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Winter 2011

On Drawing

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P. N. Furbank

This is an essay on drawing; but first of all I have a brief word to say in connection with literature. Ideas about the novel were, for a very long time, misdirected by the concept of “likeness to life,” indeed to some degree the notion has still not quite gone away. It implies (what is in fact absurd) that a bound collection of printed pages, or a string of sentences, or a narrative could actually be “like” life, in the weak sense in which a replica or recording is like its original. It is important that criticism of the novel should have learnt to get on without this false notion, and with it the concepts of “mimesis” and “realism.” That a novel can, in some way, “mirror” or be a copy of the human matters that it deals with is not, after all, something that would ever be posited of a poem or a work of history. A history of the American Civil War will not be expected to be like a civil war. The relationship between a work of fiction and human life is of the greatest significance, but it is not a relationship of likeness, or indeed of unlikeness.

Shall we say much the same when it comes to paintings and drawings, I mean about the relationship between them and the scenes or objects they refer to? Certainly not so obviously; all the same, the more one considers the matter, the more one feels driven to do so. Here is what Ernst Gombrich says in his Art and Illusion about a painting by Constable of the country house Wivenhoe Park. “Constable’s painting is surely much more like a photograph than the works of either a Cubist or a medieval artist. But what do we mean when we say that a photograph, in its turn, is like the landscape it represents?” His answer to his own question is not very satisfactory. It is that a black-and-white photograph, being restricted to a quite narrow range of grays, is hard put to it to “transcribe” the scene, and a pencil sketch (Constable made two) would suffer from the same restriction. For one of his sketches, Constable used a rather hard and sharply-pointed pencil, which gave an especially narrow range of tones; for the other, he used a softer one, which made possible bolder contrasts.

But after all, there is a larger or more drastic question clamoring to be answered. How could it reasonably be claimed that either a photograph or a pencil sketch, or indeed a painting, was “like”—that it resembled—Wivenhoe Park? How could a two-dimensional object (a sheet of paper or a rectangle of canvas with marks on it) ever be “like” a three-dimensional one? At best, it can only suggest or symbolize it, which is a different matter. I am inclined to think this a fundamental truth about pictorial art, whether one has painting in mind or drawing.

It needs always to be remembered that the expressive medium of painting (oil painting, tempera, gouache, or watercolor), just as much, though less obviously, as of drawing (by pen or pencil, engraving, etching, lithography, and so on), is line. “Line is the probity of art” was the slogan of Ingres, an-nounced in a furious dispute with Delacroix, who took another view. “Drawing,” said Ingres, “is the whole of art.” He would have been supported by Blake, who wrote memorably about line. “The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life,” he said in his Descriptive Catalogue, “is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and bungling.” On this, W. B. Yeats, a devoted Blakean, comments in Ideas of Good and Evil: “He does not mean by outline the bounding line dividing a form from its background, as one of his commentators has thought, but the line that divides it from surrounding space.”

Now, there are no bounding lines in nature; for their function in art is to separate objects one from another, and in the real and visible world there is no need for this, since objects (as we are well aware) are separated by space. One is put in mind of the great tirade by the painter Stenhofer, addressed to a fellow painter, the young Nicolas Poussin, in Balzac’s Un chef d’oeuvre inconnu (An Unknown Masterpiece). Stenhofer is half-wedded to line but also half-yearns to abolish it.


Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as drawing! Do not laugh, young man! However strange this remark may seem to you, you will one day understand the reasons for it. Line is the means by which man takes account of the effect of light on objects; but there are no lines in Nature, where everything is continuous. I have spread over the contours of things [he is talking about a painting of his] a cloud of blond and warm half-tints, so that one cannot put one’s finger on the place where contours and background meet… But perhaps I ought not to draw even a single line and it would be better to approach a figure by its middle, beginning with the most brightly-lit protuberance before dealing with the darker ones. Is that not the system of the sun, that divine painter of the universe?


But there is an important aspect of drawing, in addition to contour, that has not been mentioned yet: I mean, hatching or shading, that is to say, the use of sheaves or banks of parallel lines to convey shadow and (by their varying thickness or far-apart-ness) to represent gradations of tone or color. The device has a long history, going back to the fifteenth century and beyond. Winslow Ames, in his Italian Drawings from the 15th to the 18th Century (1963), writes:


In the whole region of Padua, Bologna, Ferrara and Mantua (where Mantegna did much of his work) there was a tendency in drawing to use consistent contour-lines and systematic diagonal shading which may look hard and metallic in the hands of some Ferrarese artists; a little wild with Zoppo, almost soft with Francia.


This feature of hatching throws light, in a sense a little more obviously than contour-lines, on the topic I have been discussing. Ames reproduces a magnificent pen-and-ink drawing, Landscape with a Satyr, by Titian. Of this you could almost say that it is nothing but hatching: a rendering, by means of long sweeping sets of curving parallel lines, of the undulations of the land, the shadow of a tree, the rock beside which the satyr is sitting, the roofs of the little village on the hill above, and the evening sky. (The hatching of the satyr’s body in the foreground is done with shorter and denser hatching.) The point I am getting at, in mentioning this drawing, is the absence on the artist’s part of anything you could possibly call deception, or attempted illusion. The fact that there are no such sets of parallel lines in nature is out in the open and accepted by us without difficulty.

The use of hatching, by Titian and others, was often very bold, but it was governed, like other features of painting and drawing, by conventions of propriety, and it continued to be employed in this traditional manner by the Impressionists, often with great mastery. But it was also re-thought in some startling and quite novel ways. In Van Gogh drawings, we find hatching-like regiments of stylized marks, standing for grasses and small plant-shoots, as it were, arithmetically arranged; also new kinds of stippling (or clusters of dots) and fantastic spiral hatchings.

As for the question that obsessed Balzac’s Stenhofer, the status of line or contour in relation to color in graphic art, it was explored with extreme tenacity and profundity by Cézanne, and his conclusion, or one of his conclusions, was that line and color were not really and absolutely distinct things. “As one paints one draws,” he told his fellow painter Emile Bernard in 1904. “The more the color harmonizes, the more precise the drawing becomes… When the color is rich, the form is at its height. The contrast and relations of tone comprise the secret of drawing and form.”

I am brought back, though, to Ernst Gombrich and his Art and Illusion. His book has been extremely widely read and praised, but I can’t help thinking it thoroughly wrong-headed. His basic assumption is that the aim of a pictorial artist is to create an illusion in the viewer’s mind; and this, surely, is a false idea. A portrait, for instance, does not give us the illusion that the person depicted is in the same room, nor are we tempted to eat the fruit in a Dutch still life. Gombrich writes as if it were quite clear to us what the relationship is between the Titian drawing I described and the real world as we know it. But on the contrary, that question, which is the truly important one, is what an art critic is always having to ask himself afresh, with each new painting or painter. In fact, it forms a considerable part of what art criticism is.

Gombrich has compiled an extensive collection of well-known optical illusions. He reminds us of the figure which is a duck at one moment and a rabbit the next; he cites anamorphic portraits (such as the well-known one of Edward VI, sometimes attributed to Holbein), which look weird when seen from in front but make sense when looked at sideways. We are told about the phenomenon, alluded to by Philostratus and again by Shakespeare in “The Rape of Lucrece,” of a painting which asks us to infer the presence of an armed man merely from his head or his helmet or the top of his spear; and similarly about the quaint appearance, behind the great cross in Giotto’s Last Judgment, of a pair of feet, presumably those of a sinner trying to hide. But then, who does not know that, if someone is standing behind someone—or something—else, only bits of him will be visible? Where does illusion come in here? Gombrich praises Altdorfer’s ingenious stroke, in his The Virgin Amidst Angels, of suggesting, by a vast profusion of luminous and progressively more indistinct dots, the illusion (for an illusion is all it can be) of infinitude. But surely the viewer will understand perfectly what Altdorfer has done? It is not a trick played at his or her expense. Gombrich makes a similar point in regard to the Music-Making Angel in Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece. Van Eyck, he says, makes us believe that he has “painted every stitch of the golden damask, every hair of the angels, every fibre of the wood,” though of course that is not possible. He has worked (in Gombrich’s neat phrase) on “the etc. principle,” persuading us that to see a few members of a series is to see them all. It puts Gombrich in mind of the “Fraser spiral,” a series of concentric circles—not really a spiral at all—which seems, compulsively, to be leading our eye towards the infinite. But here again, could not the viewer be expected, fairly easily, to grasp Van Eyck’s intention? He or she is not the victim of a deception.

The devices described in the last two items come rather close to trompe l’oeil, and for trompe l’oeil, at least, Art and Illusion would be a very apt title. One gains the impression that in the ancient world, the theory of painting never progressed much further than trompe l’oeil. Nothing could be more absurd than the story related by Pliny, that Zeuxis was such a masterly artist that birds came to peck at the grapes he had painted. Gombrich, however, repeats this tale without comment, as if it might be true, though he caps it with the story of how Zeuxis’s envious rival Parrhasios invites him to his studio, to see his own work, and when Zeuxis tries to lift the curtain, he finds it not to be real but painted. There is no harm in our believing this, for, after all, Zeuxis was a man, not a bird. But trompe l’oeil, it will generally be agreed, is a dead end in art.



P. N. Furbank is the author of numerous books, including biographies of Denis Diderot and E. M. Forster. He lives in London.
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