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…]