Nicholas Baxter

On The Benefits of Drawing

About 10 years ago I leveled up my artistic practice in all areas after discovering the classical atelier system of art education.

Before that time I had been piecing together my own slow, winding learning trajectory in the realism painting genre, unintentionally slowing my progression with an over-reliance on photographic reference. In contrast, the atelier system is based on working directly from life, whether it be a live model, a still life, or a landscape.

Painting from life in Ohio, 2017

“Lower Falls at Old Man’s Cave”, 8x 10 inches, oil on panel, 2017

In short, observing directly with one’s own eyes forces the brain and the artist’s hand to convert the 3 dimensions of real life into the 2 dimensions of a flat canvas.

Over time our eyes-brain-hand feedback loop becomes seamless, and we learn how to reproduce exactly what we see. The real-time, real life mental calculations of angles, lines, curves, planes, perspective, light and shadow, and millions of color possibilities have a measurable result: if the drawing or painting looks indistinguishable from what we’re observing, then those myriad calculations are overwhelmingly correct. Of course, eventually, an artist needs to learn how, when, and where to diverge from absolute accuracy in order to create a work of art that transcends the mere replication of reality…but the learning process that we submit to in order to reach that point is surprisingly valuable in its own right.

Arguably the single most important artistic discipline or skill, simple life drawing is actually a fairly complex amalgam of skills, requiring at least a rudimentary working knowledge of geometry, physics, optics, and the ability to plan sequentially. True life drawing begins as little more than primitive map making–the plotting of coordinates in space–and ends ideally with an incredibly nuanced understanding of the physics of form, mass, and light.

This great article I stumbled across got me thinking about drawing; what it forces our brains to do, and how it benefits our brains. While intended for the non-artist reader, it makes great cross-disciplinary connections and serves as a nice reminder and motivator for anyone who is an actual practicing artist, of just how valuable drawing is to our art.

 

https://qz.com/quartzy/1381916/drawing-is-the-best-way-to-learn-even-if-youre-no-leonardo-da-vinci/

 

“Form & Emptiness”, graphite on paper, 2012

Form & Emptiness (detail), graphite on paper, 2012

On The Mechanics of Seeing

A long time ago on this blog I touched upon the brain’s instinctive practice of limiting the amount of visual information we tend to perceive. The point of writing about this was that it applies directly to the practice of painting from life, and really, to all methods and genres of painting. But in particular, representational realism, because obviously this genre is so closely tied to the science of seeing.

As opposed to passively looking, actively seeing something means thinking about it as we look, with intention, to analyze and deconstruct what is happening with light, shadow, value, color, form, dimension and so on. The more intimately we understand all those criteria as artists, the better equipped we’ll be to recreate on canvas what we’re seeing in real life (or our reference material), both in terms of accuracy and emotional expression–that unquantifiable sense of awe and magic that occurs when viewing the best or most powerful art.

The paintings that have both–an uncanny sense of believably as well as a profound sense of feeling–are in my opinion the very best, and are of course what I strive towards whenever I pick up a brush. I feel that in order to even begin to have a chance at achieving one or both of those goals, an artist needs to understand what the eye-brain feedback loop is doing, and why.

“Greer’s Ferry Lake Sunset”, 5×7 inches, Oil on Panel, 2018 (painted en plein air)

In short, our brain instinctively wants to find the shortest distance between two points. Without us telling it to, it sifts through all the billions of points of visual data our eyes take in, then selects the most important of that data to help us navigate the environment and make choices on how to act. I’ve found this phenomenon to be most apparent, and challenging, in the genre of landscape painting. When gazing out over a forest of trees, each with millions of leaves and hundreds of branches, all bathed in a haze of atmosphere, that view usually gets condensed into a clumpy horizontal band of olive-y green so that our brain can free up computing power for anything else that may be of more pressing concern. Overriding this instinct takes intention and a conscious choice in the moment. In doing so we can then bring our awareness slowly to each and every minuscule aspect of the scene in order to pick and choose what we will emphasize, subordinate, or omit entirely.

Being an artist takes this one challenging step further. From there, we have to discern when, where, and how best to simplify the overwhelming amount of detail we see in order to create the illusion of what we were looking at for the viewer of our painting, which allows their own brains to fill in the omitted details on its own. And we have to do this all the while adhering to artistic principles that make good art, like color harmony, composition, value structure, symbolism, hierarchy of focus, among others. Err too far to the accurate detail side, and you can end up with a technically proficient but soulless, boring rendition. Err too far to the interpretive extreme and you can end up with a distorted, unintelligible or non-convincing pile of whimsy (in other words, abstract expressionism?). Hitting the sweet spot for our goals as representational realist painters is the ultimate challenge, daunting and addicting all at once.

If you want to learn more about the phenomenon of seeing from a more scientific angle, read this great article I found today. Some nice parallels can be drawn from it to what we are doing as artists.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/your-brain-chooses-what-to-let-you-see-20190930/

Pest

“Pest”, oil on panel, 11 x 11 inches, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a silly random painting I made recently.

“Pest”
Oil on insect shaped panel
For @christian1perez ‘s “Metamorphosis” art show at Hope Gallery in New Haven CT, September 7, 2019

 

What if humans are actually the cockroaches, infesting this beautiful planet and spreading disease, pollution, war, garbage, and waiting to be exterminated by an increasingly angry Mother Nature?

This ridiculous painting started with that premise, or nagging question, in mind, and then just snowballed from there…

Coming up with an effective composition on a laser-cut beetle shaped panel with very thin arms sticking out proved difficult, and eventually led me right back to the most obvious solution: acknowledge the shape of the panel with the image itself. Why slap a random image on a bug-shaped surface? So I slapped a bug-shaped semi-self portrait of me on a bug-shaped surface.

The inspiration for the tattoo on my, uhh, its? back was an ancient Egyptian temple carving of a scarab beetle, and then I paired it with a classic traditional Americana tattoo dagger.  The inspiration for the butthole and sack from the back was–ahh, actually, I’ll just stop there. Enjoy.

 

“Pest” (detail)