A debate on twitter a few days back along with various reactions I’ve seen around the web has got me thinking about artistic method.

You can trace the history of drawing, painting and various forms of representative mark-making back a long, long time, and it’s a history that you can look at in a number of different ways. You could analyse style, compare content, think about materials or method, but it seems obvious that all these things affect each other deeply and in practice (if not theory), are inseparable.

What I’ve been interested in though is materials, tools and methods, because the development of computers and the internet have set off a massive and sudden proliferation of the ways in which it’s possible to create a piece of artwork. I’ve been considering that this, along with a number of other relatively modern changes (over the last few hundred years), has deeply unbalanced the ways in which both practitioners and non-practitioners regard the creation of art.

I’ll use the word tool a bit vaguely as a stand-in for anything an artist uses to achieve a finished result. It could be a brush or a camera, a piece of paper or a screen, or even a new way of learning or observing. Roughly speaking, every time a new “tool” is introduced to the artist’s tool-kit, some new result is possible, or something along the way gets easier. The introduction of a tool can make an earlier method of production convoluted or difficult by comparison, but rarely does that tool fully replace, or make redundant that which it “improves” upon. I think this is critical, since it means new tools and methods are used right alongside old ones, and with that range of practices comes a range of mentalities, both enduring and new. That isn’t to rank them, or claim that they evolve (in the weak sense of “improvement”), just to say that all these attitudes and practices exist at the same time, and often in conflict.

You can see this in effect with even the simplest of examples… say a ruler. It is next to impossible to draw a perfectly straight line unaided without a lot of practice, but a ruler replaces all that practice and lets you draw a straight line quickly and easily. However, many artists I know (including myself) rarely use rulers, and I’ve heard the phrase “never use a ruler” from the mouth of more than one art tutor. When I first encountered this, I was a bit confused, but on reflection the reason seems obvious: using a ruler might mean that you never develop the skill needed to keep a steady hand by yourself, making you dependant upon it and its limitations?

However, closer examination can bring this reasoning into question. Consider the following questions from both pro and anti-ruler perspectives:

If a person becomes dependant upon rulers to draw straight lines, but also draws other lines in a free-hand fashion, will they eventually develop a steady hand anyway? If so, does the ruler truly impede their progress? And if so, to what degree? Is this perhaps different for every person? Does a ruler-drawn line create a mechanistic look to a drawing? Is this a bad thing? Does its use stop artists from learning certain things? Does the time saved using a ruler allow an artist to learn more important things instead? Is the discipline required to draw well without a ruler irreplaceable? Are people who don’t use rulers depriving themselves of a valuable skill?

These are all fine and interesting questions to debate, but it’s the fact that you can debate them at all that forms the point I’m trying to make: it’s not actually as obvious as it first seems how “useful” a ruler is, or whether using a ruler is “better” than drawing unaided. Regardless of where anyone’s personal opinion falls on this matter, it’s hard not to admit that the discussion is highly subjective. This is why I mentioned specifically that I’m not exploring tool use over time in order to rank it or claim any sort of definitive progression!

The same complexity and subjective value goes for practically every type of tool or method, be it rulers, tracing paper or photoshop. Each tool comes with its own unique learning-curve, its own limitations and its own benefits. A tool alone won’t improve your art, although it may make an aspect of production easier, or open up new visual opportunities. It’s not clear whether relying on any particular tool truly makes you a complacent artist, but many people think so. Tools are both praised and derided by artists of different disciplines, and everyone uses them to different degrees and in different combinations.

What makes digital tools the focus of the next part of this blog is a matter of degree. All the arguments that can be made for and against the use of a ruler can equally be made for and against the use of something like photoshop, but since photoshop is a whole-scale simulation of many traditional methods (and more, it introduces unique methods of creation), the scale of these debates is larger, more complex and more heated. It has been less than a handful of decades since such digital art tools have been widely available, so their impact is still fresh, and attitudes are very much divided, even within the youngest practising generations.

[EDIT: Never got round to writing the second half of this…]


  1. Kate Holden says:

    I think when it comes to technique, it’s hard to tread the fine line between discouraging methods that will lead to bad results or impede growth, and becoming a dogmatic luddite.

    It’s like when an art teacher tells the kid who only draws Naruto to stop drawing manga, and then tells everybody to stop drawing it, that manga is, in all situations, a bad thing which will make you overdependent on symbols rather than personal interpretation of life, and will hold you back from trying a variety of techniques and styles that will ultimately enrich your art. There are truths in this statement, but the only absolute in art is that there should be no absolutes. Drawing manga in itself is not bad, it’s a style that is very well evolved to the task of getting across emotion and action in an efficient and elegant fashion. Overreliance on manga, however, leads to people who can’t depict embarrassment without a sweatdrop present, or who don’t understand basic life drawing (a common problem I see is an inability to draw overweight or old people due to only having drawn doll-like characters for years).

    Some kids do need to be told to put down the ruler. I remember at least one kid in school who drew everything with a ruler, agonising over the neatness of each little line rather than getting down the overall composition first and letting some gesture and emotion into their work. Some people are overreliant on fancy finishing in photoshop and neglect their basic drawing skills because they can get a lot of praise easily for their flashy ‘surface’ in the amateur realm, but then find it hard to land a job because their foundation is rickety and somebody with knowledge and experience can tell. It doesn’t mean photoshop or rulers are inherently bad.
    I dislike using photos because I feel that a 2d capture of light bouncing off something only tells me a small amount of the picture. I’ll use them as a guide for details or to check up on something tricky involving complex interaction of objects (I have comparatively poor spacial awareness and find technical objects like bikes very hard to visualise. for example) or when I want historical costume accuracy or similar, but I much prefer to go from thing I can understand from learning, or better, experience. Empathy is at the heart of my work, and while I think accuracy is important, and fuss over things like history, science and stuff being at least fairly sound, my desire to invoke an emotional reaction in those who look at my work is higher on my list of aims for any image. Despite this though, I don’t feel that artists who are highly dedicated to detail and accuracy are somehow ‘doin’ it wrong!’ I do admire those sci-fi artists who can build a solid, believable world where the machines are perfect to the last detail. I aim for emotional ‘truth’ through subjective use of line and colour, occasional use of symbolism etc. But some people are interested in a different form of ‘truth’ like physical truth, or technical truth, and that is not a worse aim. Ultimately, being overly devoted to any one thing is harmful, not just in art, but life in general. We are enriched by new experiences and challenges.

  2. Mark. says:

    While I do draw, I’m more of a musician but a lot of what you say translates well to music.

    Every time up I pick up a new tool (which in this case would be a instrument, amplifier, piece of software etc.) I find myself playing differently. Some tools feel very limiting and some open up endless options, but the ultimate limiting factor is always ME.

    I’ve always worked on the principle that the creator is more important than the tool, but I’ve not really thought much about how a tool improves the creator in the process. I’m not really sure how much it matters: while it’s nice to be improved, as long as the tools are available to make things easier I guess I’m more interested in the final result. If I need a ruler to draw straight lines that isn’t a problem as long as I have a ruler. (I actually tend to pencil lines with a ruler and ink them freehand, but that doesn’t answer anything.)

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