“A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.”
– Edgar Degas in the Shop Talk of Edgar Degas
Translating Visual Information
Did you know that a camera is only one way of compressing a massive amount of 3D visual information into a 2D form? Today the highest compliment society pays many artists is that their drawing or painting “looks just like a photograph!”
To many atelier-trained artists, however, this is a grave insult. This is because there are nearly infinite ways to compress massive amounts of visual information, and the camera does it nearly the same way every time because it is a machine. Even when humans tinker with the settings of a camera, the compression of visual information is still done mechanically. The camera is not capable of thinking about organizing all the visual information to highlight the gesture of its subject, it can only capture it exactly the way it is.
But each artist has a unique insight on which pieces of visual information to incorporate into the final drawing, painting or sculpture. Each atelier-trained artist compresses information uniquely depending on their preferences for interpreting the visual information of the subject depicted.
Drawing Is Like Handwriting
In handwriting we are all taught that a circle with a stick to the right of it is an “a”, yet we can still recognize the original sender of a message based on the writer’s unique use of how they write their alphabet.
This is also true with representing nature in charcoal, paint, or clay. Most people can see differences between a Michelangelo painting and a Raphael painting even though these two artists spent much of their careers working in the same places with the same themes and the same patrons.
Skill-based drawings and paintings are just as unique and identifiable as individuals’ handwriting. It takes knowledge, however, to see and appreciate the differences. If you did not know how to read, you likely would not be able to tell the difference between handwriting styles.
Likewise, if a dozen different artists paint a red rose from the same viewpoint, they will all see it differently. Some will see the color as purple, others as pink or coral. Some will conceive of the shape of the petals as round and others as angular. Some will perceive the rose to be bright and others as dark. This is because each artist cares about different aspects of the rose and has unique individual preferences for organizing its visual information.
Training how to see in a nuanced way from a master is what Michelangelo, Artemesia Gentileschi, Augusta Savage, and Edgar Degas all did before they became great artists. All of these artists have inherited hundreds years of artistic knowledge through atelier training, yet their work is each so distinctive and unique.
Find Your Unique Artistic Voice
There is so much knowledge that can be obtained from the visible world that you might otherwise miss without a trained eye. And there are so many choices you are unable to make with your artwork if you are unaware they exist. There is no need to reinvent the wheel of visual arts knowledge. If you want to learn what is already known at its highest levels, pursue atelier training. I promise, it won’t ruin your inner artist’s voice. It will enhance it.