Realism happens.

If you are the kind of person who has trouble drawing stick figures, you might want to stop reading now. Otherwise, you are probably going to find me very annoying.

My feelings about people who can’t draw are similar to my feeling about people who (like me) can’t run fast. Practice helps, of course, but in the end one must conclude that God doesn’t deal cards even-handedly. I know that I’ve already spent too much of my life wishing that I had someone else’s hand instead of my own, so that’s why I can’t decide whether I ought to be content that I’ve received a Realism trump card or whether I ought to keep shuffling things around and trying to find something a little more exciting at the bottom.

With few exceptions, my fall-back drawing style has always been photorealism. When I was growing up and scribbling little scenes in the margins of my notebook, my mantra was always realistic = good. Did the horse look like a ‘real’ horse? Did the face look like a ‘real’ person? If not, I’d better try and fix that.

I think that some of this comes from the way in which a child is naturally impressed by a display of technical competancy. If you show a room of six-year-olds a painting by a Dutch master and a painting by Picasso, they are going to be much more excited by the bowl of fruit. How did he make it look so real?, they will ask (and, in my case, pick up a box of crayons and try to do the same). I have found from experience that, when drawing for a child, it is best if all the lines connect and nothing is left to the imagination — woe to the babysitter who leaves the whiskers off the kitty drawing!

In my situation, this early tendency to prefer the straightforwardly realistic was also reinforced by the art training I received in school. I am not wanting to make a general critique of my very excellent private school, and I hope that anyone reading this will understand that I liked and respected my art teacher very much. However, my high school did not actually teach students how to draw or paint. It taught them how to copy. Owing in part to a philosophy of extreme reverence for tradition and in part (I’m afraid to say) to the fact that it is much easier to teach copying than creating, the students had very few opportunities to strike out on their own. I took an art elective just about every semester it was offered and only once did I have the opportunity to draw from life. All the other semesters, we were told to choose two “great paintings” and spend the entirety of the class reproducing them to the best of our abilities. This is not a bad exercise for improving technique and it is certainly very good for giving high school kids a proper view of their abilities (yes, Michelangelo was a lot better than you). However, it never teaches you anything about drawing a three-dimensional object and — due to the careful selection of artwork that was considered acceptable copying material — gives one a rather narrow sense of what is and is not good art. Representational = good, non-representational = bad.

It took a careful reading of My Name is Asher Lev when I was in college for me to start to re-think this approach to art. I will add that the book initially filled me with woe at all the ways in which I did not match the author’s description of the true Artiste and perhaps replaced one faulty paradigm with another, but in the end it was quite helpful.  Perhaps my drawing did not need to look exactly like the subject matter for it to be good. Hmm.

Before I wandered too far into apostasy, however, I was yanked back to the world of realism by my courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating from college and teaching abroad for a year, I spent two years living in Providence and taking night classes to complete two certificates, one in Natural Science Illustration and one in Children’s Book Illustration. My scientific illustration classes were, initially, everything that I had hoped for and craved. I was given an object and a medium and told to make my paper look as much like that object as possible. After two hours, we tacked our results to the wall and had a group discussion about why the right side was too dark, the left side too light, and the pencil not quite soft enough. This was repeated with pen, watercolor, acrylic, apples, oranges, flowers, and stuffed birds, and I learned a tremendous amount.

After a semester or two of this, however, I began to feel pulled in several directions at once.

You need to look at the textbook examples more carefully, said my scientific illustration instructor. Did you see the one where every scale on the fish is counted? I’m not sure all your petals are quite right, and the whole piece looks a bit flat.

You are much too tight, said my children’s book illustration instructor. Why can’t your drawing be more whimsical? Children like looseness, you know. Maybe you could be more spontaneous instead of planning the whole piece out so carefully.

As the semesters progressed, I went from feeling “mildly pulled” to feeling as though I was in the middle of a war zone. I had to be different artists on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights and somehow produce a corresponding gradient of homework. I began to look with envy at the other students who had only one assignment and one style to deal with. Some instructors were sympathetic to my plight, but those with a very specific idea of what they wanted produced many tears as I trudged up the hill to my apartment after class.

My distress increased when it came time to put together a final portfolio, i.e. that which you show to publishers and hope to get hired. Mine was the portfolio of a dabbler, and I knew it: my big challenge was finding an even number of pieces in each style so that I could at least make a consistent two-page spread. It was somewhat demoralizing to find that, after two years of hard work, I still didn’t have a discernible Paula-look that I liked.

Friends and family will know that, after finishing my courses at RISD, I had some very good reasons not to pursue illustration as a career. These included moving to a small town in eastern Washington, finding a dependable job that paid the bills, and marrying a certain wonderful man. I turned to crafts and sewing and occasionally covered the dining room table with pencils and paper and paints, but I couldn’t really describe myself as an artist. This was not bad — there’s a time for everything (including art), and my first year of marriage was not it. As time progressed, however, I began to participate in a few Illustration Friday themes and one of them turned into the Alphabirdybet letters. And then those turned into an Etsy shop. And then that shop turned into…well, I’m still deciding.


Wow, I really got off track. How about a little history of my art career? I meant to describe my ongoing love/hate relationship with realism, and I guess it turned into something else. But you get the idea, right? I always thought I wanted to be a really photo-realistic artist, but then when I got my chance it turned out that this wasn’t what I was really looking for. Counting fish scales? Making precise stippling dots with a rapidograph pen? These only encourage my rather destructive natural tendency toward perfectionism and are kinda boring to boot.

As I have cast around in the last six months for a “style” to use in my Etsy shop, I can feel myself again being drawn toward realism and simultaneously wanting to fight against it. I keep trying to start and finish an abstract-ish painting, but every time I find that I can only maintain it for about twenty or thirty minutes. And then I have to add feathers and leaves, shadow and highlight, background and foreground. I am not unhappy with my recent work — I’ve really enjoyed the Day at the Beach series, and I’m glad that you have to. It’s just that it’s not what I originally envisioned for the project. I’m like a pinball that keeps rolling back toward the hole at the bottom of the realism maze, only occasionally managing to get stuck on one of the little ledges half-way down.

Okay, enough soul-searching for today. Any comments/suggestions will, of course, be appreciated as I try to figure out where to go from here. In the meantime, it’s back to the drawing/painting board for me…


9 thoughts on “Realism happens.

  1. I think you do have a style, one that combines your realistic drawing skills with some of the playfulness and looseness you picked up at your children’s book illustration certificate classes (I would have LOVED to take that certificate class as well!) Take your beautiful birds, the ones from your adorable alphabet series, or the dogs in “Big and Little’, my very first original painting made by you. I see your style in those works and really admire it. You are able to capture their physical characteristics and poses really accurately, but then you look at their expression, their eyes, and there you see that whimsical quality, they are not naturalistic drawings, but characters with a personality, with a light within.

    I guess the one thing I disagree with you is that I think practice does help make one who is less artistically gifted to become better and more accomplished. There are those of us that are born with an extra gift, no question about that. For them practice still helps, but it may not be as critical for their development. Practice is hard, though, it’s sometimes frustrating not to be able to see on paper what you can see so clearly in your mind, and then the self-critic kicks in and can make forging ahead so much harder. I’m one of those that need to practice a lot, and that sometimes get very discouraged, but I can’t deny that it has helped me improve so I try to keep reminding myself of that.

    Your Day at the Beach series shows how gifted you are at composing interesting, captivating images, and how well you master gouache. It think it’s great to have the range of interests and skills (art and craft, realistic and loose) that you have. :-)

  2. Aha, I see that “in the middle of a splitting headache” might not be the best time to write a big post after all. I sounded kind of snippy about talent, practice, etc., don’t I?

    I do not at all mean to deride the fact that many people (including myself) need to practice at something for it to work. So many arts involve learned skills that get better when you do them more often and get worse when you don’t — it’s certainly not an issue of 100% talent vs. 0% talent. And if you only do what you’re 100% good at, then you miss out on a lot of, well, life.

    However, I do think that some people are just naturally more gifted in an area than others. I played the cello for about 10 years, and I can tell you that the person who sat next to me in orchestra could do more with less practice than I ever could. And sometimes when I look at other artists/illustrators’ work, I wonder if I have what it takes to do the kind of work I WANT to do. I completely agree with you that it is completely frustrating “not to be able to see on paper what you can see so clearly in your mind” (which was very well expressed) — it’s a problem I have all the time! But since I get rather irritated when the girl in the dressing room next to me complains that she can’t go from a size 2 to a size 0, I am assuming that ranting about my poor art skills would come across as being in poor taste or fishing for compliments. But neither do I mean to imply that I have arrived at some pinnacle of realism, either…

    Okay, I think it’s time to sign out before verbally digging myself further in a corner. TGIF! :)

  3. Oh, gosh, no, I didn’t mean to say you sounded snippy or dismissive (or even that you were fishing for compliments) either!

    I think we all know people for whom doing certain things just seems easier, more natural, and seems to requires a lot less work on their part. No question, some people just have a gift, they are born with it. Many times I have wished to be one of them, but since I’m not, what I meant to say is that practice does help me achieve or get close to achieving that goal of getting better, in this case, at doing the type of art that I hope to do.

    I sure hope I’m not sounding preachy or snippy either. For me a big thing has been to let go of thinking so much about the finish product and just enjoy creating the artwork, getting it done and not worrying too much about the outcome. And then if necessary, doing it again. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it’s a nice feeling. :-)

  4. hello! I am so glad that you wrote this post! I have two things to say: Realism doesn’t have to clash with abstract or whimsicality in your art. It is HARD to make the transition sometimes, yes. But I will never forget what I learned when I went to a YOung Picasso exhibit when I was a teen…his art was so incredibly classical, perfect and realism to a T. I didn’t even see any of his later style at all in his early work. It was all mechanically driven. He was taught in realism, and then was able to use the structure, form and composition he learned when he started painting from his heart. I was taught very traditionally as well. Oil painting and portraiture were my favorite until I had babies, and didn’t have space to use my oils. So I went back to simple drawing. But it is amazing the tie. So, go with your gut, but your background in technical drawing is invaluable.

    Second, about the practice thing. Some of the most talented people I know never practiced because they didn’t ‘have’ to. Now, they are behind and unhappy with their work, while those who were determined to learn more every day have since succeeded in bringing the world beautiful things.

    Happy painting, and pat yourself on the back! You have GREAT talent and a great eye. Thanks for letting me stop by!

  5. Aack, Monica — I’ve got nothing against your comment! Upon re-reading my post it seemed as though there was ample room for misunderstanding. I get very nervous when I put too many personal feelings or impressions online and am probably hyper-sensitive that someone will feel personally criticized when I have intended no such thing.

    Sarah Jane, I love your work! I have also seen some of Picasso’s early pieces, and you’re entirely correct. I think you’re also right that, talented or not, a person has to keep exercising a skill or it will remain stagnant (or eventually wither away).

  6. P-Bird,

    There is an amazing plasticity to the brain. In reality, most people can draw more than stick figures, but the bigger contributor to ability is the willingness to practice. I’ve rattled on about the research here:

    However, the conflict between “art” and “technique” goes well beyond just drawing for drawing sake. Technique and art is very much a synaptic thing.

    Technique clearly is centered around different parts of the brain, when compared to art. Technique is fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination. The “art” or creative section of womankind is found in a completely different section of the brain. The challenge for the artist is the ability to tap on both.

    However, technology has changed the balance. With tools like Photoshop, you can take a picture of that animal that you need to illustrate, then hit the “charcoal” filter to immediately create a photorealistic charcoal drawing. To the lay viewer, they will not know how the picture was done. So, the age old skill of humans being that translator device is being passed to the computers that we use.

    The question is if we mourn the passing of the photorealistic torch or not? To me, we do not. I do not mourn the passing of the artistry of my local piano tuner. I celebrate that my electronic piano is always in tune so I can create my music at any time.

    Therefore, the photorealistic picture is going to become more and more automated. As the software improves, and the user base expands, the ease of creating photorealism pictures will increase and the value of these types of pictures will decrease, simply because the supply of users will increase. When there are many people doing the same thing, the value will be less.

    However, the whimsical and the creative will only become more important.

    In the future, we will all be Albrecht Dürer.

    In the future, we will all celebrate Theodor Geisel

    As ever,
    Your Loving, Philosophical Uncle

  7. I am really glad that you are willing to put your thoughts online. I know how difficult that is to do. Your thoughts are the same as mine regarding realism and the building of a consistent style. I have no answer to the problem. In fact, in order to avoid the problem of style, I let the work of Picasso and of Milton Glaser encourage me. They never seemed to let one style box them in.

    I am trying to figure out how to even think about all this.

    Lately I have been thinking about why I like certain artists. I boiled it down to three categories: wit and/or novelty, technical acumen, and narrative or conceptual content. For example, I love Erte, Paula Sanz Caballero for the novelty. Richard Schmid slays me with his amazing edgework and color. The Russian painters, like Repin, make me feel so silly and brainless when I compare there epic masterpieces to my vain ACEOs. For me, these 3 categories have to be covered in a painting to be great. So, that is what I want to do in my work…someday.

    Also, I think we have to realize that we are only in our 20s, and it will take time to learn what we love and to make all the mistakes before we can expect to be content. So like you said- practice. Many an artist has said that it takes miles and miles of canvas.

    What artists do you like, Paula? Do you have any mentors?

    I like to think of Dean Cornwell as my ideal. Maybe that will change when I am older. I think back in my earlier college days it was Alphonse Mucha, but I grew out of that. Maybe someday I will attempt a Repin-sized concept. Right now it is just too scary.

  8. Pingback: A Day at the Beach: Barnacles. «

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