Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Further on Seeing and Knowing

Hi there - again, apologies for the silence.

So here's something a little interesting. I was at Spring St. the other night, drawing Leah (of course). These sessions end with two 40-minute poses (each broken into two sets of 20). This was what I drew during the first pose:

Daniel Maidman, Leah’s Torso from the Side, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

And here's what I drew during the second one:

Daniel Maidman, Leah, End of a Long Day, 2012, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

If you study them a bit, you'll find that the first one is much more distinct and specific, with a higher value range and greater detail to the structures. It is, however, a little wonky in its proportions - the torso is slightly elongated.

The second, in comparison, is flatter. And yet the second one has a more cohesive sense of the entire body as a single unit relating to itself in three-dimensional space.

The first one looks more real; the second more right.

Here's what happened. This second pose was taking place from 9:20 to 10:00 p.m. at the end of, as the title would imply, a long day. My eye was starting to lose its sharpness. And the pose itself was kind of a leaning-forward affair. So Leah was tending to lose altitude: she gradually pitched forward during each of the 20-minute sittings. Ordinarily, I can compensate for a fairly large amount of change in a pose, but with this one, I was out to sea - the lighting changed, the angles on all the major structures shifted significantly; her face was nearly hidden by the time the bell rang.

This is not a knock on Leah, by the way. It happens with every model now and again.

Since I was dealing with an unstable visual reference for the drawing, I had to depend much more than I usually do on what I knew rather than what I saw. I sketched out important structures and shapes at the start of each of the two sittings, and then filled them in throughout the pose on the basis both of what I saw, and of my understanding of proportion, anatomy, light, and shadow.

The first drawing is informed by my knowledge, but dominated by my observation. My observation, traveling as it does part-by-part, introduces proportion problems into the drawing. The second drawing is informed by my observation, and dominated by my knowledge. The proportions are pretty good, but the details are vague.

We have discussed this dichotomy before, but I'd like to present here a comparison of the work of several artists in relation to the two-dimensional space suggested by the observation/knowledge dichotomy. Consider the space:

You will notice that I've pulled a bit of a fast one with you here - The vertical axis discussed not prioritization of knowledge, but amount of knowledge available. I think it's more useful that way. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

In quadrant I, I would place nos ami Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823):

Seated Female Nude, Pierre Paul Prud'hon

I'm almost sure this is the drawing that, one time, I saw the drawings by the guys on either side of him in the life drawing workshop. They showed the same pose from slightly different angles and, yes, this was a real chick who actually sat like that and clearly kind of looked like that. But Prud'hon, being a knowledge-prioritizing guy who knew the jesus out of his anatomy, stylized her structure and smoothed out what he was looking at.

In quadrant II, you will find blog favorite Stephen Wright. Steve, like Prud'hon, knows the jesus out of his anatomy:

Undated Elbow Joint Study, Stephen Wright

But he is a high-observation artist, not a low-observation artist. His knowledge serves as a foundation for his exploration of what catches his eye. When the thing he sees contradicts the thing he knows, he throws out what he knows. When the thing that interests him contradicts what he knows, he throws out what he knows.

fun challenge: see if you can spot the proportion error

In quadrant III, let's place French savant and lunatic Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)(note: not actually French). I can't be bothered to read a biography of Van Gogh, but based on looking at his work, I'm going to conclude that either he totally rejected, or never really integrated, a thorough understanding of anatomy as a hierarchical outlook on the structure of the human body. On the other hand, he observed intensely, atomistically. I am thinking particularly of his 1882 drawing Sorrow:

Van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882

Incidentally, this is his prostitute girlfriend who eventually ran off, like everyone else he knew, because it was impossible to sustain the intensity of his company. What's interesting about this drawing is that in some respects, it's very like the totally naive drawing of a child. A child who is working on drawing from observation will awkwardly and directly trace out the shapes of the thing observed. Sometimes it comes out right, sometimes wrong; but there is a sort of ignorant fidelity to the seen. It is as if Van Gogh has been drawing in this naive way for decades. He has refined it, become artful with it, but has never seen any particular reason to puncture the conceptual boundaries of childlike representation. And, in fact, I think this grass-and-soil-level perspective characterizes all of his work. He dissolves in his subject, armed only with his ignorance. But his ignorance is a mighty sword.

Van Gogh, Portrait Of The Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888 or 1889

Finally, we come to the seemingly perverse quadrant IV: less knowledge, and less observation. Whom could we find creeping about there?

Oh, right.

Renoir, Les Baigneuses, 1918

Contemptible sack of shit Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), that's who.


I am amenable not only to my individual classifications here being off the mark, but to the idea that the entire system is a matter of classification-for-classification's-sake. It is not necessary to make a system out of every little thing. I just thought it was kind of interesting, when I thought about it while comparing the Leah drawings I was drawing.

While we're on the topic of Leah - and, lately, when aren't we? - let me clear up a little misunderstanding which has crept into the discourse. In the time that I've been working with her, Leah has become prominent on the New York art modeling scene, and is the subject of fairly many drawings, paintings and, most relevant here, conversations. During these conversations, I will often hear Leah described as looking like a Renaissance painting. Wrong.

"Renaissance painting" is not a generic term denoting "the opposite of rough on the eyes." Here's a Renaissance painting:

You know who this looks like?

That's right.

Leah does not look like a Renaissance painting. She looks like a Gandharan Buddha sculpture of the Hellenistic period.

I'm glad I could clear that up for you.


  1. Wow, you don't usually see Buddha statues with a porno mustache. Leah would probably look good with a porno mustache, though. Leah has so much style she could totally rock it.

    Among the quadrant examples you post, I abhor the Renoir, like the Prud'hon, really like the Wright, and love the Van Gogh. I don't think my reactions have anything to do with your axes of observation and knowledge, though. That Van Gogh drawing has feeling in every single stroke. That makes it feel more alive than any of the others.

    1. I'm sure Leah would love to be able to grow a pornstache. The sculpture is at the Met (I took the picture), and it's labeled Bodhisattva Shakyamuni, but I did enough research to suggest it would be just as reasonable to label it Buddha - they seem to mean the same guy. I guess all we really learn from this is that, contrary to my earlier understanding at least, the fancy mustache arrived in Pakistan before Mohammed.

      I certainly wasn't proposing the axes as criteria for interpretation of quality. I could just as well have put Redon, who rules, in quadrant IV. I just have it in for Renoir, as you know, so I thought I'd kick him around some more. I agree with you about the Van Gogh lines. To some extent, I feel like he couldn't have done that if he hadn't worked as he seems to have.

      I'm sure Steve will be copacetic with your ranking of preference.

  2. I suppose the less knowledge/less observation axis is the idealist quadrant, where it's not knowledge of the thing or direct observation, but the ideal of how it ought to be that drives the drawing.

    Reminds me of most abstract art, frankly...

    I wonder though, if there is anyone good at it? I mean, who produces work that is amazing despite no knowledge or observation?

    1. I was just remarking on this to Fred - I would tend to put Redon in that category; he needed very little from outside in order to furnish his work. This suggests the missing third axis in my graph: vision.

    2. ugh... please, for the love of god, don't start trying to graph in 3-space! Stick with 2!

    3. Ya know... for about three minutes, I considered googling around to find a java applet that would generate a stereogram of a 3D graph based on data you entered, so I could post it and everyone could cross their eyes to see it correctly. But then I thought that would make me kind of a jerk. Right?

    4. It's octants. You just flatten it out like an orange:

      2d graph 1

      2d graph 2

      As one who deals with 3d graphics, I can tell you slices are your friend!

      (So who would fall into less vision/ less knowledge/less observation? Still just Renoir? ;) )

  3. A wee bitty off topic, but to me it is interesting that you are using men drawing women as your example. Would the graph have any meaning for landscapes?

    Also dislike Renoir in general (esp in regards to his attitudes to women), but his show at the Frick recently was certainly a burst of colour and generally pleasing.

    1. Jane - interesting! But since the history of art, as far as I can tell, is about 86% men drawing women, it's not an unlikely confluence.

      Although I will cop to having selected work that was generically related to the work that started the line of thought.

      I do think it would have some meaning for landscapes, but I don't know landscape painting very well. England would dominate quadrant II, with Schiele and Klimt in III. I have no idea where you'd put Turner. I'm inclined to put Blake in IV, but very far out on the positive side of the third, vision axis.

      I went to the Barnes one time (I think it was the Barnes) to verify my thoughts on Renoir, and boy howdy did I verify how much I hate him. I'm glad you got some pleasure out of seeing the work - my best friend actually first became aware of art as a distinct category of thing, in confrontation with Renoir. But how I wish it had been Velazquez.

  4. Oh, I just think it can be useful with concepts to see if they apply in other situations. With landscape artists, for example, there is an awful lot less emphasis on knowledge, and a widely accepted need to move trees around etc. After all, one of the reasons to become a landscapist is to justify jollies around the world.

    Renoir's early work tends to be the best - like the ones of dances that I saw, full of light and colour. But the older he got, the more stupid his women look, unfortunately.