Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Classic Artsy Goodness with a Little Ranty-ness on the Side

Last night I enjoyed the waning Labor Day weekend by watching some Hulu while sketching the evening away using my new charcoal sticks and pencils, which I have already reviewed in earlier posts. My mom popped in to tell me something, but she was distracted momentarily when she saw my sketch in progress, a portrait of a giant schnauzer. She remarked that the hair on his snout looked so real it was "almost touchable".

image of schnauzer charcoal sketch
My schnauzer head, charcoal and white pastel
I used a fellow Blogger member's photo from
Magna Giant Schnauzers.
My sketch needs more work, but I have
come to love charcoal more with each piece!
I was flattered, of course, because I strive to convey  a certain amount of realism in my work, but I do not aspire to photo-realism. While I admire the skill and dedication of photo-realistic artists, I am rarely moved when I look at these pieces. I like to see the artist's "hand" in the work and get a feel for his or her style. I am much more inspired by stylized works than by seemingly mechanical copies rendered in precise detail and scale. So I give props to the uber-realists, especially those who have spent years honing their drawing skills. As you can see on the left, I cannot compete in the photo-realism category, but that is no big deal for me. I want people to know that I have drawn or painted my image.  

Photo-Realism: Great Skill Builder, Lackluster Wall Art

Besides my opinion that photo-realism is sort of pointless, I also have doubts about the artist's sincerity when I see his or her work online. There are a slew of photo editing and digital paint programs that can make a photo into a sketch or painting with just a click or swipe. I really hate that these exist, to be honest, but then there are the tracers...

This may be a touchy or controversial subject, but I have learned over the past few years that a lot of artists trace photos to make their initial drawings. (I know- I was naive!) I don't mean that the artist used a photo for reference, but that the artist used a projector, light box or tracing paper to transfer the image from a photo to the paper or canvas. No preliminary sketch, period.

I am not saying that a huge portion or the majority do this, but since I now know that some professional photo or hyper-realists are tracers, it takes away from the awe-factor when I see such work on the Internet. It makes me look at every piece with skepticism, and I hate that. I want to give credit where credit is due.

Is Tracing "Cheating"?

There are instances where tracing might not really count as "cheating". One argument is that the traced part is usually only an outline, and that the real work goes into rendering details and values that cover those outlines eventually.  A tight deadline or certain aspects of the work (scale or angle) may make tracing necessary at times. Some beginner artists trace at first to get a feel for the lines and proportions. I think that these reasons are fine as long as tracing is used as an occasional tool and not a crutch.

Okay, that was me giving the benefit of the doubt; what I really believe is that beginners should learn to draw freehand from the start, but I won't fault artists who started out tracing comic book heroes before learning to draw "for real".

Here's where I get peeved. What if you entered a drawing competition with pieces that took you days or weeks to complete, only to have your work edged out by an artist who traced his or her subjects from photographs? There are a lot of people who think that tracing is okay, and I am usually careful not to call it "cheating". However, I feel cheated when I find out that the masterpiece I am admiring is a traced photograph. Formal and self-taught art training begins with a foundation in drawing. I want to assume that the artist toiled through those lessons and practiced for years to render such accurate images.

I also think that a person who relies on tracing cheats his or herself when it comes to artistic growth. You cannot improve a skill if you never practice at it. You also limit yourself in many ways. You'll need a photo for every piece of art, and so you have to draw only "real" subjects. If you try to introduce imaginary items into your traced work, they will stick out like a chicken among the peacocks.

"The Old Masters did it!" NOPE, Not Really

I have read about camera obscura, an ancient projection device (sometimes a whole room) that predates the modern camera. The concept was discovered in antiquity, and some propose that Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other great Masters used it and other devices to trace images before painting them. From what I understand, many of these famed painters did use mirrors and lenses to aid them, but it was not really tracing as we know it.

Back then, painters worked only by natural or candle light, so they had to use certain reflective tricks to aim concentrated light at their subjects, which allowed the painters to enhance highlights and create interesting shadows. It is possible that some used camera obscura to render large panoramic scenes in detail, but this method was no shortcut. Let me also point to thousands of free-hand drawings and sketches rendered by the Old Masters, now preserved in art museums around the world. They didn't trace, period.

Today we have artificial studio lights that we can adjust to do what lenses and mirrors did for the Old Masters. Some of us use photo references that we "tweak" in Photoshop to enhance the images, making them better references. Of course, it is not a good idea to become a slave to photo references, either. That's why art students take life drawing classes.

Back to Photo-Realism

I wandered from my opinions about photo-realism to a rant about tracing, so I'll circle back to the original discussion now. Let me clarify that not all photo realistic artists reproduce photographed images. There are some amazing hyper-realistic pieces that no one would mistake for photos. I saw this image that looked like a color photo of a half-man drawing the rest of his body in graphite. In reality, the whole image is a mixed media drawing, but only part of it fools the eye. That's not boring, and it would make great wall art. I am just saying that reproducing a photo exactly is a great exercise but not necessarily great art. In the end, this is just my opinion, so no offense intended to anyone.

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