Saul Steinberg Faces the Facts

5fcd91387b8bd3edec7af9e223fca97bNearly everyone has seen the drawings of Saul Steinberg. He was one of the most brilliant and celebrated illustrators of the last century. But one kind of drawing was particularly difficult for him, and that was drawing from life – from observation. That’s what’s revealed in Reflections and Shadows, the very interesting book assembled from interviews from the 1970’s with Aldo Buzzi.


Steinberg wasn’t schooled as an illustrator. He was trained as an architect. And it wasn’t until he was in architecture school, in Italy, that he really seriously drew from observation for the first time. It was a struggle and a revelation.


You see, drawing from your head is very different from drawing from observation, and illustrators use both skills. In selections from the book, we see how Steinberg struggled to stay focused, and to learn from observational drawing, in order to add truth to his images.


“I realized (in architecture school) how hard it is to do a drawing from life, and how important to understand the nature, the truth of reality…And it takes a lot of effort, a dedication that sometimes, out of laziness, one strives to avoid (it’s easier to invent)… You won’t draw well if you’re telling a lie. And conversely, when a drawing from life tells the truth, it automatically turns out to be a good drawing.”


“It’s impossible to find anything new (to do in a drawing) without first giving something up. There’s a moral in this. It’s stinginess that holds us back, especially when we’re not enamored of what we’ve discovered but are convinced it’s good. There are those who, in working from life, continually use the baggage they picked up yesterday; they work from life without really looking, without working from life.”


“…in drawing from life, I am no longer the protagonist; I become a kind of servant, a second class character.” “And so I’m afraid that the drawing reveals certain parts of myself, areas of vulgarity where I don’t tell the truth, making use of what I already know, commonplaces, and I see in myself-I mean in the drawing I’ve done-some of my regular faults: stopping without finishing, getting tired at a certain moment and failing  to insist on some point that ought to be essential, out of timidity or laziness I don’t insist, and so things don’t end the way they should-the result doesn’t live up to promise.”

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