Visual Principles vs. sheer Observation in Art making

Figure Construction As an art student you will often hear the idea that the artist must learn to ignore what “they think they see” about their subject matter in order to actually see it as it is. That in our mind, there is an abstract visual symbol of different things (such as the shape of the head) and that we need to learn to ignore it in order to observe what is actually there.

There is some truth to that, and some falsehood as well.

As humans, there is only so much information we can hold in our mind at any given point. Principles and generalization help us to quickly understand a situation rather than analyze it as if we are encountering everything about it for the very first time.

To give a simple example, if you read a newspaper article about a robbery, you are already familiar with the general idea of what robbery is, what it involves – which is quite a bit – and therefore you can hold all that information as a single unit and move on to process the other details of the specific robbery.

What details am I talking about? Details such as that there is force involved, that something, some object belonging to one group or individual is taken by another, that there is danger and threat involved to the one owning the object, that the robber will seek to hide their identity and flee the scene as fast as possible. In short, there is a whole range of details that our mind automatized and generalized into the simple word “robbery”.

Creating visual art requires much the same mechanism or generalization and automatization; of condensing information into an abstract idea which can be used to process other associated details more efficiently.

For example, if an artist already has a generalization of how the structure of the head is like, some kind of average shaped head – then it provides much more mental resources for the artist to process things specific to that individual, such as the length of the nose of a specific person they are drawing, the distance between their eyes and other features specific to that person.
Imagine instead if you never drew a single nose in your life; you would be much more inclined to spend most of your time just trying to break down the enormous complexity of the structure of the thing and how it fits in a face.
Here you can argue that all experience gives an artist is simply a huge subconscious library of different images of a nose from different angles and of different people, OR that over time, some sort of generalization of A nose occurs subconsciously.

I think it is a combination of both, but it is the generalization which is mostly responsible for freeing up those valuable mental resources.
On the other hand, if you see someone who has never drawn before try to draw a head, most would ignore the actual shape of a head they are drawing and will instead draw a balloon.
If one looks at kids’ drawings, one sees a very rudimentary abstraction of the human form. Some people develop a more accurate abstraction and some keep the child-like one, but my point is that this is not a case against abstraction in general – rather it is a case for improving the abstraction and making it more accurate and informative by studying it carefully.

Case in point: Lots of illustrators are able to draw figure from imagination with great success. This is because they have an abstract idea of the human form as well as familiarity with principles of light.

It is not only vital to have these abstraction for working from imagination; It is vital for working from observation nonetheless.

It is always important, however, when working from observation to be able to still see what is there rather than override it in one’s mind with the abstract version of things. Both are important.

During that stage of studying and changing one’s abstract idea of something, one should disregard the previous abstraction and see what is actually there, but strive toward a new memorization and automatization of generalizations and principles of art to replace the previous inaccurate one. Often times a previous generalization is a cruder version of a finer one and is actually helpful in forming a new one.

My point is that you don’t want to completely throw away what you previously knew. When you get a chance, integrate it with new knowledge.
So what principles of visual art are there? Isn’t it just a matter of imitating what there is? 

Oh no. There are so many principles to learn. I’ll give a few examples: Perspective, anatomy, laws of light and color. Then you have more specific ones: Principles of drawing reflections and shadows, how to paint semi-transparent objects (such as water, eyes, glass), the figure in motion and how it is affected by gravity, principles of composition (how to put things together to maximize the picture’s message or mood), principles of drawing, principles of materials and there are many more.

Just studying anatomy alone is a years-long if not a lifelong effort.

Does it actually help? How does it help? It helps by organizing visual information in the figure more accurately and elegantly. If an artist is familiar with a muscle group, for example, they will be more likely to draw it with bilateral symmetry compared to someone who has no clue what that bump is. They will more likely see that bump as unrelated to another bump on the other side.
Being familiar with the 3 dimensional shape of muscles will also bring more life and volume to a drawing.


In conclusion my point is that there is nothing wrong with abstracting and generalizing visual information. In fact this is what makes an artist better. However we should not rely on automatic generalization but rather perform a conscious, careful study of what we see.
Over time this leads to accurate, useful abstractions, generalizations and principles and actually to seeing things more accurately.


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