Before asking why realistic drawing is so hard to learn, we should start asking why we want realism in art.

When did artists start searching for reality as if they could never have enough of it? Wasn’t there a time where proximity to the real was deemed ungraceful and profane? Because why go through all the struggles of realism if this not really what artists desire as an aesthetic goal or as the future of Art.

I may suggest here some useful thoughts written by Nietzsche (see extract here below) about how our intentions are at stake when enacting any kind of philosophical (or artistic) thinking. Realist art doesn’t escape this interpretation, for better or worse. It seems that those who achieve the most striking realism are those who want the idea of “reality” to triumph. Reality meaning the exterior world as opposed to an interior one (psychological). Some go even as far calling the former a “scientific” reality as if reality could only be scientific. But if that is so, what is behind realist art? What are its goals or its instincts? Have artists become the “glorifiers of scientific ecstasies” as Nietzsche suggests?

These questions alone make realist art difficult to understand and the subject is less innocuous than seems. So before putting any energy into making realist art, dear fellow artists, it is worth thinking these matters thoroughly. 

-“It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown.”

-Assuming that by beauty in art one always understands imitation of happiness-and I hold this to be the truth -depending on how an age, a people, a great person who makes his own internal laws imagines happiness: what then does the so-called realism of contemporary artists give us to understand about the happiness of our age? Its type of beauty is undoubtedly the one we currently know how to grasp and to enjoy most easily. Accordingly, aren’t we definitely obliged to believe that our own particular happiness now lies in what is realistic, in having the most acute senses possible, and in faithful apprehension of actuality-not therefore in reality but in knowing about reality? Science has gained such a profound and widespread effect that artists of this century, without intending to do so, have already become the true glorifiers of scientific “ecstasies”!

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°1 : Do you need to "learn to see" to make more realistic drawings?

Among the realist teachers, there’s an idea that has become fashionable nowadays : “if we are to get better at drawing we should learn to see better”. It resonates well with the fact that our happiness and beauty now would lie in “having the most acute senses possible” (Nietzsche, here above). This seems quite plausible at first : the difference between the teacher and the student is that the former has developed the “seeing” abilities over his years of practice and the latter has not. But what abilities are we really talking about? What do these people mean by “seeing”? Are we talking about the senses? Or is it about perceptions? Conscious or unconscious? And if we admit the teacher has the “seeing” skills he says he has, does this automatically imply that he is conscious of the way he got them and how he can pass them to the student? In other words, isn’t “learning to see” too complex an abstraction?

At the other end of the spectrum, some scientifically-minded teachers, would insist that not only there isn’t any learning in seeing but also that what we see is “non-veridical”. What they mean is that our seeing is not an accurate measurement of the external world but a set of given responses built through evolution and that are oriented towards fitness.  In other words, we can’t improve our biology.

If we have to admit to limitations in human vision (of course we’re not gods!), a fact for which no knowledge is necessary, why shouldn’t we go one step further and use Nietzsche’s argument here below to turn the impossibility of knowledge against science itself? Well? Do we really know much about seeing?

Let us remind ourselves that we are artists (not scientists) and that our learning in art should be neither ignorant nor tied to the cross of scientific abstractions as if we were afraid of anything being false, unreasonable or unreal. As Nietzsche says, “let’s go down to the sea” and take advantage of the “pleasure of being human.”

Sick and tired of people. -A: Know! Yes, but always as a human being! What? Always to sit before the same comedy, to act in the same comedy? Never to be able to see things with any eyes other than these eyes? And how many countless types of beings might there be, whose organs are better suited to knowledge! What will humanity have known at the end of all its knowledge? – its organs! And that might well mean: the impossibility of knowledge! Misery and disgust! – B: ‘That is a wicked attack -reason is attacking you! But tomorrow you’ll be right back in the midst of knowing again and so also in the midst of unreason, by which I mean: in the pleasure of being human. Let’s go down to the sea!

This article is a good example of what inflated statements artists are willing to make just to draw attention. Foxton was once my online teacher and I believe him to be a good teacher. But such careless titles are still amazing to see : of course, no one knows the “truth about seeing”!

About what Paul suggests to improve one’s drawing and that I find terribly useful : that relations between objects in a drawing are essential, agreed. But it is not totally clear what “looking holistically” means. Marvin Minsky on “holistic” and “gestalt” : “We’re often told that certain wholes are “more than the sum of their parts.” We here this expressed with reverent words like “holistic” and “gestalt”, whose academic tones suggest that they refer to clear and definite ideas. But I suspect the actual function of such terms is to anesthetize a sense of ignorance. We say “gestalt” when things combine to act in ways we can’t explain, “holistic” when we’re caught off guard by unexpected happenings and realize we understand less than we thought we did.”

This is a clear example of what Nietzsche called a true glorifier of scientific ecstasies. Waichulis’ ecstasie here is the claim that seeing is non-veridical. Because there are scientists to back such a claim and he has reached a high level of realism in his artworks, the artist thinks he’s legitimate in applying this “truth” to art without any grain of salt. If the scientific potluck of Waichulis’ article have helped you understand what realistic might be, all the power to you. But, as far as I am concerned, that seeing is non-veridical is a horrible depressing thought. This is not my reason speaking : it is my artistic intuition.

Once more, this is not to say that nothing can be learnt from such teachers. They introduce very useful tools in drawing and to a certain degree, scientific thinking is good for learning art. I am very fond of scientific delicacies myself. But with regards to shouting inflated claims on the rooftops, my advice is that you are better off questioning your thirst for realism (remember the introduction) before attempting to draw realistically.

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°2 : How much information do you have to draw to make your drawings more realistic?

One thing you should think about before becoming a realist artist is how much information you want to capture from reality (if there was ever such a thing as capturing reality). One thing we learn from reproducing photographs is how unimaginably rich photographs are. You can test that by yourself : take a photograph and a magnifying glass and try counting how many different entities you see. The list seems infinite. Of course, photographs are not reality but let’s assume that what caused the photograph (reality) is at least as complex as the photograph.

Considering how people treat photographs, it is striking to see how much they underestimate this richness of information. Even students in drawing are prone to belittling them. They usually tackle the wealth of information unconsciously : they choose a drawing method that appears to be realistic and rely on it without questioning anything. But no method can replace bringing this fact to consciousness and settling the compromises one is willing to make to get “closer” to reality.

On the basis of my own experience and what I know from other artists, it appears hyperrealist drawings take hundreds of hours of work. That can be terribly exhausting and that’s not counting the fact that all the information you’re adding might be harmful to the emotional impact you intend. Reality for its own sake can be desperately dull, a matter for which the sheer number of meaningless photographic-based artworks that are found on the market today speaks for itself…

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°3 : Does realism imply stripping away our "symbolic" preconceptions?

Ted Seth Jacobs says in Light for the Artist that in order to draw objectively, “we must progressively strip away our symbolic preconceptions and verbal identifications” and make “nonsymbolic light our true subject”. But the latter is itself a preconception, in other words an abstraction. And however helpful this is in making our drawings “closer” to reality, we must not forget that it is not reality. There is a limit to which we can strip away our preconceptions. Even if a better preconception than the idea of light itself becomes one day available to us, there will always be something limiting our access to reality.

In fact, even when we have become aware of the limitations and pitfalls of the concepts on light, there will be obstacles to drawing what we see. Because the very act of seeing also imposes preconceptions on the way we perceive values of light and dark. These “categories” as I believe they are called interfere with the way things really are (as measured by a light-meter for instance). But there’s even worse : even the light-meter itself is based on a set of “all too human” preconceptions…

Light for the Artist, Ted Seth Jacobs, pg. 14

Extract : “In effect, in order to clearly grasp the effects of light and find their equivalents in paint, we must progressively strip away our symbolic preconceptions and verbal identifications. The study of light gradually but automatically desymbolizes our interpretation of what we see and dissolves our symbolic preconceptions about the world.” The scientific ecstasie at work here is light. This is not to say that Jacobs’ teachings are not helpful. They were incredibly helpful to me. But light is just one of the many perspectives of reality and the way we modelize it remains a human abstraction. It is curious that at the end of his life, Ted Jacobs wrote another another book called the Dictionary of Human Form which was a different perspective grounded on the geometrical structure of the human body. He didn’t have time to write a third book where we finally would learn how to combine these conflicting perspectives. Well there’s some work for future generations!

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°4 : What major problem will you experience when drawing from life?

“The first [problem] is that objects at a distance simply do not look as small as they ought to on the basis of the size of the image they cast upon the retina. In fact, objects at a distance often appear to be the same size as when they are nearby.” It seems this should be the beginning of any book on drawing. I believe this to be at the heart of our apprehension before proportion. Why teachers in drawing don’t stress this enough is a mystery to me. In any case, it is very difficult to overcome size constancy unless we are heavily trained to correct our innate perceptions.

An Introduction to Perception, Irvin Rock, The Perception of Size, pg. 27

Extract : “An intelligent person who knew nothing about experimental work in psychology might well be puzzled to learn that our ability to perceive the size of objects is considered to be a problem by psychologists. […] There are actually two problems. The first is that objects at a distance simply do not look as small as they ought to on the basis of the size of the image they cast upon the retina. In fact objects at a distance often appear to be the same size as when they are nearby. This is the problem of size constancy. The second problem is a little more difficult to understand. An object at a specific distance yields an image on the retina of a specific size. In turn, that image, gives rise to a perception of a specific size. An image 1mm square yield an impression of an object the size of a house. The problem is, what is the relationship between the size of the image and the size of the object perceived?”

Apart from Ted Seth Jacob’s light, it is interesting that you familiarize yourself as a beginner artist with the perceptual constancies described in this video. Otherwise, you will be tricked by teachers who don’t know any better. But please don’t go to the other extreme and call seeing non-veridical.

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°5 : What experiments do you have to conduct before drawing from life?

Before plunging into drawing without knowing anything about seeing, there are a few experiments you need to conduct to realize how complex it is. As I said earlier, it is easy for others to fool you if you’re not competent enough.

One experiment I find fascinating is the visualisation of “afterimages” on the retina. To do that illuminate a white object on a dark background and look at it for a minute or two. Then look at another empty dark background. Do you see the object appearing? What size did it have? What color? I like to do that with my cast reproductions. It is always surprising to see how small they appear on the retina!

Artists need to be aware of the size of the image on their retina so as not to get fooled by size constancy. This video also explains negative afterimages and how they can influence color perception. Are you beginning to see what we draftsmen and painters have to deal with?

Why is realistic drawing so hard to learn n°6 : Because it is too complex an abstraction!

Dear fellow artists, by way of conclusion, let’s precisely do the reverse : let’s open the question. The problem with realistic is realistic itself. The abstraction we have built is so complex that it will always escape us not to say it can destroy us. Therefore, in trying to capture reality, it seems inevitable that you will fall from heaven. I hope you already have fallen just by reading this article.

In any case, you’d better leave what you thought you saw or knew behind. It is not a death : truth will give way to appearances and perspectives. You will have to navigate in deep waters to bring something of “your-Self” into the picture. Unfortunately, a lot of artists have drowned in the chaos of the modern world and its thirst for realism. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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