The way we understand depictions is by collecting the same information as we receive from dimensional objects. Successfully learning figurative drawing means learning to notate and emphasize the visual information that will communicate to an observer. This truth is central to an understanding of perception in drawing, but is seldom explained and can be hard for students even to accept.
Wenner. Detail of the figure of Oberon. Classical drawing calls into play numerous references and is composed of multiple symbols.
There are some reasonably obvious proofs for this idea. One example is that animals are not able to read images. We don’t expect our cats and dogs to admire or recognize our painted portraits or look through an album of family photos with us. This lack of ability is not a matter of intelligence. Still, because the nature of human perception thought is entirely different than that of any other living creature, it is symbolic. This difference is not true of sound, for instance, as the old advertisement for RCA phonographs showed when a dog pricked up his ears upon hearing “his master’s voice.” An image of a dog recognizing “His master’s portrait” would never be believed. There are also stories of anthropologists being surprised to see that the natives of remote tribes were entirely unable to understand the content of photographs. We learn to “read” images as we grow up, but do not remember the learning process.
Wenner. Early Study in a Museum. Drawing from observation is an important skill, but mastery implies a body of technical knowledge that has been assimilated.
We can observe another example of this in the relationship between children and images. Children are comfortable and even delighted with simple cartoon-like representations of objects. When they draw, the images also take on a very symbolic form and a fixed iconography of depiction for rainbows, houses, the sun, facial and bodily features. These symbols seem relatively universal. If we think about it, it is rather strange that children prefer abstract images such as cartoons to highly rendered ones. Wouldn’t the reverse be logical if we “saw like a camera”? It is generally adults that prefer highly rendered and nuanced representations. The truth is that if we saw the world as we think we do, every human being would easily be able to draw the moment they acquired sufficient skill with a pencil. We would not need to work for years to be able to represent what we observe on a sheet of paper. Likewise, our vision would be “literal.” We would not be able to appreciate a simple line drawing or sketch but would, instead, insist on a fully rendered version of every image. We see in symbols, whether viewing “reality” directly or a depiction of it.
Wenner. Tonal drawing of the sacred Hindu figure of Ganesha.
The last proof lies in the fact that the invention and diffusion of photography did not make it easier to master representational drawing, but instead made it even more challenging to understand the role of perception in a drawing. People can also learn to copy photographs with high precision and yet be unable to draw from life. It seems that the first skill has nothing to do with the other one. In the 20thcentury, many people studied this problem. One of the best-known examples is Dr. Betty Edwards. She used the popular psychological theory of lateralization, commonly know as “left-side, right-side brain theory.” She asserted that the symbols people have memorized in childhood become ingrained and prevent them from learning to draw. Dr. Edwards devised a set of exercises that blocked students from using these symbols and forced them to project their observations onto paper without interpreting them. This process initially resulted in line-contour drawings. Students were able to make enormous progress in days or weeks, and her methods, taught in the form of books and with workshops, became wildly popular.
Betty Edwards has been extremely successful in improving the skills of students in a short period of time, but much information is still missing for a student to attain the mastery shown by the Leonardo drawing on her book cover. (Images from an Internet search).
At the distance of several decades, it has become clear that these methods alone cannot result in the mastery of classical drawing no matter how much time artists devote to practicing them. The ability to project observations mechanically onto a surface without making judgments is different from the skill we use when creating a master drawing. The philosophy behind “drawing from the right side of the brain” thus invokes the same mechanical idea of vision that the camera has suggested. The intellect presumably plays no part in the process. This difference of perception in drawing also explains why copying from an image is a different skill from drawing from life. Mastering classical drawing requires learning to select and manipulate visual symbols. In this way, classical drawing is structurally similar to cartooning and childhood drawings, although both the visual symbols used, the process of their manipulation, and the artistic goals are very different.