It is a strange yet common tendency of the beginner artist to think that the use of a reference object or image — a live model, for example, or a photograph — is somehow cheating. The beginner thinks, as I have thought at times, that a true artist is able to generate beautiful pictures directly from his or her imagination, without having to “copy” from something in front of them. Of course, this idea is both accurate and completely misleading. Many artists, through rigorous training and ongoing practice, have internalized the makeup and proportions of the human body (to take a common subject) and can render it at will — this being more than adequate a skill for artists employed in the fields of, say, fashion design or advertising. But many other artists regularly use live models or photographs as reference points, either because they are trying to capture the look of a specific person (rather than an imaginary one), or because they are trying to understand more perfectly the human form itself. Some, of course, are trying to do both.
Photographs of ballet dancers, I discovered this evening, are an excellent reference point for learning how to draw the human figure. What’s more, there’s something about sketching dancers that feels both dynamic and essential — forms built without adornment as simple vectors and curves, yet filled with energy and direction.
Unexpectedly but thrillingly, drawing has rarely felt this natural.
One of the great benefits of the Internet is the ability it gives creative people to communicate with and support each other, by sharing techniques and providing feedback on work they’ve offered up for review. One of the great benefits of the Internet for the rest of us is that it allows us to see and enjoy their work. For fans of independent film, Shooting People is a must-visit. Launched in 1998 (the same year in which Jesse Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota and Viagra was approved by the FDA, if that gives you a better sense of just how far back that was), S.P. ran on an entirely volunteer basis for its first four years. It now boasts a community of more than 37,000 U.S. and U.K. filmmakers who each pay only $40 a year for a range of services including DVD distribution, casting, and crewing — and more importantly, for the chance to meet and help others like themselves.
We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.
Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.
It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.
No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.
I had an unexpected bout with a ruptured appendix — mine, unfortunately — late last week, and as a result ended up missing several days of work. Having returned to the office on Wednesday, I immediately began to reconstruct my schedule of tasks and appointments. If you glanced at my Outlook calendar, you’d see what a Herculean effort this implies. But for all of the tiresomeness of this chore, the one oddly pleasant part of it was (and always is) the postponement of events into the future.
I’m disappointed to note that my brief fling with Jim Gurney’s “Art by Committee” has come to an end, now that Jim has put the monthly challenge on an indefinite hiatus (giving him more time to focus on his fascinating ongoing tour of art techniques and great artists, I note with admiration). There are lots of fish in the sea, of course, and Illustration Friday looks like a good replacement.
Illo-Friday offers a challenge that is more open-ended than Jim’s: rather than a page of text or a business card, it offers only a word. From there, your artistic mind is free to roam — so long as you get your picture in before the following Friday. This week’s topic is “propagate”, and you can see above what I did with it. It was certainly an interesting exercise: I started by attempting to depict one meaning of the word, and found when I was part way through that I had captured two.
It is by now old news that blogging has forever changed the nature of how information is generated and consumed, but the full ramifications of this change continue to play themselves out all around us today — and will go on doing so for some time yet. The latest area to be transformed is the global war for public opinion over the issue of climate change. As my friend Jeet Heer argues in a fascinating piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (”Climategate’s guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs?“), climate change skeptics have found their greatest influence to lie not in peer reviewed journals or congressional hearings but in blogs written by passionate amateurs — sometimes highly intelligent ones — who are determined to subject even the smallest component of the international climate change assessment process to scrutiny and, once in a while, disproof.
A fast heads-up that Alaska-based writer Charles Wohlforth has a new book coming out on June 8 called The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth (you can read an excerpt here), which focuses on the relationship between the possibilities and limits of human nature, and the scale of the environmental crisis we now face. Wohlforth is a man worth following; his last book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on the environment. I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2004, using words that seem even more relevant amid today’s artificial tempest over the IPCC’s methodologies:
In [computer-based climate] models, the number of possible variables is near infinite, while our understanding of the natural processes underlying each variable is in its infancy at best. Meanwhile, the unrelenting logic of chaotic systems, which declares that one can’t possibly predict the future state of such a system without being impossibly accurate about its initial starting conditions, leaves science at a loss. [...]
This uncertainty, of course, has spawned endless scientific and political debate about the existence and nature of climate change. But Wohlforth wisely points out that though we can’t create models that eliminate (or even reduce) the number of uncertainties, we can at least choose to “rank important certainties above trivial unknowns.” After all, we do understand the dynamics of the mechanism that causes global warming, and we do understand the importance of greenhouse gases as a determinant of our planet’s temperature, an importance second only to the sun. The global climate is like a massive machine with banks of labeled dials. We can’t know for sure what the machine will produce when all the dials are turned in different directions, but we do know that we’re deliberately cranking the second-biggest dial — the one labeled “atmospheric CO2 content” — far beyond any previous setting. And in doing so, we’re performing an irreversible experiment with the only planet we’ve got.
The Fate of Nature can of course be pre-ordered on Amazon. If I end up reviewing it for one of the tree-based papers, I’ll be sure to let you know.
I had a bit of a crisis a couple of weeks back. I’d been working diligently on this whole “learning to draw” project for five and a half months, and had steadily worked my way through ups and downs to a point where I could say that my skills had progressed from “really very bad” to “mediocre”. This was a significant source of personal pride for me, as I hadn’t been sure when I started that I would manage to reach any higher level of artistic competence at all. I was feeling pretty good, frankly.
Then I watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on Valentino.