The Elusive Pathway: Climbing Art Mountain
Before we can significantly improve, and continue the long climb of gaining knowledge as we rise up the slopes of “Art Mountain”, we need to understand the problem clearly. We want to make better drawings and better art, but sometimes we do not define clearly exactly what this elusive “better” is, this thing which we seek after. Is it whatever current general fashion-in-art-circles deems “better”? Whatever is instantly rewarded commercially, with ample money in its wake? Is it what the friends and family in our immediate circle praise? Is “better” whatever we OURSELVES personally decide is better?
To move in the direction of success, though, some yardstick or measuring device must first be decided upon. For many artists of the past, this “yardstick” - and source of endless inspiration and raw material - was nature! Great Nature, in all its glory, and all its ineffable BEAUTY, was closely studied, observed, and remembered by artists. It was the Source! There are deeper truths and laws embodied in the outward manifestations of nature which we see all around us, laws which resonate with us since we are human beings who also emanated from it. This resonance re-orients us towards a “certain forgotten something” of a higher sphere, something which cannot be named or written, but which the greatest of art - or greater art - can hint at, point towards, or embody in reduced form, thus enabling us to experience new and deeper emotions.
Earlier artists had the goal of embodying, suggesting, symbolizing or capturing some part of Nature and its laws, truths, and beauty, in their work. THEIR creativity, as much as possible followed the creative Laws of Nature, and thus both the process and the final product of their smaller “creation” were linked to the larger work of Great Nature around us and reflected it. There was a sort of “resonance” produced, evident to those who could sense it and see it. The smaller echoed the larger.
The patterns of life around us, be it the jumbled pattern of a stone wall, or the startling variations in the dress and physiognomies of the street-crowd flowing past us as we walk, the skittering lines of tree bark, or the tumbling layers of the clouds above us: there are endless sources for the artist to draw from. We first study these patterns and sources, and in so doing we then internalize them; and only then attempt to reproduce them in, in abstract form, in our art. If we do a good enough job of this, following these many laws of nature, then the resultant art will have a certain spirit of “life” or “truth” not found elsewhere. This is the value of sketching from direct observation, not from a secondary source such as a photo or screen.
For me, the first time I strongly felt this was in the cartoon art of Alex Toth. Later, I glimpsed it in many more artists. His work had this ring of knowledge and truth. Although many of the stories Toth illustrated were juvenile in terms of the surface narrative, underneath that there was something different about his work, the exact nature of which I could not identify as a youngster. His art and its manner of presentation had a different essence that elevated the ordinary. There were many other comic book artists whose stories I read, but his art drew repeat viewing and a treasured place in my collection. Years later, whether struggling to improve at art as a teenager and then continuing as a professional (and the struggle still continues!), it became clearer what drove him. What was it, this ‘different drummer’ whose beat he marched to? It was: Love of Nature and love of Truth. He studied all the aspects of art, whether Lighting, or Drapery, or Posing, Page Layout, Perspective (and all the others) from the standpoint of measuring against the yardstick of the Truths Of Nature. And he studied the great art and artists of the past, just as they, in turn, had studied their predecessors and Nature itself. Toth put into practice the famous motto he had learned: “See, Observe, and Remember!”
This point of view does not seem as much in favour these days. There are too many seductive “instant” ways to shortcut the process and get straight to an end result: poser apps for the figure, endless photos to trace, and readily available artists to “swipe”, as it is termed. By contrast, the study of Nature in its details may seem old-fashioned and boring! In the end, many are content to simply follow the current pattern and ingest, and then regurgitate, the surface stylisms of the latest top seller, lauded by the watching crowd. That may be fine for them, and may each decide their own way, of course. But that way has great risks: risks of dissatisfaction due to a certain shallowness; and [to dangerously mangle and mix my metaphors!] even from the commercial angle, if you hitch your wagon too closely to only one rising balloon, you will be in great peril when the same balloon inevitably drops. Times change and surface styles go in and out of fashion!
By contrast, if you begin from truth and nature, and firmly internalize their timeless laws, you will be better situated to adapt and overcome, when the winds of fashion shift direction. This is truly “the road less traveled” on the long climb up Art Mountain.
Stay tuned for further instalments, because there’s much more that can be said on this topic.