Saturday, Greven. Standing in a concert crowd I was making faint attempts at doing a few quick sketches of the front man jumping about when a lady next to me remarked how enviable such skills … — It’s a sort of remark I dislike more and more. Nothing against flattery, I’m too vain to refuse it; but it doesn’t count if it’s not well-deserved. A resigned phrase like this one usually prompts a less-than-polite reply how it’s all but practice.
Later, though, I came to think of what I have actually been practising all the time. Is it drawing, really? From a draughtsman’s perspective everyone can draw, we’ve just found out that we could while the vast majority isn’t aware of their skills. I’m not typically using magical tools, just the lines and squiggles that should be familiar at the very least to anyone who knows how to write letters. It reminds me of the admission exam in Leipzig: One day we were to paint a garden from the imagination. One girl asked the fair and useful question: “What should we paint it with?” – “Oh, you know:”, went the professor’s fair and useful answer, “red, blue, green, you know, yellow …”
Probably what’s far more important to train, should you want to draw or paint, is: to see. “We only look, but we don’t see”, sighed Tarkovsky. The task of drawing a picture isn’t so different structurally from programming: Here as there you look at the world, then try to model it as accurately as seems necessary. If your code is bad because it doesn’t compile you’ll fix it (within seconds, or after hours of cursing and looking for that invisible fuckup – but you’ll fix it eventually); and if your drawing is bad because it lacks a layer of shading, go add it, no harm done. If however your code runs just fine but is built on poor assumptions, in the worst case there may be awfully little to do about it other than starting over, as a drawing with mismatched proportions is easier to redo than to fix. Certainly to state that to see is all that matters means neglecting the technical side too much, but nevertheless I’d rate the latter as far less important, far less challenging than just seeing – which notably encompasses several distinct problems: Not just to recognise, but also to understand, to remember, moreover to get an intuition for pictures that “work” (which could for instance mean harmony in some ages, or an entirely different tenet in others).
Grützke asserted that the photographer be at an inherent disadvantage compared to a painter, setting a similar agenda (in this example the difference between painting and drawing is negligible). To paraphrase the relevant passage: In photography – light enters the lens, falls onto the film (or chip) and changes its state, done. In painting – light enters the painter’s eye, converts into a nerve signal, zooms into the brain. The signal gets processed into an idea, further into a command. The command travels down different nerves into the arm, into the hand; the reacting muscles pick up the brush, apply paint to a surface. The photographer’s image is just there – The painter’s image has been carefully curated by all these successive filters and has all the intentionality to which the eye (pars pro toto for the mind’s visual departments) contributes most significantly.
These aren’t very new or innovative notions, as the boatload of citations shows already. I’ve come to write about the topic because I realised that the phenomenon also thrusts into another direction.
Said lady at the concert, like oh so many others out there, doesn’t draw, and if she would, she would at least in the beginning run into the problem of not having enough practice in seeing, as I did for a long time. But doesn’t that also impact her when she’s not drawing, but, let’s say, looking at some stranger’s wobbly sketches? If I aim to depict reality, wouldn’t you need at least very similar eyes to see both reality and a representation of it?
There is a whole category of people who do not draw, at least not prominently, and who are nevertheless training their seeing skills: Those who in the art-forensic tomes I’ve recently enjoyed reading would be referred to as “art lovers”. The avid museum-goer as well as the wealthy collector, or indeed a substantial share of this blog’s regular readers. I’m furthermore convinced that having basic seeing skills isn’t a rare trait at all, on the contrary. But still it is way too easy to forget as a painter, as a draughtsman, that as the specialist one naturally has become to be looking at pictures works far different for almost anyone else. I’ve noticed the effect passively for a long time, the symptom being – you may know it if I’ve shown you this or that sheet – eager curiosity how a picture will be received, not primarily for the more objective side of criticism – which I’d often state to value, and while I’m being honest about it, sometimes it just confirms a judgement I had had anyway –, but more for the subjective impression, which should be predictable to an extent (because when I show it to enough people, usually a consensus emerges), but which I totally and absolutely fail to predict. To learn how to momentarily exchange my eyes for those of a spectator shall be yet another task for me!
The concert, in the end, left little to wish for. It’s true that Mr. Anderson has never regained a lot of his voice, but what’s the point of going to see a noted multi-instrumentalist if all you’re looking for is a bit of nice singing. In all parts but the vocal, the brightest star of unipedal flautistry continues to shine.