Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed


Harold Speed's The Practice and Science of Drawing is a book which attracted me due to my current major hobby of sketching and painting. Its cost was insignificant, and as a result, it has become my first Kindle book purchase at the ripe cost of 99 cents. However, it was unnecessary to spend this money, as it could have been had via Gutenberg for free.

Initial expectation: perhaps I was overhasty in its purchase. It has not yet met my expectations. My expectation was that there would be a lot of figures and explanations from which I might gain knowledge on the craft of sketching. Thus far, it hasn't been exactly what I was looking for. Within it, rather, is something of the history and philosophy of drawing.


Pablo Picasso 1962Image via WikipediaI am always interested in the deeper parts of things. So, it is a bit interesting to read about the history of art and how it has changed and the authors of those changes. Though I have read of the effects of change on the world of art through the study of Picasso, I had not really thought much about invention and accreditation for certain processes that I take for granted before.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed was a reference to the science of light and its effect on the appearance of the observed within a given work of art. To that, Leonardo da Vinci was named as the father thereof.

Some interesting theories about creativity are posited. The first that hit me with some force was this:

The freer system of the French schools has been in many cases more successful. But each school was presided over by an artist of distinction, and this put the students in touch with real work and thus introduced vitality. In England, until quite lately, artists were seldom employed in teaching, which was left to men set aside for the purpose, without any time to carry on original work of their own.

I have taken this to mean that those who are trained to be teachers are often not the best teachers: but rather those of distinguished careers within the art ought to be. I cannot help but think that this approach would be wonderful to see in more education systems; and in particular, I refer to Canada where the education of teachers is centred more on educational psychology rather than the subject which they teach. In my study of their required syllabus, I discovered that there was very little learning in the subject of English, and great emphasis on child psychology. When I discovered this, it dawned on me why it was that so many of my teachers seemed to have no knowledge outside of the requisite textbooks from which they taught. All those years of reading the extra books about the subjects they taught were in fact harmful for me. Or, what might have been best, was this realization and that I really ought to have merely regurgitated the propaganda of the government texts. I suppose this seems obvious in hind sight.  

Again, another quote really hit home when I considered it in relation to my public education:

If a student, moved by a strong feeling for form, lets himself go and does a fine thing, probably only remotely like the model to the average eye, the authorities are puzzled and don't usually know what to make of it.

I remember quite distinctly an episode in an English class years ago when I had to give a speech introducing someone. I chose to do it WWF style to introduce someone. The teacher literally threw up his hands and cried out, "I don't know how to mark this!" I sat down with him, and went over with him the criteria with which he was to judge the merit of the presentation.


There are a number of techniques which are explored in the text. This is, however, a minority of the text. They centre around line, rhythm, and tone. There is a fair amount that I learned from these pages about colours and tone. In particular, the way lines can be used to convey feelings, and further, how it is important to create a balance in a work. For example, one cannot have too many wavy lines without having some straight lines, or, vice-versa; There needs to be a variety. With tone, he declares that there needs to be balance. If there is white, there must be black. If there is a cold colour, then also there needs be a warm colour.

However, his treatment of such techniques for the layman is only rarely illustrated well. There are a few illustrations to help with his explanation of things. However, more so he relies on illustrations from the masters. Perhaps it is good to see this as an explanation of how to get to this elevated height of the master.

Very Dated

The fact of the matter is that the text is very dated. This book was written before Picasso turned the world on its ear, to name but one of the most famous artists. However, some things, it turns out, are always fashionable.

Around me lay a variety of unfinished paintings which I'm afraid may or may never be finished. A part of the reason for this is a certain fear of ruining that which the painting has in pursuit of an elevation which I am uncertain I can achieve. Speed addresses this here: Never paint with the poor spirit of the student who fears to lose his drawing, or you will never do any fine things in painting. Drawing (expressing form) is the thing you should be doing all the time. And in art, "he that would save his work must often lose it," if you will excuse the paraphrase of a profound saying which, like most profound sayings, is applicable to many things in life besides what it originally referred to. It is often necessary when a painting is nearly right to destroy the whole thing in order to accomplish the apparently little that still divides it from what you conceive it should be. So, somehow I need to find it in me to forget about the fear of ruining that which has not been finished.

He also mentions how the perfect images should be reserved for the camera, for when the painter captures it, it will result in a cold work, as in the illustration of a person's head: A perfect type of head, if such could exist, might excite our wonder, but would leave us cold. In other words, he suggests that perfection is something that is sterile: like the sceptic of a hospital room. Finally, A composition may be perfect as far as any rules or principles of composition go, and yet be of no account whatever. The life-giving quality in art always defies analysis and refuses to be tabulated in any formula. This vital quality in drawing and composition must come from the individual artist himself, and nobody can help him much here.

Using Memory

He suggests exercises of using memory to paint from. Look at something, and try to reproduce it. He suggests that the things we remember are the things that we need to draw most attention to anyways, and that the rest may not be the most important in terms of detail.Try always when your mind is filled with some pictorial idea to get something put down, a mere fumbled expression possibly, but it may contain the germ. Later on the same idea may occur to you again, only it will be less vague this time, and a process of development will have taken place. It may be years before it takes sufficiently definite shape to justify a picture; the process of germination in the mind is a slow one. But try and acquire the habit of making some record of what pictorial ideas pass in the mind, and don't wait until you can draw and paint well to begin. Qualities of drawing and painting don't matter a bit here, it is the sensation, the feeling for the picture, that is everything. and then, later, What students should do is to form a habit of making every day in their sketch-book a drawing of something they have seen that has interested them, and that they have made some attempt at memorising. Don't be discouraged if the results are poor and disappointing at first—you will find that by persevering your power of memory will develop and be of the greatest service to you in your after work.

Finally about the exercise in improving pictoral memory, Try particularly to remember the spirit of the subject, and in this memory-drawing some scribbling and fumbling will necessarily have to be done. You cannot expect to be able to draw definitely and clearly from memory, at least at first, although your aim should always be to draw as frankly and clearly as you can.

Think Before You Move

One of the things that Speed takes some time to point out is that one should not immediately attack the canvas or paper until one has a concrete thought in one's mind. I don't know if I can support this entirely: but I can say that my best drawings have often come from such a method: a clear idea in my mind that needs to be expressed. However, happy mistakes have taken me to places that I would not have gone before; or the wild expression of random image cannot explode if one always forces the thought to come before the instinctive thrust of the pencil or brush.

Misc quotes

I believe the gardener of Darwin when asked how his master was, said, "Not at all well. You see, he moons about all day. I've seen him staring at a flower for five or ten minutes at a time. Now, if he had some work to do, he would be much better.

Additional Thoughts

Some theories of mine that were not touched on and may be invalid in any case is that the basics of many things are well covered. However, Speed did not note the effect of finding consistency in one's performance: rather, finding perfection in art first before finding expression. Perhaps by following this suggestion one would subsequently find consistency, and therefore my postulation is irrelevant. However, I don't think art is necessarily about painting or drawing that photographic image. He pointed out that this is not the ideal end, but a means to an end or a mastery of technique. However, as a mere hobbyist, can I really hope for that much? No, I don't think so. Simply finding a happy medium is what I am looking for.

I also noted his suggestion of using fewer colours in the beginning rather than more. This is something I've heard echoed over and over. However, it's not something I've done at all well. Maybe I can try it once again: find those two colours with black and white and learn to blend them together to find the tones to make the painting rather than always battling with colours and watching one thing disappear into the background.


I would have to say that this book was well worth reading. However, my 99 cents were wasted, since the book could have been got for free at Simply, the essential techniques that are pointed out likely remain true regardless of the goal of the aspiring artist.

Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment