I wonder what role drawing plays today in a classically trained contemporary naturalist painter’s practice. I am not trying to imply that there is a right way to understand drawing, but I’m a bit concerned about how there is currently a wave of painters that are seeing drawing solely as an efficient way to establish information that is subsequently going to be painted.
In pre-20th century Western art, drawing was seen as part of the development of a (seemingly) more complex work of art - a painting, a sculpture, a printed work or an architectural endeavor. And while drawing wasn’t comprehended as being capable of communicating a conceptual posture, it was surely understood as the practice where problems were solved. It was the moment during the execution of a work of art where uncertainty was dealt with; the place where questions about design, composition and underlying structure were attempted to be responded.
During the first half of the 20th century the ability for drawing to exercise a strong and vast array of conceptual possibilities was suddenly uncovered. Picasso, Matisse, Klimt, Schiele, Klee, Grosz, Kollwitz, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Levine are all wonderful examples of how the act drawing was finally assimilated as one that had the intrinsic power to communicate. Through drawing an artist could clearly and with immediacy convey his or her own sensibility and to depict how nature felt when it was perceived. It was not just an integral part of a process that attempted to unravel a problem, but could now also answer questions about how the artist observed the world, allowing the viewer to relate to the artist with a higher degree of intimacy. The raw, very primitive, communicative qualities of drawing that were once such an integral part of our evolution as a species were, in a way, unearthed.
It is nothing short of troubling then, that after such huge efforts, after overcoming centuries of almost undermining the true potential of such a primeval act, there is a growing trend where many contemporary figurative, naturalist, realist painters are rolling back drawing to its barest state, stripping down all the healthy qualities that had been recognized and grown in the last century. And why is this painter willing to consciously withstand such a harmful loss? Because this painter is absolutely terrified of being wrong.
The simplest way (and probably the one farthest from the fundamental essence of painting) to understand our practice is to have it compete against mediums that depict a seemingly closer sense of what nature looks like, i.e. photography. When painting under these self-imposed conditions, the painter is constantly horrified if he or she strays away from the truth. But the problem here lies in assuming that this definition of truth equates to the manner in which a specific camera model, with a specific lens, with a specific focal length, with a specific aperture, interprets form and light.
The horrified painter is so deeply concerned about being faithful that is willing to unburden him or herself from the responsibilities inherent to drawing; he or she finally gives in and decides to transfer, grid, trace or project the damn thing. Drawing then becomes an irritating obstacle encountered during the execution of the more important end goal - the image. The end justifies the means.
The painter has sacrificed an integral part of the fundamental building blocks that make up the practice of painting, for the sake of faithfully transferring an apparently more valid version of what nature really looks like. It is a shame and a huge loss. To consciously want to bypass an act that can teach so much about one’s own sensibility, about how one’s own history has shaped one’s perception, is simply sad. And all of it done based on the soulless pretext of being able to fully concentrate on the act of painting itself. It is sad to not realize that every stroke is a chance to draw with paint. One cannot exist without the other.
We are very, very far from the conceptual origins of Photorealism and the historical and critical context in which it originated from. A large scale photorealistic portrait painted today will never carry the weight that a Chuck Close portrait had to carry when it was painted during the late 60’s to the early 80’s. The bottom line is that the practice of mindlessly transferring a drawing onto a surface that is going to be painted is not exclusively done by the contemporary Photorealist painters, but is now done by anyone who wants to get the drawing out of the way. And while some of the painted images can be deemed successful, a weird message is being tacitly sent regarding the relevance the act of drawing has, if any, in the painter’s practice.
In my opinion, being comfortably capable of transcribing information from a photograph to a painting by eliminating the challenges inherent to the act of solving drawing problems, is simply unattractive and lazy. I can’t understand why a painter would convince him or herself into believing that fear and efficiency are worth sacrificing the opportunity to learn something about themselves.
Understanding one’s self as an artist and defending the beliefs that one has identified, is the most valuable endeavor that any artist can tackle throughout their lifetime. This effort requires overcoming frustration, copious amounts of trial and error, questioning decisions, identifying how to fully commit and construct based on one’s own intentions, consistency and hard work, desire and courage. No act is better to train one’s self as an artist than drawing. To think that the execution of an image is worth evading these challenges is to deny one’s self the opportunity to grow.
Try to understand, not only the nature of what you’re looking at, but your own perception and the judgments behind what you’re looking at.
No amount of precision, faithfulness, detail, or efficiency is worth sacrificing growth, and self-recognition.
Experience, knowledge and courage are only learned one way.
There are no shortcuts.