Tag Archives: Daumier

Line Drawings

Line drawing, like writing, can be declamatory or expository; a way of persuading viewers or a means to simply engage with the world beyond the self. The searching, tentative quality of a sketch is more like a soliloquy than a sermon, the artist’s interior dialogue groping toward a mystery. John Berger wrote that for Vincent Van Gogh drawing was  “a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at…”

At the beginning of a drawing class we focus on line and all of the various ways it can be played. Working with line is like the visual counterpart of MTV’s “Unplugged” series where musicians leave all their technological wizardry at the door and just play the music. In the absence of recording-studio colors and effects, the integrity of the basic idea is revealed. The ensemble stands or falls in that clarifying light.

A linear drawing builds its riffs from a similarly austere palette, drawing its unique power from elimination, reduction, and distillation of the rich sensory experiences of the eye. Unaided by the seductive romances of tone, color and texture, the play of line in a drawing can inform us about what we are and are not seeing, allowing us to address problems before they’re embedded in complicated visual embroideries.  The relative spatial positioning, directional movements, and scaling of one part to another can be tested and worked out. Like a house under construction, a line drawing is more about the foundation than about the furnishings. The understanding of relational structure, built over time through constant practice, is the foundation of our powers of expression as artists.

On its march toward resolution and clarification of intent a linear drawing leaves in its wake a clamoring of linear hypotheses that can produce a remarkable beauty, as can be seen in many of the drawings below. The ghostly images of abandoned positions, proportions and directions function almost like the sonic qualities of reverberation in music. Tonal drawings have an epic feeling and grandeur about them. Linear drawings, by embracing certain constraints on their means, can achieve a very different kind of poetry, not unlike the sparse syllables, internal rhymes and rhythms of haiku.

Tone speaks directly to the emotions. Line speaks to the mind. Or, rather, it speaks to the emotions through the mind by distilling the idea of the thing. Lacking the mimetic immediacy of tone, which is a closer approximation of the actual way that we perceive the world,  the abstractness of a line drawing can never look like its subject in any literal sense. It can only look like itself, however much it may remind us of things seen. But, what we give up to line’s austerity, we gain back from its unique power of transformation. When we begin to draw, the motif is, as Henry James said of nature, a “blooming buzzing confusion.”  As our lines negotiate and articulate that empty space everything changes – our perceptions, our emotions, even the motif itself. The provisional becomes the inevitable.

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Filed under Contemporary Artists, Old & Modern Masters, Practice, Uncategorized

“By the Movement of the Brush, Establish the Bones”

“Stepped” Values

A 5th century Chinese treatise  on brush & ink drawing offers this cryptic advice: “By the movement of the brush, establish the bones.” What are “the bones” in a drawing? Without bones the body would be a limp sack of skin like the one Michelangelo depicted in his painting of the Last Judgment. Without wood or steel framing, a house would be a shapeless pile of bricks. Bones give structure and form to the visible world. In tonal drawing, the “bones” is the broad tonal patterning that links the various parts into a cohesive whole. The draughtsman seizes on this as a means to create a unified composition.

The Chinese notion of bones relates to the concepts of  Notan in Japanese art, and also to the idea of Macchia in 19th-century Italian painting, all of which are based on rendering light and dark in terms of  simplified tonal patterns. Because the human eye is so sensitive to tonal nuance, learning to simplify values takes practice. Looking at master drawings is a shortcut to developing this ability.

Attributed to Caravaggio, the drawing above adopts a curious strategy. Instead of allowing unlimited tonal gradations, as do the drawings in an earlier post, Caravaggio translates the visible spectrum into three distinct flat tones, or “steps,”and uses this simplified palette as a means to discover the hierarchy of his subject through the placing and massing of the lightest lights, the darkest darks, and everything in-between. The interweaving tone patterns move independently of the lightly sketched outlines of the figures or objects. Certain edges disappear. Parts of forms tilt into and out of the light. Despite the elimination of gradation and detail, the drawing remains surprisingly luminous and evocative, encouraging the viewer to finish it.

For artists whose livelihood depended on the integrity of their compositions, value studies such as these were a means for discovering, simplifying, organizing, and expressing the essential massing of light and dark in their subjects. To appreciate such brevity and abstraction it’s important to understand that this drawing, and the others that follow, are really about structural contrasts and relationships, not things. Using a limited number of tones is a way to sift out the clutter of small details and fractional half-tones to get to the poetry of the big abstract tonal structure – the real bones of the subject.

Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for Students, by Arthur Wesley Dow, 1920.

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