Monday, March 21, 2011

Cast Drawing: Unexpected Lessons Learned

I'm really surprised by how many drawing and general art issues are raised by cast drawing.

I started out wanting to execute a cast drawing in the manner of the one I've seen in books (and online) that are done by the contemporary realist schools. These drawings are very illusionistic, to the point where you sometimes can't tell the difference between a photo of the cast and a photo of the drawing. I know that illusionism can be referred to as naturalism, but I'll use term illusionism instead, as the term seems to refer directly to the objective of creating an optical illusion of nature.

The various approaches to doing these drawings seem pretty much the same, as they describe a careful approach to sight size measuring (for linear placement) and side-by-side observation (for the tonal work).


What isn't made clear is that the linear part of the drawing, though very careful, does not exist for it's own sake, but rather to setup the tonal work. These types of cast drawings are not line drawings at all. It's as if the drawing is a super accurate tonal work, whose linear beginning is really just a super carefully measure linear placement. The value of the line drawing is to place obvious contour lines, and placing the lines of features. However, because so much of the drawing will ultimately involve much drawing (tonal mass drawing) in the interior, it is challenging to know what to measure with line, or what to observe with tonal work.

I'm am thinking of this distinction between measurement and observation. After all, it seems difficult to measure tonal masses. The core shadow line can be measured and lightly indicated, as can more obvious tones that are delimited by clear edges (that might have been part of the linear part of the drawing). However, smooth transitions of tone (by their nature) cannot be measured by an edge, and so they must be closely observed.

On the other hand, linear work can be measured more easily, even on smooth contours, since it is a rare smooth contour that can't be seen as a series of straight edges… i.e., the changes in line direction that result from the inevitable plane changes that occur on most things.

Of course, this distinction between measuring and observing is not absolute, as at times, it seems better to observe linear relationships, rather than measuring.

So I guess the point here is that cast drawing in this way highlights the boundary between line drawing and mass drawing, and that boundary is confusing. What is the value of line in a tonal drawing? How does line relate to tone in such a drawing.


A second issue that becomes really clear in this type of cast drawing is one that arises out of the objective of creating such a completely illusionistic drawing. The level of illusion is so complete that it seems to push beyond representation. It makes me wonder if illusion and representation are two different things.

Granting that no drawing is literally the same as the subject, and granting that all drawings employ some means… it still seems that illusion attempts to mimic the lines and tones of nature so closely as to be indistinguishable from (say) a photograph of the subject. Since a representation has to represent "in terms" of something, I wonder if illusionism can be said to be an "in terms of" translation. Instead, illusions of this nature seem to require a bit-by-bit sameness. Any deviation from illusion is considered a deficiency. But again, if there is no difference between a photo of the cast, and the cast itself, then where is the representation?


This issue is a continuation of the "illusion vs. representation" question. I could rephrase it by asking...Is Jacob Collins a greater painter than Da Vinci? Or for that matter, are any of the many well-trained contemporary realists better painters than master painters of the past?

This question first came up in my mind during my time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA), when various teachers would show reproductions of contemporary realists paintings in class. Imagine the situation... you're standing there in class struggling to paint the figure in something resembling reality, and the teacher shows you paintings that are illusionistic. I remember thinking that the level of illusion in those paintings was far more than in anything by DaVinci, or Michaelangelo, or Rubens, or Rembrandt, or Velasquez, or any of the master painters of the past that are so revered.

I tried to make this observation to a few people at the time, but I hardly had words for it. Now, the question becomes obvious. Think about it this way.... nobody confuses the Mona Lisa with a photograph. Michaelangelo's sculptures are not illusionistic. Rembrandt's portraits are strong representations, but I wouldn't call them illusionistic.

As far as drawings go, renaissance master drawings are certainly not illusionistic. Even the carefully rendered, long pose figure drawings from the Beaux Arts type students of the 19th century (which are pretty illusionistic) are not as illusionistic as what some contemporary realists drawings.

So the question is… how is it that 20th century contemporary realists can create these illusionistic drawings and paintings, yet they did not in the past? And does this represent an advancement? I suppose the answer here depends on what your standard is for art. If you think illusion is the goal, then the contemporary artists might be inherently superior. If some other form of representation is your standard, then they are not inherently superior


Achieving illusion seems to employ many the methods of traditional drawing, and then some. The "and-then-some" I have in mind is the meticulous and time consuming task of measuring line and observing tone so closely, that one can mimic ones optical perception. I'm not sure whether it is transcending representational drawing, or simply devolving into sheer observation.

If it is transcending representation, then how? What is the difference between representation and illusion that would be transcendent? One way I can think of describing the difference between a representational master drawing and an illusionistic drawing, is that the former was probably done in a few hours, whereas the latter might have taken weeks or months. What is achieved by this investment in time is a progressively more accurate drawing and tonal rendering. But what is the nature of this accuracy?

The accuracy is judged against visual perception. After all, with the sight-size approach, you visually compare one thing to another, with "sameness" being the standard. Achieving this sameness is no small matter, and it seems that some abstract processes are required to construct the drawing, and plan the tonal work, etc. To that degree, striving for the illusion sets up a series of drawing objectives. But it seems that these objectives, with all of their virtuous qualities and abstractness, end up simply serving as a scaffolding for a finishing process of progressively purer and purer observation.

Think about it. What does it mean to take a day or two to accurately measure and draw the cast, and to block out light and dark masses in a general way… only to then spend the next month meticulously toning in the interior one pencil point mark at a time? I cannot see the abstraction in it. If drawing is an abstract system of mark making, such that a drawing never ceases to be abstract… never shifts gears into pure observation... then what is the status of illusionistic drawing? It seems like illusionistic drawing does turn away from drawing system, and becomes pure observation… and it seems like it must do this… because it is measured against a direct comparison to our optical perception of nature.


I'm conflicted on this question. Obviously, I'm not talking from a vantage point of any kind of mastery of illusion. I'm sitting here struggling. Despite my critical tone, I'm actually finding the process of doing these drawings to be enormously useful in learning to draw better.

Illusion seems to be a good learning objective, in that to create an illusion, one must execute each step to a high degree. Any flaw in the linear drawing will wreak havoc with the later portions of the drawing. Any failure to observe tone well will mean your tonal ranges will be off, and the drawing will not compare to the subject. And so on and so on.

Illusion of this kind is so totally unforgiving, that you must execute the necessary steps flawlessly. That kind of pressure forces you to think and rethink and rethink again all your drawing steps. You are forced to understand these steps, to understand the order in which they are done, and how one steps leads to another… how one step affects another, etc. It's as if illusionistic drawing implies a firm grasp of general drawing knowledge and skill. I think this may be so, but I'm not sure.

The reason it may not be so, is that I can imagine people who are temperamentally suited to spending long periods of time engaged in close visual observation. I can imagine these people as being able to observe nature with a finer and finer scrutiny, and to make endless pencil point marks on paper to record their observations. Of course, it is fanciful to think that any human could simple observe isolated points of tone floating in their visual field. I know that these people must learn many things and execute several preparatory drawing steps before their natural abilities at close visual scrutiny can kick in. But, once it does kick in… are they actually drawing anymore? If drawing is understood as an abstract system of representation, does visual mimicry count as drawing?

These types of questions matter to me because I need to legitimize the time that would be required to produce an illusion. The two cast drawings I've done in the past two weeks have been representational, but not illusionistic. Would spending a month or more on tonal work be worth it. I can think of two possible answers. The first is that it is not worth it. This verdict would derive from the idea that illusion does not transcend representation, but simply devolves into a non-abstract perceptual approach that is devoid of artistic selection.

The other answer would be that it is worth it. This verdict could be based on the presumption that sophisticated tonal work, and the illusion it creates, is an end in itself. However, I don't believe that is illusion is an end in itself. In which case, the only reason I can see why it is worth it would be that pursuing a complete tonal illusion would force me to account for all perceptible reality set before me, and that such a strict and difficult exercise would expand my visual awareness in some way. This actually doesn't sound unreasonable, though I would rather know ahead of time that this was true, as it would something big like that to motivate me spend so much time on apparently mundane tasks.

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