Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Always Be Wrong

Back to art.

A while ago, I wrote a long post that could be described as an extended justification of my aversion to the gestural sketch. And let me just say that by god, I was right.

But I was also wrong. And my being wrong in this instance demonstrates, to me at least, that it's important not only to always entertain the possibility of being wrong, but also to be actually wrong, as frequently as your schedule permits.

What happened was this. I was at Spring Street and Leah was modeling, and I decided to try and do the entire figure during the 1-minute and 2-minute poses. Usually, I select some extremely small part of the body and draw it in my usual finicky way for really short poses:

That's how I match my interest in detail with the time constraints. But during this one session with Leah, I felt like I should use the time the way normal people do:

And this was tremendously rewarding: models often take very interesting poses for the short ones - poses they couldn't hold for longer intervals. Ace model and blogger Claudia writes marvelously about it here. That's not all there was to it for me, though. I also had to do something that I don't usually do. Let me explain in terms of my favorite metaphor resource, calculus.

In calculus, the integral of a function is the area underneath the curve defined by the function. Let's look at it visually. You have a curve, that you call a function. The notation for this function is "f(x)." The use of "f" is arbitrary - it could be any letter:

graphic swiped from here

The integral of this function from point a to point b on the x-axis is the area that's shaded green. The integral is represented using the notation printed in the green area in the graphic. A whole big part of intro calculus is figuring out the values of integrals. This is called integration, and there are standard formulae for how to integrate a variety of functions.

The reason integration is a whole big part of intro calculus is that it's hard as hell to do. Sometimes you have to use tricks. One such trick is called integration by parts. Integration by parts is a trick you use when you run into a function you just can't integrate. So you chew on the function for a while, and you realize that this function is actually a product of two simpler functions. If you can integrate those simpler functions, you can apply a special "integration by parts" formula, and integrate your more complicated original function.

Get it?

You have to integrate f(x). But you can't. Then you notice that f(x) = g(x) x h(x). You can integrate g(x) and you can integrate h(x). Given that, you can use a formula that gives you the integral of f(x).

Life drawing, for me, is a process of integration by parts. I can't draw a whole body. Well, I'm lying. I can, but I don't like to. I'm lazy. I like to draw a knee, or a shoulder, or whatever. Those are my g(x) and h(x). So I integrate those parts, and then I use the integration by parts formula to make a whole picture - in this metaphor, f(x) is the function "the entire figure," and the integration by parts formula is "make the parts the right size and in the right place relative to one another."

So my 1-minute pose drawings are usually the raw product of an incomplete integration by parts - the drawings are integrated parts, but the entire function is not integrated.

And my 80-minute drawings, nice though they may be, are also integrated by parts. I have not gone directly for the entire area under the curve. I've just found it out by means of a bunch of tricky steps.

When I did those 1- and 2-minute drawings of Leah, I wasn't using my usual tricks. I was integrating f(x) directly. I did it again with her 5-minute poses:

Doing all of this was like getting a bucket of cold water to the face. It's good for you to get this kind of bucket of cold water to the face sometimes. It reminds you that you're not all that, that things can be tough and you don't know everything.

Also, it opens up new possibilities. For instance, the next week Natalya was modeling at Spring Street, and she did a really cool 10-minute pose. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have noticed the entire pose, because I'd have quickly scanned her for a 10-minute-drawing part, and zoned out on the rest. But because I had just been practicing seeing the entire figure all at once, I saw the whole pose and felt like I ought to draw it:

I like this so much I think I'll make a damn painting of it, that's what I think. So - I got a painting out of my exercise, and I also loosened up my attitude: I brought more life into my work.

In that earlier post, I was right that my brain naturally seizes on details, from which I build up an image. I was wrong that it's reasonable never to go against this tendency.

Why is it important to be wrong?

Let me quote for you a bit of monologue from one of my favorite films, Andrey Tarkovsky's Stalker. This monologue has walked beside me ever since I first heard it:

Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being.

Always be wrong. You will become a better artist if you are wrong than if you are right.


  1. thank you. not sure remember my calculus however. I don't think about the math, just trying to paint what i see is hard enough

  2. Ah yes, I remember my calculus professor (-from 50 years ago) quite well, a thick German accent and a Prussian mustache so I couldn't lip read. Needless to say I didn't develop a satisfactory grasp of the subject at the time. Luckily by the time I needed it I could write a couple of Basic programs that would come up with very satisfactory derivatives and integrals that would run on my Apple II+. If you think of an integral as counting the imaginary squares under the curve on an imaginary sheet of graph paper, you see it's an easy program to write to any level of accuracy desired (more accurate = smaller squares.).

    Sigh, Daniel, I enjoy your posts tremendously but they often send me off on a tangent such as the above. Back on subject, bottom line: "Always be wrong. You will become a better artist if you are wrong than if you are right."

    Couldn't agree more. It's our mistakes that we learn from. -or from other's mistakes if we're alert. For example you, as an aspiring writer could learn from my last sentence wherein if used a preposition to end a sentence with. :-)

    ...and, the point I originally wanted to make was that mistake-wise I'm luckier than you, in so far as I paint only for pleasure and not for profit, I can afford to make plenty of mistakes. Of course if I learn anything from them is another subject.

    BTW: I'll have to experiment with your 'g(x) and h(x)' I'm the type that throws down a bold line defining the figure dynamic and then fills in the parts. So! Gonna try g(x) and h(x) and I'll make plenty of mistakes, you betcha (not that I don't make plenty when throwing down a bold line, of course).

  3. GREAT post, Dani. And very timely for me, actually. I've been doing a lot of thinking about how I'm very afraid to make mistakes with my art, which definitely prevents me from pushing myself. Thanks for this.

    And, in your very first drawing above, bottom right, one of your better bellies, which is saying a lot.

  4. "I would like to come on this blog again and again."

  5. For awhile there, I thought this was the dumbest post I've ever read.

    Thank goodness I was wrong.

    Realizing that you're wrong is more liberating than always being right, I think. BTW, great studies too!

  6. I always think of calculus functions when I'm doing short poses. Just kidding :lol:

    Actually, I never got past trig.

    Great post Daniel, and wonderful drawings!


  7. Quick poses are always the most interesting poses. The only way to capture them is to learn how to draw very efficiently and quickly. I had actually never seen quick drawings of the whole figure by you. The ones in this post are pretty good!

  8. the problem I find is in the time it takes to discover you're wrong.
    Can you factor that into the equation?

  9. Anonymous - No problem! And I'm not saying you should actually be thinking about math when you paint. I just have a couple quirks, is all.

    Jim - I've never been to Anchorage, but I read your note right before going to sleep, and dreamt that I was flying into the city in a small twin-prop plane, and it was a single block of sunlit subdivisions with literally nothing to do. And I thought, "No wonder Jim has time to write such involved comments on my blog."

    You're not the only one who can write tangential replies!

    Anyhow, I'm glad you enjoy the posts and keep finding time to read them and write up the thoughts you have about them! And I'm glad the idea of it being important to be wrong resonated with you.

    Ed - I'm glad this post came up at the right time for you to get the most from it. I'm very much looking forward to seeing where you go with your art.

    And that's Leah's belly. We all know what I think of Leah's belly.

    Pengo - isn't it a bit beneath you to be making fun of a robot? They do their best, you know. Unfortunately, that comment isn't going to survive, because I'm about to report it as spam. On the other hand, that's a major jump up the ladder for me, I think - my blog is now popular enough that the robots are turning up.

    Kevin - very funny. My readers are all cards. Great. Anyhow, I think the fear of being wrong is a big impediment to progress. I'm glad you like the studies.

    Claudia - trig killed me too. And I can totally see you solving two equations in two unknowns during your short poses. :) Thanks for checking in over here!

    Fred - you betcha, they are definitely the most interesting. Claudia is *amazing* at short poses. I'm glad you like the entire figures in this post. They're not up to par, obviously, because I hardly ever do them...

    Nathan - I can't help you! Being open to being wrong definitely saves time, but even when you think you are, in my experience, you aren't. Nobody wants to be wrong. Art just takes as long as it takes, which in my case, is a really long time. Good luck!