Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Training the Naive Eye

Yesterday, I completed stage one of my art course. I finished my first Bargue drawing.

Remember this?



Here it is done.


Better pic.

Of course, having spent 30 hours on this, all I can see now when I look at it is all the flaws. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from it, and am now ready for another one.

If you look closely at the first pic, you can see for example, that the "bowling pin" shape that forms the light shape on the left side bum is slightly more pointy at the bottom and longer in mine than in the original Bargue drawing. I saw this as I was doing my last look before taking it down, but decided that I'd had enough. But the fact that I saw it is more or less the point of the exercise. This kind of drawing exercise, called "sight size", is supposed to train not your hand, but your eyes. Or, I should say, your brain.

As I have written before, and as Ruskin and all those other clever Old School artists have said, the work of learning to draw is not training your fingers, but re-training your brain to actually see things as they really are. Ruskin called it learning to see with the "naive eye".

You learn from infancy to interpret the sensory data coming in. You have to, or the world remains just a jumble of meaningless shapes. But in learning to label and organise the objects, colours, shadows and relationships we see, we tend to become visually lazy. We tend to substitute an idea, a phantasm, of the thing for the thing itself. It is why children learn to draw people, trees and flowers as symbolic icons instead of drawing the thing they are looking at.

Learning to draw, then, is learning to turn off the interpretive function. When I was drawing this, I was not thinking "shoulder blade," I was thinking, (if you could call it thinking) "this shadow-shape is just slightly too evenly curved here," "this is a straight line edge from here to here," "this shadow is deeper here". And as I worked, I found I saw more and more clearly these shapes and relationships. I was acquiring the skill that my instructor Andrea has to a finely tuned degree. She could look at the picture across the room, glance at it, and say, "that half-tone needs to be angled slightly more". Once she had pointed it out, I could see it immediately.

This skill of seeing with the naive eye, she says, can be taught to anyone. It is really just a matter of pointing out things that our busy Talking Brain tends to gloss over as unimportant. It is almost entirely a matter of learning the skill of extremely minute observation.

All real artists know this, and until recently, all artists were trained in this technique, most of them using the Bargue prints, a series of instructional lithographs done in the 19th century by Charles Bargue.

It is no longer widely understood that you have to learn this before you can go madly off breaking the rules. Even the abstract painters were taught in this way.


Here's Picasso's version of the same Bargue lithograph.

But of course, this is part of The Before that was tossed out willy nilly when the Asteroid hit Western Civilisation. The fact that it is being brought back, in little schools, is a good sign. The dinosaurs are starting to die off; maybe the mammals will have a chance.


The instructor is away for a few weeks, (teaching landscape painting in a castle in Tuscany...must be nice) so I've got some homework to do to fill the time. I thought I would work on this lovely statue that I photographed at the Barberini Palace a few weeks ago.

Of course, there is no way I can finish all this Argy-Barguery without doing

the Belvedere Torso at least once.