Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stopping to look in the digital age

Last night, I was working on a new component of a piece I'm making with a found address book. I thought I'd give myself the challenge of not looking up a reference image from the internet. Luckily I've got plenty of bird guides to look at:

Clockwise from left: Audubon Guide, Golden Guide, Sibley Guide (Eastern edition), my sketchbook.
But I still failed at the one rule I'd set for myself! I ended up looking at pictures of diving falcons on Google, and basing a big part of the image on what I found.

I realized this year that I'm pretty attached to the use of the internet as a way of finding reference images and information. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I find inspiring articles that become seeds for new pieces (like this one), I can find images of pretty much anything I want, and I can research content through great sites like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. On the other, I'm becoming very dependent on using photos to draw things that aren't right in front of me (like birds), which attaches me physically to needing computer access to work, and opens up the big portal to extreme internet distraction, something I admittedly have a really hard time avoiding. I start at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and wind up on Cute Overload, or worse, facebook, in a matter of minutes. I've thought about installing some software to just block out the websites I find distracting, but thought it might be a better long-term habit to cultivate my ability to make drawings without any internet-aided visual references. After all, I somehow made it 21 years without relying on it, and so did everyone before the 2000s.

Artists in the past would produce notebooks full of copies and sketches of the "building blocks" of paintings - faces, drapery, putti, landscapes - because in a world where images were rare and there wasn't an internet, or even many books with images, your own drawings and memory became your best reference. A favorite example of mine is Da Vinci's sketchbook page of cats, drawn from life, with a fanciful dragon thrown in, clearly not:

Image from
The dragon is just as beautifully drafted as his from-life studies, thanks to a combination of acute powers of observation, incredible drafting skill, and vivid imagination. The greatest painters - Da Vinci (more of his work here), Michelangelo, Rembrandt - all have the amazing ability to turn snippets and sketches from real life into fantastic, completely invented scenes. A lifetime of close observation - the kind dedicated artists achieve - gave them the power to trust their own drawings, and their own judgment, without an object in front of them. The visual and muscle memory came from inside, and I've always been awed by that. It's something I'm still learning.

I wonder how many other artists who are as wedded to technology and photos as I've become struggle with this dependency. Or if people feel that it's a bad thing in the first place. Art is art, and if the audience can't see the process and the finished piece is more or less the same either way, is it really any nobler to take the more difficult road? Do I "see" less completely or less deeply because I'm looking at a photo, and not an object or a drawing I'm copying, or inventing everything entirely? At what point do you trust your own marks and stop thinking about whether it looks enough like the image on which you're basing it? These questions are at the heart of how artists interpret the world through their draftsmanship. To a degree, they're permanently debatable, but I think searching for some answers is the next step the improvement of my technique will have to take.