In Defense of Silly Art Books

I love art books. There are some seriously fancy ones out there (with similarly fancy price tags) and I love dreaming about getting them whenever I’m in a museum gift shop or something. And I own some pretty nice art books with fancy bindings, glossy photos, and interesting anecdotes about some amazing artists’ life. But you know what? I love looking at “fluffy” beginners art books as well, even though my skills are pretty well past the beginner stage.

This lady clearly knows how to party

This book was given to me by my aunt a few years ago. Not a huge fan of this lady’s art. But I love leafing through this book because it has so many tips and tricks to painting different subjects that, even if they may seem obvious, I don’t necessarily think to do when on the spot.

Start with the fragile color! GENIUS!

Even though I don’t do cheesy paintings of flower pots and “old masters” style still lives, I still just love looking at the process that she goes through, even if I don’t personally find the end result aesthetically pleasing. Books like this are useful in gathering things to add to my mental checklist when approaching certain subjects, which is always useful. For instance, I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed on my own that it’s useful to think of most flowers as conical in shape, to help with establishing value. Sometimes it’s good to review the fundamentals even if you’re at an intermediate skill level. I just think of it like Olympic athletes doing ordinary stretches/warmups that we all do before a workout before doing their superhuman feats.

Even though I know color theory and color mixing, I still love thumbing through books about them.This book is really useful in that sometimes I have a painting that needs a little something. Some sort of color to really bring it to life, or that will tie disparate colors together, etc- only I can’t seem to retrieve that color from my own mental catalog. In those cases, I whip out this book.

It basically just gives a bunch of color combos and how to achieve them. It also talks about how to mix specific colors and how to work with them (working with grays, greens, etc.) Sometimes it takes looking at a color on a page to realize that it’s exactly what a painting needs.

Sometimes we forget really basic techniques- they sort of get shuffled to the bottom of the toolbox. When that happens to me, I can just look through one of these books and be reminded “oh yeah! I can do this!” The endless possibilities that art making provides means that locating that special something, whether color, technique, or approach, can sometimes be difficult to find in our own cluttered minds. And sometimes, all one needs is a cheesy art book to retrieve that special “something.”

My First Life Drawing Experience

Taking a life drawing class is kind of what I was most looking forward to in my first half of college. Sitting/standing there, drawing nude models in a studio just makes one feel so artsy and professional. There’s a certain romance to depicting the nude figure, thanks in part, I’m sure, to Titanic. But anyway, I had my first life drawing class last semester, and I really enjoyed it! I thought it was an invaluable experience- one that every aspiring artist needs to have.

I’d had very limited experience with seriously drawing the figure when I started the class- I’d only taken a portrait drawing class in high school. I was also prepared for some awkwardness with the whole nude model thing (I’d heard some horror stories from other students of models being unprofessional) but it really was no big deal. We would promptly start class with a series of at least 10 gesture drawings. Initially, I had the typical struggles with this- fitting/centering the figure on the page, accurately depicting all main body parts (I had a few footless or headless gestures…), and just moving my hand fast enough. Learning how to draw a great gesture (that is, quickly, well-centered, proportionally and accurately,) is such a unique challenge, as it’s something that students rarely have any experience doing themselves. However, it’s an invaluable skill, in that it forces you to take in a complex subject (the human body) and break it into it’s most important parts,- all in 1-2 minutes. Basically, that means you have to do all of that without thinking. As a result, you develop a more accurate, quick, and skilled eye (and hand.) This makes your drawings of more extended poses more accurate. Good drawings almost always start with a good gesture.  In just one semester, I really saw an improvement in the quality of my gestures!

Gesture- Megan Koth

Most life drawing classes also include some sort of lesson on anatomy. In my case, this was a really involved part of the class. It was important that we learn and be able to identify the most important (i.e visible under the skin) muscles and bones. This was something I definitely had no experience with. I don’t even really remember studying much anatomy in high school. However, I recognized its importance (even though I loathe just looking at diagrams and memorizing). As a drawer/painter, you have to have as good of an understanding as possible of your subject. The human body is so complex that understanding how those complexities work makes an accurate depiction a lot easier. Why does that wrist look strange? Oh, it’s because I forgot the distal head of the ulna! Bam.

We also learned portrait drawing, which was more of a review for me, as I’d already taken a very involved portrait drawing class in high school. We also went over the typical fare- learning different ways to depict value (crosshatching, chalk, charcoal, planar analysis etc.) Of course, being a painter, I most enjoyed using the india ink washes on the last few days of class!

Ink Wash- Megan Koth

So, if you ever have the chance to take a life drawing class (with nude models!), take it! It’s such a valuable experience. Being able to tackle the complex subject of the human figure is a great skill to add to your artistic tool belt. Who knows, you might fall in love with it and figure painting/drawing may become a major part of your own work!

On Painting Using Photographic References

Over my years of pursuing art and being an art student, I’ve encountered many people- and they all often had strong opinions about using photographic references for making work. In my experience, the “older” instructors I met were more hostile towards using any kind of reference other than “real life” to make a painting. My younger instructors, mostly graduate students, were much more accepting and even emphasized that good photographic references could be necessary for a successful painting. The thing is, I agree with both of these sentiments, to a degree.

I absolutely agree that there is really no replacement for drawing/painting from life. Being a student, and therefore having participated in many critiques, it’s often immediately obvious when the entirety of somebody’s drawing “skill set” is essentially derived from their finding cool pictures online and copying them. The images, although of real life objects or people, become flattened and dull because of their limited source material. I’ll provide a picture of a horrible drawing I did in middle school as an example of this:

You can see the flatness I’m talking about (in addition to other problems…) They may be well executed copies of another 2-d image, but the aren’t great works in their own right. Seeing this kind of stuff is depressing because these people don’t realize that they pretty much don’t have any real drawing skills. I mean, drawing pictures from magazines or of your favorite actresses or whatever can be helpful in developing a more accurate eye/understanding of proportions, but being able to copy a 2-d image accurately isn’t exactly a difficult feat (although, maybe to a middle-schooler…) I mean, I was in an art marketing class this semester where a student was seriously shocked- SHOCKED! that he was violating copyright by drawing a favorite album cover and selling it. Or a girl who was SHOCKED to learn that making batman fanart could never (legally) make her any money. I weep.

Which is why, of course, one has to develop fundamental drawing/painting skills- and that means working from life. Transferring 3-dimensional space into a 2-dimensional composition presents a more involved challenge, and requires a higher understanding of space, lighting, anatomy, etc. than just working from a photograph. And it’s these skills that will make working from photographs when you need to much more successful- the idea is to make it look like you drew/painted from life, even when you didn’t have the opportunity to for whatever reason (models are expensive, for instance.) Understanding what a photograph does to a 3-d object and working with that knowledge, and the actual skills you have from working from life, is what it’s all about.

Megan Koth- Pointe Duc Hoc (16×20)  © 2011

For example, here’s a pretty recent painting I did based on a photograph that I took on a 2010 trip to France. As you can see, I didn’t exactly replicate the lighting and color. Instead, I created a more apparent and appealing cool/warm contrast with the rocks in the foreground and the grass in the background. I also decreased the blinding whiteness of the sky to a more neutral grey (part of that is just the bad lighting in the photo of the painting.) It’s not perfect, but is more interesting to look at than if I had directly copied everything in the photograph, especially if I had done so with no knowledge of working with 3-d space.

At the end of the day, a photograph is a captured moment in time- whereas a painting isn’t (although some mistakenly claim they are). For instance, when you look an someone’s self-portrait (not from a photo, of course) you’re usually seeing the face of the artist in intense concentration, and their face after making any number of small or large adjustments along the way to subtle changes in expression as the process goes on. In other words, a painting is an image that constantly changes- until it’s finished, that is.