Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is classical drawing?

People speak of classical drawing (or classical painting) as if it were something definite. Art schools offer classes in drawing the figure, portrait, still life, and landscape... with the emphasis on drawing things as they appear. Those contemporary artists who call themselves classical realists assert that they produce classical drawings, and that they teach classical drawing methods. In addition to this, when people say they want to learn to draw, they probably have in mind some traditional notion of drawing whereby their drawings are realistic renderings. But what exactly is classical drawing?

First of all, let's suppose that classical drawing really does describe something definite, and that it is our job to figure it out. Let's begin by considering what classical drawing might look like. Upon hearing the term, we might be put in mind of the many drawings we might have seen in books or museum that show accurate renderings of figures and faces and objects, usually with a elegance or beauty of line and tone that is missing from modern and contemporary art. On the other hand, if we look carefully, we'll see that these drawings can be quite different from each other ways. But leaving these differences aside, what is the nature of their perceived similarities... and are these similarities the classical element we're looking for? Maybe... but let's consider another question.

Can we locate classical drawing in art history, and if so, which period would it belong to? A likely suspect would be the drawing of the French neoclassical artist, such as Ingres, David, or Prud'hon. But given the long history of art, you would think that maybe we're leaving some people out by only looking at neoclassicism. What of Michaelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Durer... artists who worked in different historical periods. Holding up neoclassicism as the defining reference for classical drawing seems inadequate.

Part of the problem here is the varied usages (and thus ambiguous meaning) of the term classical. The term is thrown around a lot, and applied to a broad variety of experiences, where it typically reduces to some idea of something beautiful, or traditional, or old fashioned, or elegant, or non-modern, etc. Perhaps the term classical is simply another one of those terms floating around our mental space that has long since been ripped from it's historical moorings and fixed meaning, and has been subject to definition through usage.

The problem with definition through usage is not that a word will take on multiple definitions that are context dependent. After all, many words have multiple definitions that have evolved over time. The problem is that even within a specific meaning, the usage of the word doesn't refer to the same thing. This is the case with the term classical, as we have seen above. The word become ambiguous. This makes it less useful, as we have to unpack it's meaning each time we hear it. We have to figure out what the person saying it means by it, and often what they mean when they say classical can vary greatly. For this reason, it is worth getting to the root of the word classical, and reconstructing what is meant by it historically. Perhaps the historical meaning will seen to have lost it's authority over time, but maybe not. In either case, it is illuminating to consider.

The term classical is traditionally meant to refer to Greek and Roman culture. In the context of this discussion, we will simply refer to Greek art. Our knowledge of Greek drawing is very slight, as little of it survives. Greek art focused more on architecture and sculpture than on drawing and painting. If the meaning of classical drawing is not rooted in examples from the classical period, then where does it come from?

The idea of classical drawing does not derive from a historical period nor from the work from any one historical period or from a combination of works taken from one or more of these periods. It is not synonymous with the Ancient Greeks, or the Renaissance Italians, or the Dutch Masters, or the French Neo-classicists, or with any group... though depending on who you ask, they may have one or the other group in mind, based on their personal preference. This is the case with the aforementioned contemporary classical realists, who define classical drawing by pointing to French neoclassicism.

The only way to consider classical drawing as a definite thing is to not define it in reference to artists, periods, or examples... but rather to define it abstractly by reference to the classical view of art. The classical view of art (as originated by the Greeks) is that of imitation. Art imitates life. This imitation takes the form of the art object. The art object is not the thing in nature being imitated, but rather a translation of it from the visual awareness (of the artist) to the specific medium the artist uses. The medium can be drawing, painting, or sculpture... and the materials can be as varied as charcoal, graphite, oil, watercolor, clay, marble, etc. Clearly then, the artist does not literally imitate nature, but instead uses his awareness of the visual properties of nature to fashion his materials into a representation.

Of particular note in the sentence above is the phrase "awareness of visual properties".  This awareness is something more than just being able to see the thing we seek to represent. The awareness has to be formalized into some form of knowledge, even if very slightly, because human consciousness is not capable of directly grasping the continuous and infinite details of nature. All human apprehension relies on constructing models in our minds to account for the boundless details of raw nature. These models can be complex or very naive. But they exist at every level.

The artist who professes to clear his mind as a precondition to making his art, cannot literally do so. After all, he must still make decisions on size of the art, the point of view, the material, etc. And as the work progresses, he must work in some kind of order... working on one part of the art, and then another, and so on... and if he steps back to critique his work, he no doubt drags ideas into his process. The only way to literally clear one's mind of ideas while making art is to be bounded by nothing, not even presumptions about objects in space, in which case the art object will bear no resemblance. Some people do proceed this way, but they do not generate representations.

Knowledge is required NOT because we require knowledge to see things, but because we need knowledge to make representations of what we see. This is what classical means at it's most basic. Any and all knowledge and skill that goes to representing nature by way of visual abstractions can be considered classical in a general sense.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. This says it all in such a clear precise way. I appreciate it so much.I'm printing this. I take a once-a-month painting class by a renowned artist who shows in galleries around the world. She considers herself a contemporary realist. I know she can paint or draw anything and is an amazing artist. She told our painting class that we all need to take a drawing class. I listened and am taking what is called French Classical Drawing. When I googled this came up. I enjoy drawing and took a few drawing classes over thirty yrs ago but this is one of the most difficult classes I've EVER taken. The first class we worked with 3-4 lines using popscicle sticks! Three hours of making lines and measuring everything. I normally would have just sketched it quickly and it would have been okay. But I realize I've been too easily satisfied and I must strive for MORE. I still have so much to learn but I feel if I can just absorb and learn even a fraction of this class I will be so much better! Thank you
    for giving us this history of fine art.