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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

First few pages of my book on drawing and painting

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link to buy book on amazon

Drawing is based in the structure of how we see and how we see is revealed from the Renaissance onward in Western Art 

Drawing grows out of our understanding of how the eye shapes our reality but from my exposure to myriad books on how to draw, it is usually taught as an exercise in aesthetics which, by definition, is a branch of philosophy dealing with beauty, art and taste. I am a believer in all three but to worship at that altar can be a real hindrance to learning how to draw. 

Another definition of aesthetics says it deals with the senses. The immediate message we can take from this definition is that knowing and understanding which are the realms of science have nothing to do with art. The aesthetic world is where we go when we tire of the dry world of science and need to breathe directly the fresh air of the sensory world. It is a world where we ask: How does it feel? 

I believe that the visual language at its base is one of cognition. If you were to ask a class of first graders to draw where they would like to be if they were not in school they have at their disposal literally a language of circles, squares, triangles and lines to describe their world. They can take us to a baseball diamond, a zoo or their room with all the objects in it. 

There is no question of taste and sensibility, in fact, the performance of these kids is pretty much uniform. There is no one who excels for his or her aesthetic sensibility. Their drawings are a cognitive act, not an aesthetic one. From an adult perspective we tend to be in awe of their spontaneity but the cognitive power of the universal language they use lets them pragmatically express what they know about the world they live in. 

Ask those same kids four years later to do the same exercise and, except for a few, they would all say, “We are not artists, we can’t draw.” What has changed? The verbal has supplanted the visual language as a way of description except for those “class artist” relatives of the “class clown” (the one you ask to draw some cartoon character for you) who still feel there is some possibility for further use of the visual. 

The class artist knows that the stick figure world is not going to cut it anymore. It cannot describe the complexity of the world they now inhabit; something the spoken and written word can do. The verbal is also a social medium and allows for interpersonal action, which is what is needed in order to be human. What do you teach students that represents a step forward in their development?

 Left to their own devices, the student of artistic ability will take an interest in texture and detail and will receive accolades from their teachers and peers for that achievement. Or there is often an interest in what I call the degenerate form of classical drawing that we find in cartooning especially that of superheroes with its obsession with anatomy and pneumatic form. I have been often asked over the years to judge numerous art contests at the high school level and find that both these modes of drawing dominate the work submitted. Both are dead ends. Or are just ends in themselves, but lead nowhere. There is always the rare cartoonist who goes on to establishing a career or the master of detail who goes on to success as a photo-realist. 

 The only way out of these options is to relive the history of western art and the way it mimics in an oddly self-recursive fashion our self-awareness of the inner cognitive structure of seeing. What has to be pointed out is that we move through the world with ease physically, encountering people and things and cognitively interpreting it, a monumental task that happens as fast as we can “see.” 

The eye is always in the process of stabilizing the world so that we won’t stumble and wallow in the quicksand of incomprehension. I will demonstrate in this book that drawing is grounded in this ordering of perception and is a language that is just as descriptive as the spoken language. Aesthetics is an edifice built on top of this descriptive ability. Beauty and taste are achieved by those who know the language by heart and can stay with it and shape it to speak to more complex issues of the meaning of life. 

 When Kant developed his notion of aesthetics, the language used in the creation of art was fairly homogeneous. It was taught and acquired by all artists in Europe and by the time these artists were ready to create their own body of work, they had years of experience mastering the craft. Art historians could talk about the difference between Raphael and Michelangelo in terms of sensibility and refinement. Their language was for the most part identical, based on some rather solid visual structures, some of which were recent acquisitions such as perspective, but for the most part the language they used already existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The goal was not novelty but emulation of the past, and the glory went to the most perfect mimesis. 

Self Portrait done in 1969 at BU Tanglewood with compressed charcoal


  1. Very interesting. In my own teaching I begin with a simple exercise of five tennis balls on a table to introduce the specificity of point of view and then spatial relationships. Along the way I mention composition, scale, and proportion. After that I show them how to compose via negative space. At the end of the first session students are excited by learning how to see!

  2. Hi Phil. I have put a few more exercises up.One was stolen by Jerry Saltz without attribution. I hope to get this up as soon as possible on Kindle.I acknowledge you and your school.

  3. Thanks. I am genuinely impressed with the depth and erudition of your writing.