Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
In this age of conspiracy theories, it__™s no surprise that artist David Hockney's book ___Secret Knowledge___ caused a flap some years ago. In it he purports that many of history__™s great painters used optical devices like lenses, mirrors, and primitive cameras in the creation of their works. Omigosh!
I__™ve not yet read that book, but I__™m amused by the fervor with which the debunkists mock Hockney and his theory. Surely he can__™t really believe that ___the Old Masters didn__™t know how to draw___ as one detractor fumes, adding that it__™s Hockney who can__™t paint or draw. Oh, the acrimony! The project is a work of art in itself just to spark such dialogue. In a world inundated with imagery, I wonder who can truly imagine how the great minds of less-jaded ages viewed their technology: gadgets that might spawn a yawn by today__™s standards.
Art is still made with a human touch by traditional artists trained in ateliers, forging ahead with themes of humanity, universal and timeless. But art is in the brain before it reaches the hand so why not employ optics now and then to help focus the vision? Even an object seen through a vacuum is distorted by lighting and distance before it reaches an imperfect eye. Besides, everything we see is ultimately reduced to a postage stamp-sized array of photons beamed upside-down on the back of our eyeballs anyways. At that point, it's all in the head.
Of course, tools should be used to best effect if at all; otherwise it__™s like stealing a bad idea. One could fault, say, Eric Fischl for using photos to compose quirky scenes that end up looking like haphazard snapshots taken by a kinky tourist, but they also make for some interesting, if voyeuristic, scenarios. Photo-based paintings have a distinctive realism about them. I look for this aspect (and might add it to my checklist) but I wouldn__™t hold artistic expression hostage over it. There__™s a difference between craft and art. An artist doesn't have to reinvent the wheel time and again as a slave to tradition. Skilled painters will always be regarded for their style and technique, but advancing art as a current concept of reality isn__™t always their objective. Meanwhile, innovators run the risk of crackpotism.
In an experiment of my own, I designed a dual-mirror device that superimposes the view of an object onto a sketchpad so as to ___trace___ said object. But because the referent and the drawing surface don__™t actually occupy the same space, there__™s a distortion issue as seen in my rendering of a stack of cameras. By and large I prefer the unpredictability of drawing something with the naked eye but without looking at the sketch as I draw it. This conveys a surprisingly coherent rendition except for the overall form. Without visual feedback the basic shape is lost in this rudderless hand-eye maneuver.
Referencing Van Gogh__™s painted self-portrait, I redrew the rough outline on the left while my synchro-tracer was strapped to my head. The outline on the right was drawn straight, no chaser. That unaided doodle was more fun so I went with it, the finished results as shown. At best, any tracing device serves to delineate only the basic outline __" the fundamental mode if you will. Once an artist establishes a baseline, all else flows swimmingly.
Investigating the ways, means, and motives of artists past and present promotes an appreciation of art. When the debate over optical devices becomes rancorous, one can just move on and argue about whether Ingres used a French curve or Hopper a straight edge. Pretty soon someone will chastise Brunelleschi for having advanced the principles of perspective in the first place.
Serendipity means finding one thing while looking for another. I found that mechanical aids aren__™t all they__™re cracked up to be, but also that paintings and drawings actually require more active participation by the viewer than watching videos or listening to music because those latter things change with time, making the audience passive as the program glides past them. Therefore, I submit that viewing art is as demanding and rewarding as it is to create it - and only slightly less likely to make one rich and famous.