Ruskin On Style: Go Your Own Way

1996P0991 Portrait 2100x2369

In 1857 the opinioned and influencial British critic, artist, writer and educator John Ruskin put out a beginner’s drawing book in which he laid down the laws of that he believed on the subject. While there’s plenty to disagree with in his heavy-handed tract, I found it enjoyable and enlightening to read. Here’s my favorite screed from the book in which he encourages artists to push towards individuality in their work and against the forces of  assimilation, which exist in every age.

And herein the great masters separate themselves finally from the inferior ones; for if the men of inferior genius ever express law at all, it is by the sacrifice of individuality.

Thus, Salvator Rosa has great perception of the sweep of foliage and rolling of clouds, but never draws a single leaflet or mist wreath accurately. Similarly, Gainsborough, in his landscape, has great feeling for masses of form and harmony of color; but in the detail gives nothing but meaningless touches; not even so much as the species of tree, much less the variety of its leafage, being ever discernible. Now, although both these expressions of government and individuality are essential to masterly work, the individuality is the more essential, and the more difficult of attainment; and, therefore, that attainment separates the great masters finally from the inferior ones. It is the more essential, because, in these matters of beautiful arrangement in visible things, the same rules hold that hold in moral things. It is a lamentable and unnatural thing to “see a number of men subject to no government, actuated by no ruling principle, and associated by no common affection: but it would be a more lamentable thing still, were it possible, to see a number of men so oppressed into assimilation as to have no more any individual hope or character, no differences in aim, no dissimilarities of passion, no irregularities of judgment; a society in which no man could help another, since none would be feebler than himself; no man admire another, since none would be stronger than himself; no man be grateful to another, since by none he could be relieved; no man reverence another, since by none he could be instructed; a society in which every soul would be as the syllable of a stammerer instead of the word aof a speaker, in which every man would walk as in a frightful dream, seeing specters of himself, in everlasting multiplication, gliding helplessly around him in a speechless darkness.

Therefore it is that perpetual difference, play, and change in groups of form are more essential to them even than their being subdued by some great gathering law: the law is needful to them for their perfection and their power, but the difference is needful to them for their life.”

-from The Elements of Drawing, 1857, by John Ruskin (1819-1900)

 

 

Pictures of Pictures

Twin Stairs in Vitorchiano

Why do we draw what we draw?  Does it matter?

When you set out to draw, where do you go? Do you have a destination in mind already? Do you wander to find inspiration? Do you prefer to go to famous places – well known for their scenery?

A short time ago, I brought a large batch of my Italy drawings into my class for a critique (I’m a college professor of illustration). It was a good role reversal for everyone. I covered a long wall with drawings. Like most critique recipients, I was anxious. But, I encouraged honesty from my students and they delivered. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly before them.

What was most interesting to me, was the clear lack of enthusiasm for drawings that I had made of the most famous sites (like, “Piazza Plebiscito”)*. These beautiful, historic places were of less interest to viewers, not more! Using the same skills, materials and time, I was unable to generate enthusiasm in my viewers. They admired the drawings of famous things less. Why?

One student stated in a matter of fact way,  “because they are two kinds of drawings, altogether”. She explained that one kind of drawing was of what I, the artist had found to be interesting. The other kind were drawings of subjects that others have found interesting. She was right. I had decided differently why to draw these subjects.

Artists can either follow their muse, or they can follow the crowd.

It reminded me of a passage from Don DeLillo’s classic novel, White Noise:

“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America.  We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington.  There were meadows and apple orchards.  White fences trailed through the rolling fields.  Soon the sign started appearing.  THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.  We counted five signs before we reached the site.  There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing.  All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.  We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers.  Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book. 


“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more.  People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence.  The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while.  We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?” ”

 -from White Noise by Don DeLillo

Piazza Plebiscito

When we draw famous places, we are consciously or unconsciously burdened by others’ perceptions of the place. We see the place in a shared way. We look through our own eyes at the subject, but also through the eyes of all the other viewers of this subject. Many of us are also looking through the eyes of other artists who have drawn this subject, or subjects like it.

In other words, we may compromise our enthusiasms to serve the expected – a pre-pictured image.

In the case of my work, the drawings of famous sites were serving as a “substitute image” of the thing – a symbol – a postcard. I made decisions of how to show the subjects clearly and recognizably and perhaps, too typically. They looked like what drawings of that place usually look like. The other drawings (like, “Twin Staircases in Vitorchiano”) were more personal, and thus, more new and interesting.

If we don’t follow our own interests, but rather, do what’s expected, or familiar,  we end up creating drawings of drawings or pictures of pictures.*

That’s why we see so much similarity in artists’ styles, or more commonly, so much similarity of subjects. We sometimes draw what other artists draw, rather than what we individually would like to draw. I see it in my students all the time, and try to push them out of it. I push them to create something more personal.

Bringing it back to my work – my students could feel the enthusiasm for my personal interests. They could also feel the compromise of my postcard-like works of famous places. Despite my skills of hand, my lack of heart tripped me up and dampening my enthusiasms. I compromised my muse. I need to watch out for that, because enthusiasm is the difference between a competent drawing and an interesting one. Sure, we can draw famous things – they’re famous for a reason- but we should try to add something new to what is said about it – something personal, and thus, memorable. We can’t just show things, we have to say things.

Try to stand apart from the crowd.

*I did get credit, and interest for the water-bottle in the drawing.

**Postmodern thinkers are very cognizant of this stuff, but I’ll not delve into those deep waters today, I’ll soon be over my head.

Lessons: “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…”

11150469_10153170626389757_8864168508949709982_n

Not long ago, Montserrat College of Art (where I teach) hosted the illustrator and designer, Oren Sherman as a guest artist. He lectured inspiringly and then visited classes including mine: Senior Illustration Thesis. It was there that Oren shared a terrific life lesson – that his professional career changed when he “stopped asking for things and started offering things” as a strategy for success. He urged the Montserrat seniors to do the same.

13381_1083338015016457_5315417954029622764_n

Dunkin Donuts painting by Amberlynn Narvie

As an example, he spoke of my student, Amberlynn Narvie’s terrific paintings of the “regulars” at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where she worked for years. “That’s a great story” he said. “Call the editor of the local paper and start from there.”
She acted on his urging and did even better. She put the work on Reddit and was immediately contacted by both Boston.com (the Boston Globe) and Metro Boston.

Now she’s been interviewed by both papers, and so, her career begins.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 8.33.18 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.29.09 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.30.13 PM

The Art of Negotiation: The Flinch System

011308kodakbkltpeanuts

“In 1955, (Laurence) Rutman (chief of United Feature Syndicate) persuaded (Charles) Schulz to illustrate Eastman Kodak’s Brownie Book of Picture Taking, letting his characters run loose from the strip for the first time. The syndicate required from Kodak an advance payment against which royalties would be applied at the rate of 5 percent of a camera’s selling price. Sparky (Schulz) happened to be in Rutman’s office in New York on the day when he used nothing more complicated than what he called “the flinch system” to establish these “licensing” fees. When John Schnapp of Eastman Kodak asked how much it would cost for Shultz to provide eight four-panel strips and twenty spot drawings, Rutman answered. “Well, perhaps one thousand dollars,” and when Schnapp didn’t demur, he then stated, “It will be an additional thousand dollars to have Mr. Schulz make the drawings for Kodak’s exclusive use.” When, again, Schnapp took this in stride, Rutman explained that domestic rights to the characters in photography manuals would cost yet more. “And,” as Rutman told it to Schulz, “I keep going up until he flinches, and that’s the figure.”

Schulzpeanuts

from Schulz and Peanuts by David Michealis, 2007, HarperCollins