Monday, 19 November 2012

To Measure Or Not To Measure

19th century Academic drawing.

Frank Frazetta c. 1975. Pen and ink.


"An artist must have his measuring tools not in the hand, but in the eye." Michelangelo




Reading the above quote from Michelangelo, you can guess where I stand on the issue of measuring in regards to good draftsmanship.

Mechanical measuring to very exacting standards is a process now being taught in many art schools and  ateliers. While this is certainly one way of obtaining acceptable results in a reasonable amount of time (months, as opposed to years), I would submit that, for many artists, the practise can become a crutch and will actually hinder their progress in the longer term.

By adhering to a reliance on mechanical measuring, the student will never train their eye. They may never learn to comparatively measure form and distance without their plumb lines and straight edges. And, to my mind, learning to measure proportion by eye is the foundation upon which good draftsmanship is built.

Also, accuracy of measurement is only one aspect of a good drawing and, arguably, not even the most important aspect, but should certainly be accomplished by eye if the draftsman is not to become a prisoner to nature. Drawing from the imagination becomes an impossibility if the draftsman hasn't learnt to measure form by eye.

And, at some point in the drawing process, the artist needs to let go of the impulse to measure everything for accuracy; incessant measuring can stiffen a drawing, threatening your initial gesture and draining it of any freshness it may have had. Better to have a vibrant drawing with subtle, sensitive line that is not perfectly accurate, than a completely accurate drawing, devoid of all life.

I have included two drawings by way of example. The first is an academic figure study from the 19th century and comparable to much of the work currently being produced. The second is a pen and ink drawing by Frank Frazetta, c. 1975 (certainly one of the 20th centuries most underrated draftsmen). While both drawings are accurate, Frazetta drew by eye and often from his imagination; the resulting drawing achieves a dynamic freshness which is lacking in the 19th century study which was likely drawn directly from the model and mechanically measured, resulting in a drawing which is stiff and overworked by comparison.

Accuracy of draftsmanship is certainly an important destination for the artist, but of these two paths to attaining that goal, one can be, for many, a dead end.

A drawing's success is built upon the eye's ability to measure comparatively, one form against another, and the heart's ability not to measure the life out of it.