Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2011: Imitation vs. Interpretation

Many years ago I took a painting class where most students traced their photographs from a projector onto their watercolor paper. Everyone told me that they were more interested in getting to the color, instead of struggling with the drawing.

Of course, as a drawing teacher, I believe everything starts with pencil and paper. I call it visual thinking: when an artist sketches out her ideas on paper for a project. Take Michelangelo for instance. He sketched 100 to 150 drawings before he ever struck stone. He knew his subject and was known for his swift carving. A skill you can accomplish when you’ve planned things out in advance.

Projectors are being used by some instead of drawing
But now with digital cameras and projectors at our disposal, folks don’t feel like they have to know how to draw. One instructor announced some time ago that 90 percent of artists trace, while the other 10 percent just won’t admit it. I don’t believe that to be true, but we students chuckled anyway.

Unfortunately, cameras cause distortions, especially when it comes to perspective. They also have things that disappear into the night (blurred backgrounds or foregrounds, unidentifiable shadows). I can often identify a traced painting versus one whose conception came from a free-hand drawing because usually the subject is too photo-realistic, too perfect, dare I say, a bit lifeless.

Fundamentally, tracing instead of drawing is simply imitating instead of interpreting your subject. What I mean is that you are limited by what the camera sees and imitating that viewpoint. The lines traced, come from the camera, an imitation of its mechanical ability. Conversely, lines freely drawn by you are your interpretation of what you are seeing, part of your soul, the inner you.

This is not say, I don’t believe in using photographs as reference tools. Heck, I use them all the time in my classes! I rely on photos a lot. There is no way I can draw tropical plants while living in the Northwest, unless I take a trip to Hawaii. So I must rely on photographs to help me know, for instance, what a Cordia flowering plant looks like.  But I use the photographs for reference only—to gain visual knowledge. Moreover, I usually study many photos of the same subject (from sites that allow me to do so).

For example, I once had a watercolor commission to paint red poppies. Of course since I don’t grow them in my backyard, I had to go to the Internet and find some reference photos. I ended up drawing 30 or more poppies in all sorts of positions before I created my composition and subsequent painting. I got to know poppies so well that I can draw one on the spot to this day.

And yes, it is a struggle to draw first. I know how intimidating it can be, how scary that blank sheet can be (the same fear applies to writers as well). But once you get your sketches down on paper, you can break away from your tracing dependency and become the master of your work. You become the interpreter instead of the imitator. You and your painting are one.

Next month: How to use a photo as a reference tool.

New Six-Week Classes Session Starting at Glastonbury Studios

Week of October 23th through Week of November 27th
Pre-registration required. Seating is limited.
(All students must pre-register for classes. Please email me at to get your form and instructions for the following classes.)

Tuesday evenings (7-9)   Drawing:  Pen, Ink and Watercolor
Wednesday mornings (10:00 to 12:30) Sketching (Miscellaneous)
Thursday evenings (7-9) Fun with Acrylics (beginning to intermediate)
No class on Thanksgiving

Mediterranean Cruise News
Information Meeting at Glastonbury Studios
Sunday, October 9th
Workshop payment due October 9th
Mediterranean Cruise: Looks like we only need a couple more people for the cruise, planned for May 22-28, 2012. For more information go to the trip blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment