Friday, March 28, 2008

Drawing with mechanical and optical aids

Marmande - study #1
7" x 5", coloured pencils

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Artists have been using mechanical and optical aids to help them with their drawing for a very long time. However views about which are "OK" and which are not tends to vary quite a bit and can, on occasion, stimulate lots of debate!

This post provides an overview - with links - to some of the aids which artists have used to help them get an image down on a surface over the centuries. At the end of this post, you'll hear about one which many of you may not have heard about or tried before.

Historical mechanical and optical drawing aids

In the past some artists used the camera obscura to produce images. The most famous artist who is believed to have used one being Johannes Vermeer. If you've ever wanted to find out more about how it works or look at one, the wikipedia article provides an extensive explanation plus a list of sites around the world where they still exist.

The camera lucida is another device which has apparently been used to aid drawing as it allows the artist to see both image and drawing simultaneously.

The development of linear perspective in art is one of those subjects which is hugely intriguing in relation to the devices which were developed in order to try and get it right. Bruce MacEvoy (Hand print) provides us with a masterful overview of all of this in his elements of perspective. It includes images of the various perspective machines which were invented and descriptions of the different ways and tools - including the perspective grid - which people used to try and to get to grips with linear perspective

A Claude Glass was used to simplify the tonal pattern of a view and is associated with the great French landscape painter Claud Lorraine. The odd thing about it was that the user had to turn away from the view to use it!

Modern drawing aids

Today the devices people use are both simpler - and more complicated!

Let's start with the really complicated! I'm a complete novice when it comes to the digital applications which can now create the same effects as some of the historical devices. However I gather rather a lot can be done using digital software. I do know it can be used to visualise three dimensional structures when producing graphical imagery whether it's in films, comics or just home improvement shows!

Coming to the much simpler end of things - I've got a section on the drawing aids I use in my website's section about Art materials and other resources.

Probably the most popular drawing aid that we use today is the camera. Photography is used by artists who make extensive use of aids to copy photographs and by artists who just use photos as references to supplement any sketches or paintings done in front of the subject. Developing your skills in using a camera can pay dividends.

Assessing values is always important when drawing and can be difficult if you're drawing in difficult light. You can also see on my website the very simple Val-U-Viewer I use. The red acetate in this renders a coloured image (whether the subject or your own work) into a monochromatic value pattern. The use of a preprinted value scale can also be incredibly useful if you're trying to translate colour into value.

When I'm out sketching I often take a very simple card viewfinder with me - or I use my camera's zoom lens and viewfinder to try cropping a view in different ways even if I don't take any photos. It's a lot easier and quicker to make decisions about what works if I've got something blanking out what is around it. I've also got another card which helps with checking scale when out and about. You can see images of both in the drawing aids section.

I mostly draw freehand but sometimes I use a simple grid system when working on a complicated drawing. It's mainly used to ensure I get proportions correct if I'm trying to do an accurate drawing of a building. You can see an example in this post Palacio de Mondragon, Ronda. I tried doing it freehand and just found I could not get the arches right - so out came the grid for that small section in the centre of the work!

Some people use tracing paper to trace from photographs. Personally, I find tracing incredibly boring and longwinded and reduces the scope to practice my freehand drawing skills. As a result I have used it precisely once in the last 10 years - and that was in a class I took! However for some people it can be quicker than drawing freehand. To be useful it really needs to be used by an artist who knows how to correct for photographic distortion and also understands their subject well and what is misrepresented in a photograph. I also think it works better when used in a minimalistic way to get the proportions of big shapes and very critical small details otherwise drawings can develop a cardboard cut-out 'look'.

Some people use projectors - and then place their paper on the surface which is being projected on to. Again, this has the same potential problems as tracing in relation to copying from photographs - which often 'lie' and misrepresent. With projection comes the added complication of inadvertently projecting at an angle and adding in an additional distortion.

Print a digital image onto art paper: This is the 'new' technique which I've not seen documented anywhere before (until I read the May copy of American Artist) - although I have to say I had come to the conclusion some time ago that it was being used by some artists. The technique involves converting a computer image of a photograph into a grey and white version and then printing it out direct onto Stonehenge paper or acetate suitable for printers. I'm not clear whether this is intended to just print line or it prints both line and tone. However, whichever it is this is very fast compared to tracing for more complicated and/or larger works. Of course it brings with it all the same caveats and reservations which mechanical copying is subject to. Output size is also limited by the type and size of printer. Naturally it will also only work with supports which can be used in a printer - which means it can't be used by artists using heavier weight supports and boards such as pastelbord.

Now - given we're coming up to the 31st March deadline for entries to this year's CPSA Annual Exhibition, it's worth noting that the rules of CPSA state quite clearly that
No images produced by drawing over a digital reproduction allowed.
CPSA annual exhibition prospectus: specifications 2008
So what this means is that this last method is strictly off limits for that competition. It will also not be allowed for the UKCPS exhibitions as from 2009.

I don't believe this point got highlighted in the major online debates about 'copying from photos' and 'collaborations' which were a hot topic in the coloured pencil world at the beginning of this month - but it's worth emphasising. The bottom line is it may be a useful technique but it can cause problems if you want to enter competitions.

Personally I will continue to subscribe to the view that the best technique of all for me is my constant practice of freehand drawing skills. Like regularly doing small studies from life such as the one at the top of this post. It's no great shakes either as a composition or a finished piece of work - but then I was only drawing a couple of tomatoes out of the fridge and doing quick studies like these keep my hand-eye co-ordination for drawing in good working order!

The question of what is the right balance between an artist exercising their own personal drawing skills or supplementing with skills they've developed in the use of mechanical or optical devices is one of those never-ending debates in visual arts. I'm one of those who leans more towards the personal rather than the technological end of the range of options. But that's because I LIKE drawings which aren't exact and don't always look like photographs.

Whatever the answer is it's certainly the case that many artists have used aids of various sorts for their drawing for centuries.

Do you use a drawing aid which I've omitted? Which method do you favour and why? Which way do you lean - towards an emphasis on hand-eye co-ordination or the use of technological aids?

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