Abstracting for Accuracy

One of the most common challenges art students beginning their journey must overcome is the tendency to see symbols based more on the sensation of touch than on the visual reality in front of them. This way of seeing the world is almost universal amongst children. In his book ‘The Practice and Science of Drawing’ Harold Speed explains this through the above diagram. Picture A shows a typical child’s drawing. The nose is drawn as a triangle as that is what a nose roughly feels like on the face, the eyes are simple circles. If the child’s first attempts at drawing were more based on what they saw, they might come up with something more like Picture B, where a few indications of simple shadow are enough to give us the impression of a face in lighting.  

One of the most fundamental ways to get away from this symbolic idea of reality, and to begin to see nature as it is, is to simplify our goals when working from life and to attempt only to get the shadow and light shapes correct. This will, even on its own, go a long way to allowing us to grasp a strong likeness of our subject and its lighting. Step one of this cast painting demonstration (also from Harold Speed’s book) shows us just how much of a likeness can be achieved merely through drawing an accurate shadow shape. 

However, even with our minds focused entirely on this simplification, the tendency to think in symbols can still get in our way and cause mistakes to creep in to our work. One way to avoid this is to find ways to abstract what we are seeing, allowing us to focus more fully on two-dimensional shape accuracy. One of the ways we can go about this abstraction is to focus our attention on the ‘negative shapes’ of the subject before us, that being the shapes caused by the silhouette of our subject. Painter Solomon J. Solomon was an advocate of this method. In his book ‘The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing’ he says, ‘The student will, I am sure, follow me when I ask him if, having drawn the south coast of England and the north coast of France, he cannot readily prove the correctness of the relative positions of these coasts by assuring himself that the shape of the English channel lying between them is correct?’ The image above, from the same book, demonstrates how you may approach seeing nature in this way. Considering the negative shapes first can provide a huge help for us as we strive for accuracy.    

Another way to abstract shapes we see that LARA students have a lot of fun with is to ‘characterise’ them. We can think of each shape as being a character, animal or creature of some kind instead of merely a shape. Thinking in this way can allow us to perceive the subtle problems in our drawing that would otherwise be difficult to notice. For example, you might not notice if a shape is too wide, but you may find it easy to notice if your creature has become a bit overweight.

These are only two of the potentially infinite ways that you can approach abstracting your subject and students would be well advised to have fun coming up with as many ways as possible to check the accuracy of their work. The more ways we have, the more likely we are to catch mistakes before they become troublesome.

by Charlie Pickard

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