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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Perception and self-perception

Artists have a toolkit by which to objectively gauge the world. It’s our drawing skill.

From Richard Scott's Sketching: From Square One to Trafalgar Square.
Early in Richard Scott’s excellent* Sketching: From Square One to Trafalgar Square, he asks readers to sketch the simple shape above.

Go ahead, do it. I’ll wait.

Scott points out that we tend to look at an object only long enough to identify it. Once we see it as “a rectangle,” we stop observing. We know what it is, and we draw what we know. Few people move on to the realization that its height is twice its width.

Scott then illustrates some shapes students might draw. “They are almost correct, but not entirely correct,” he notes. They are rectangles, but they are not this rectangle.

From Richard Scott's Sketching: From Square One to Trafalgar Square.
The tools of drawing are observation, measurement, interpretation and reiteration. These are dispassionate, non-emotive skills, but they are the underpinning of all great art.

This weekend I heard a story that qualifies as a Great American Tragedy. Most people would call its protagonist a very successful man. He holds an advanced degree from one of America’s finest universities. He’s a VP at a large, successful company. However, he’s not a VP in the executive suite he covets. He bemoans that a choice made as a young man “ruined” his career.

You and I would look at this guy and see a skyscraper, a tall rectangle many times its width. He sees a stunted version of that rectangle. Just as we project what we already know on the rectangle we’re supposed to be drawing, we also project our preconceived ideas on people, including ourselves.

A great place to see this is in presidential politics, where we all project our fears and aspirations on whomever holds the seat at the time.

I mentioned recently that artists usually don’t like their own, autobiographical brushwork. That’s why we rush to cover it up with stylishness (in contrast to style). Our self-criticism can easily spill over to self-loathing, as it has in the case of the man above.

Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Carol L. Douglas. Drawing gives you great tools for social interaction.
Most of us go through life with the strong sense that we’re potting along in our Ford Fiestas, being passed left and right by people in Cadillacs. That’s true of even very successful people. It’s particularly true in the arts. There are no absolute benchmarks of success as in other fields. Criticism and approbation are subjective and often don’t stand the test of time.

We have an image of “success” imprinted in our mind. It’s fast, meteoric, and—most importantly—we don’t have it. I once knew an artist who’d had a very splashy entry into the art world in her early twenties. By the time she was in her fifties, she was substitute teaching and very poor. She was still passionately interested in art but produced almost none. Part of what bound her up was her early success. It set a bar she could no longer reach.

We artists have a toolkit we can use to avoid that trap. It’s the rationality that we learn through drawing. Measure, observe, reiterate, interpret, and you will be able to see more clearly than most.

*I mentioned this book earlier, but now that I have it, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

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