Nicholas Baxter

Notes & Advice 4: Clear Seeing and Accurate Drawing

Earlier this month I attended a 3 day intensive drawing course hosted by an artistic mentor of mine, Edward Povey.  This course started from the absolute  foundations of drawing–clear and simple seeing, lines, and shapes–and progressed by the third day, after a brief foray into tone and value, into a full-fledged classical still life.

While I had taken a similar foundations of drawing course around a decade ago (wow, that sounds like I’m old…and an “adult.” Wierd.) in art college, I wanted to revisit these incredibly important disciplines in order to sharpen up my artistic skills.  Edward taught the course with a combination of classic drawing exercises, and insightful personal anecdotes about the nature of seeing. His philosophy emphasized the faithful recording what we see, in the tradition of “the humble craftsman.”

Exercise: reproduce the Picasso drawing upside down, without regard to subject matter. Simply observe line, shapes, and proportions.

Many of the exercises were taken directly from the popular book by Betty Edwards Drawing On the Right Side of The Brain (which I personally have never read, but can now vouch for after this experience), such as the Vase/Face exercise which you can see here.  One of the most demonstrative exercises consisted of trying to reproduce a complex line shape in exact precision while simultaneously counting aloud, from 50 to zero. I won’t spoil the amusing results of conducting such an experiment by describing them in detail here, in case you should decide to try it yourself. But let’s just say, it puts the two sides of your brain into a major state of conflict.

All drawing consists of, is working with one’s own mind.

The most poignant lesson that was reinforced for me over the 3 days was the emphasis on clear, simple seeing.  Much like a meditation practice, this places emphasis on simply seeing the physical reality before us in all of its detailed truthfulness, without the confusion nor illusion of belief. For example, our mind knows and believes that a human arm may be approximately 3 feet long, but when seen in sharp perspective, the appearance of the arm becomes far shorter (aka ‘foreshortened’), and we must account for this when drawing it on a 2-dimensional surface.  This cognitive dissonance between our belief about the arm and the reality of how it appears on our retinas (and therefore must appear on the paper) is the reason why drawing complex forms with complete accuracy is incredibly difficult.  Therefore an artist must learn to disconnect from certain areas of thought in their brain, and tune into the unembellished truth of reality, breaking it down into simple criteria of line, shape, and negative space (the areas or shapes between/around featured subject matter).  Extreme precision in this task can be achieved with measuring techniques and devices, but it is not impossible to do so completely with one’s own eyes and mind.  It takes patience, practice, and a willingness to let go of our ego and all of its beliefs.

Words of wisdom.

As a painter of realism, this practice is indispensable for me.  All of my aesthetic illusions must be grounded in, must stem from, the fundamental truth of how objects or spaces look in reality, or else their believability will be compromised.  Not to mention, the strength of all representational art in the first place, regardless of chosen specialty or chosen illusions, lies in the accurate reproduction of 3D forms onto a 2D surface.

Subjecting oneself to the rigors of classical drawing training is the most efficient way to stay sharp, no matter how advanced or practiced one is. It’s the same concept as strengthening muscles by going to the gym.  After a while, certain drawing exercises are likely to make less of an impact as they become more familiar/easier, and just as with physical strength, the artist can increase the artistic challenge by adding time limits or more complex subject matter. I strongly encourage all artists to revisit the simple disciplines of drawing as a way to “work out” their skills of observation and their representational accuracy.

Here’s my completed drawing from the final day of the class:

Form & Emptiness, Graphite on Paper, 2012, 12in x 9in

Form & Emptiness (detail). The title of this piece is a reference to the Buddhist teachings on the nature of reality, as represented by the dominating dark form in the center of the composition bearing my reflection, and of course by the empty glass and mug. This title is also a reference to the similarities between the clear seeing techniques used for drawing, and the awareness cultivated in meditation practice.