Why Experienced Artists are Experienced, or, Practice Blindly at Your Own Risk
So the other day I tweeted a couple of things that I've come to realize:
More thoughts followed. And now you're reading them.
So, doing still lifes and studies doesn't just build a visual database in your head that you can pull details from when drawing from imagination, but the practice also answers the question raised by the warning from Alphonso Dunn (and any sensible art teacher) about practicing the wrong things not improving your skills: how do you know what is wrong?
At least for the question of building up your visual database and your knowledge of how the real world works, the answer is that the real world is the best and final teacher. In particular, reference is necessary for learning. And not just at the beginner level—at all levels for all artists. So yeah—real artists do use reference all the time, and as a result experienced artists often end up doing tons of selfies to get poses, lighting, etc, correct. (Hat tip to Beth Sobel for the article link!)
There is literally nothing that will replace the right reference, so find ways to make them yourself whenever possible—and if you can't make them, try to find a high quality reference. I learned to my detriment that blurry, medium-sized, over-exposed, photoshopped references definitely do not work.
(Heck, the much maligned practice of tracing is useful for learning and arguably more useful than life drawing in some aspects, although to achieve the best results for self-teaching you need to alternate between the two.)
While photographs are certainly useful, it's important to remember that photographs—especially polished, professional photography—always lie. In many ways art can portray better what the human eye sees versus what the camera flattens into a two-dimensional image—and an artist can control how the two-dimensional illusion is structured. You have to be able to compensate for that—and that means still lifes and life studies needs must accompany photo references.
As noted in James Gurney's Color and Light, the difference between real life and photographs is objectively true and not merely subjective in some cases: an example is that cameras don't photograph certain light sources, like lantern light, and their effects on the surroundings accurately. Also noted in the same book, simulations of overcast light aren't just impossible to do accurately indoors even with a floor-to-ceiling window, but are also among the most expensive calculations that three-dimensional rendering software executes.
You can't beat real life for lessons. You can't. You really really really can't.
It's weird. As I gain more acumen as an artist, I'm starting to notice when visual databases of artists (including myself) aren't as well-developed as they should be. When studies of the face are lacking, for instance, facial expressions are off, even for cartoony characters or abstracted figures. (It's why so many samples of the so-called emoji meme made my skin crawl, and why I stopped my own efforts after one—though definitely it's something I want to revisit in the future.) When study of figure is insufficient, this comes out in the stiffness and homogeneity of character poses and movement. It's like learning to tell how much experience a writer has with the written word, even just in a general sense and not particular to any field, from their body of work.
Which all makes sense, of course. You have to know how a thing works to come up with a variation that will work in the way you want it to.
And if I can do that? Me, who isn't anywhere near professional level yet?
That means well-rounded professionals definitely can.
Don't shoot yourself in the foot.
Next time, I want to talk about praise and its role in developing the young artist (or, sometimes, doing the exact opposite) and enjoying the process of developing that visual database.