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The Death of Drawing

October 21, 2010

                                   Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Jan Van Eyck, 1434

If you want to get artists and art historians all riled up, bring up the controversial Hockney-Falco Thesis about certain Old Masters using mirrors or lens-based tools to capture images and basically trace the underlying drawing for their paintings.  If you are unfamiliar with this theory, the Wikipedia is actually really good:


To what extent certain artists created the underlying drawings for their paintings is highly contested to this day.  Experts of various stripes come down on different sides of the fence for whether any particular painting from the 1400s onward was composed by hand drawing skills or through a mechanical device such as a camera obscura such as this one [short, less than three minute video after the link]:


The death of drawing is pretty well accepted in painting currently, although it interferes with the concept of the artist as a master creator; so many currently famous artists that “trace” using projected images and other mechanical means do not broadcast the fact too loudly.  Sometimes the admission is plainly stated.  Some artists keep the mechanical production of the composition more on the downlow and keep the final painting itself in the spotlight.

The list of famous artists that I know that use mechanical reproduction to replace drawing is pretty long.  I feel people accept this more readily today because we are saturated with image replication technologies so using them makes sense; the drawing is consumed by the paint, so it is the painting which is the valued object.  How you arrive at a final painting is less of an issue to our current times.  When you start applying the idea of the death of drawing retroactively and favor the idea of mechanized means of tracing as having been used by the old masters and artists of the Renaissance, that is when you just went and poked a plump ideological hornet’s nest with a stick.

We put the sacred works in the Western canon on a pedestal of human achievement; implying certain artists cheated and traced the works somehow risks diminishing the value of the work.  A popular argument for certain works being hand drawn is the lack of texts or references in letters or diaries about the tools or technology in the writings of the artists.  I would expect that to be the case; these were competitive artists, newly becoming aware of each other across great distances and in different countries, comparing themselves to the works of prior generations.  Why would any of them arm the competition, even if the competition would be in a future generation?  Why would they share such hard won knowledge?  Some of these artists were angling for the highest pay of their time and prestige on as wide a base as possible; possibly excepting Jan Vermeer, who did things on his own and did not have widespread or fiscal recognition of his work in his lifetime. Jan Van Eyck’s mirror in the background of his Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is sometimes referred to as eluding to mirrors and other tools being used to trace the underlying drawing of the painting; a man of his repute and prestige would not be inclined to share information on his best techniques.

The benefit for an artist today is that drawing is not a required skill to make a painting.  I recommend everyone draw to train the pathways in your brain and hone hand-eye coordination, but lacking drawing ability does not need to be a barrier to prevent you from painting.  If you have a photograph, collage or digital design that you want to become a painting, there is everything from carbon paper, photocopiers and various kinds of light projectors to get the outline on your cnvas or other surface and get started.

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