Monday, May 14, 2012

Clear and Distinct

Raise your hand if you remember Bishop Berkeley:

His sermon on the non-existence of matter so infuriated Samuel Johnson that Johnson kicked a rock while exclaiming, "I refute it thus!" Fortunately, Boswell was on hand to write down Johnson's witticism in his Moleskine. The gesture was clever, but I am far from the first to note that it doesn't address Berkeley's argument.

Berkeley's denial of the existence of matter (claiming, if I have it correctly, that it's simpler for the entire universe to be an Idea simulcast directly into all minds) was a relatively direct one-upping of Descartes' inward-turning method. Descartes wanted to use radical skepticism to eliminate all assumptions and establish a solid foundation for philosophical proposals. Descartes' method reduces his universe temporarily to his own mind (I think, therefore I am), but he builds back up from there to things like the proton, the electron, and the income tax. Berkeley doesn't.

I was reminded of all this at Spring Street the other night, when the phrase "clear and distinct" intruded on my thoughts. "Clear and distinct" is a philosophy phrase, which seems to go back to Descartes. Like the legal principle of the "reasonable man" test, it is less definable than it is useful.

Here's what I was drawing:

This model, Gabriel, is extremely hunky, and also waxed.

Descartes feels compelled to cook up the concept of "clear and distinct" as a fancy way to import axioms - unprovable foundational propositions - into his system of logic. Axioms are troublesome in all logical systems, because no system is capable of generating its own axioms. They're the stones on which the rest of the system is built. The trick is to minimize their number and choose them well.

Descartes, whom you will recall made a big stinking fuss about eliminating assumptions from his reasoning, so that he could derive only the truest of truths, addressed the embarrassing detail of axiom selection by claiming that he was going to, ahem, *assume* the truth only of things that were "clear and distinct."

In the Principles (pasting a quotation from here), Descartes offers the following by way of explanation:

I call 'clear' that perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind: just as we say that we clearly see those things which are present to our intent eye and act upon it sufficiently strongly and manifestly. On the other hand, I call 'distinct', that perception which, while clear, is so separated and delineated from all others that it contains absolutely nothing except what is clear.

This is pretty good work, and it seems to make sense, although subsequent philosophers have softened "clear and distinct" to mean approximately "stuff that I totally know what I'm talking about."

While I was drawing Gabriel, the concept of the "clear and distinct" returned to me after having taken a leave of absence of some years.

I was considering why it is that I draw men better than I draw women. It's not like I draw men more than I draw women. You show me a life drawing workshop which books more male than female models, and I will show you a life drawing workshop discoverable only to gay men by means of those mysterious channels of communication known exclusively to them.

So it's not a question of frequency. Let's approach the problem from another angle. Say you drag a civilian off the street into life drawing. In almost every case, the civilian will find it more congenial to draw a woman than a man. This is not entirely due to sexual preference; it holds true for the breederest of chicks and the homoest of dudes alike. Since I have personally dragged a few civilians off the street in my time, I can report that when asked why she preferred to draw women, Charlotte said, "Women are easier. You just have to make some curves."

I think this holds the key to the reversal in my own case. To a new draftsman, it is more congenial to draw curves, because you don't really have to get it right. You can get it in the right range, and it will read as more or less accurate, both to the draftsman and any person looking at the drawing. I am long past the point where this approximation is good enough for me when I'm in tight-drawing mode. I feel a need not just to get it right, but to get it absolutely perfect.

And yet, women, apart from Manou, are not clear and distinct.

 Manou, at whose approach swift-footed Achilles trembled

Consider a drawing I did only the night before I was drawing Gabriel:

This is Madison, who is in person a tiny little woman of fashion-model thinness. Even so, we can see here that her frame is constructed from a group of loose curves. There is no body of knowledge applicable to these curves. These curves are, one might say, akin to the cloud of unknowing. In fact, let us turn to The Cloude of Unknowyng itself, a bitchingly-titled medieval English treatise on how to come to know God:

For He can well be loved, but He cannot be thought. By love He can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

This is a pretty good description of how to draw a woman properly. In order to reproduce the unclear and indistinct curves one sees, one may consider anatomy, perspective, and all that, but then must cast them aside. One must perceive the curves directly, and discipline mind and hand into transcribing them faithfully.

Now, I've pretty much done that in the drawing above, but it was hard as all hell. I am under no illusion that I do a good job every time.

Let us return to Gabriel:

Take a particular look at that shoulder on the top left. He had his arm twisted behind his back during this ten-minute pose. Since Gabriel has, oh, at a guess, 5-6% body fat, the torsion of his shoulder visibly separated the fibers of his well-developed deltoid muscle into individual structures wrapping around the tubercles of his humerus. These structures were clear and distinct. Each one had a broad flat face, and beveled edges. Each one was separate from the others, and had a different relationship with the light source. Drawing Gabriel's deltoid was not a question of getting a curve about right. It was a matter of getting it right, or getting it fucking wrong.

For me, at this point, that is ever so much easier to do. There is a clear and distinct external referent (the model) which leads your own work, and with which your own work can be compared. You draw, you check - you did it or you didn't. Moreover, the external referent can be compared with a pre-existing body of anatomical knowledge which, however explicit or intuitive it may be, helps to guide the eye. One might as well fill out a times table.

With women, on the other hand, you draw, you check - and who knows? It looks about right. Maybe the hip is a little wider. Maybe the breast goes down a bit less at the bottom. Men are fundamentally similar; women take one million forms. You have to achieve transcendental clarity to have the revelation that allows you to see a woman clearly once, and then you have to achieve it again in order to check your work. Transcendental clarity, it turns out, is tiring.

Anyhow, that's what I thought about at Spring Street.

This post is for long-time reader Synamore, a close friend in real life who remarked recently that my new shtick of "thinking about other artists" will do, but what she really likes about the blog are the investigations of the mechanics of my working process. I think she may be onto something, so I wrote this up all for her.

In general, while I know that this blog has a fair amount of traffic these days, I am going right on pretending that I am basically writing letters to a group of seven or eight people - you know who you are - who have been good enough to read them since nearly the start. You guys keep me from getting tongue-tied altogether; thanks for sticking around.


  1. Thank you, Daniel! But you don't have to write anything for me specifically.

    The funny thing is, I've noticed over time this very thing about you - that your various drawings or paintings of, say, Claudia are sometimes of different Claudia-like beings, sometimes identifiably so and sometimes not, but your men are much more specific. However, as it makes it appear that you work with a vast array of female models, maybe you shouldn't worry about it. :)

  2. Interesting! I enjoy drawing both men and women but realize this is a little unusual...the majority of artists (both hobbyists and professionals) would rather draw women! Having taught life classes and with long experience of engaging models I am pretty certain of this. Because I like to keep the model mix at 50-50 male-female I am very accustomed to the inevitable complaints and suggestions from my students who think I should know that their preference is otherwise. My suspicion is that looking at a naked woman feels "safer" to most people than looking at a naked man.

  3. Wow, it had to feel so good to give these thoughts a place on paper! I really enjoyed the process of understanding this as I read, and am quite certain I'll be full of ponderings for some time. Thank you both, for inspiring each other and sharing!

  4. "breederest of chicks and the homoest of dudes"? Haha!

    This is really interesting. Do you suppose there are artists who find the more vague mechanics of seeing and drawing a female form more comfortable?

  5. I truly enjoy your ability to bring Descartes and Bishop Berkeley into a discussion about figure drawing, intellectuality and aestheticism combined with hilarious turns of phrase. I have to agree that "The Cloud of Unknowing" is bitchingly titled, and while I admire Samuel Johnson, I must say I find Berkeley's logic compelling!

  6. The philosopher F.J.Schoun once said that the man represents the Absolute and the woman the Infinite...

    I don't know if he ever did figure drawing.

  7. Y'all! It's gonna take me a bit to reply to all these comments. I'm sorry I'm so far behind. It's just been crazy around here, but I promise I'll get to it as soon as I have a few more minutes...

  8. Well! It turned out I have a minute right now.

    Synamore - maybe sometimes I *like* to write something for you specifically.

    I had no idea my drawings were reading that way. It's tough getting Claudia right. I know that my Piera and Leah drawings show some variation as well. Oh well. I enjoy your idea that artists, like common lotharios, would want to boast of being close with as large a number of women as possible.

    Nancy - I occasionally hear this idea as well, that naked women are "safer," and when I've been in the company of new attendees at life drawing, they invariably get the giggles about penises. It clears up after a few sessions, though, doesn't it? But the preference for women persists. I think you're onto something, and I think I am too, but I don't think either of us has the whole story.

    Weird - best screen name ever. And I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I do enjoy writing up what I'm thinking. Thanks for stopping by here!

    Ed - any day I make you laugh is a good day. And yes, I think this is absolutely the case, especially with the more color-oriented artists. It's tough to do subtle form and true color simultaneously; if you look at some of the paintings, they're richly colored and totally structureless woman-shapes.

    Fred - I'm glad you enjoyed that and didn't find it, for instance, unjustified and totally pretentious. I like throwing in the more interesting anecdotes I've come across from intellectual history, and that is really what I was thinking about at the time... Berkeley's logic is certainly more compelling than Johnson's, but, like virtually all ontology, they're both claiming unverifiable things, aren't they?

    River - I don't know Schoun, although a quick glance at his paintings suggests that if he did do life drawing, he didn't do very much of it. I take a "handle with care" advisory on systems claiming that people represent anything but themselves; not an automatic rejection, certainly, but an apply-veeeeery-critical eye. And I speak as someone who indulges in the same tic all the time.

  9. @Daniel

    It seems to be an observation he made based on the various religious traditions he was familiar with. The 'infinite' is sometimes swapped with the 'immanent' and 'absolute' with 'transcendent': it seems to be his clever adaptation of Paul's image: head and body.

    As for representing something other than themselves, I tend to think that our inter-representation is so dense and overwhelming that the error is in choosing a single claim as the only.

    Then again, it suggests a dangerous magic.