One of the most common shortcomings in the works of artists today is poor drawing ability. There is a perception among some, especially if working in the highly symbolic styles of the Gothic, the iconographic or even the style featured here recently, the Beuronese style, that the artist can hide his lack of technical skill behind the stylistic elements. I have heard people say that they signed up for icon painting classes, for example, because they think that they don’t need to be very good at drawing.
The same thing happens in mainstream art schools; students opt for Expressionistic styles because they know that they can’t be held to account for how bad the drawing is, and can hide a lack of skill behind wild and flamboyant brush strokes. Many just forgo the paintbrush altogether, pick up a video camera and go for conceptual art.
This may be acceptable in the context of 20th century art styles, but it is not good enough for sacred art, no matter what style we want to work in.
In fact, it is more difficult to work within a particular tradition and retain accuracy in drawing. It requires the artist to understand both where he must be precise in reflecting nature, and where he must be precise in deviating from natural appearances in accord with the demands of the tradition’s style.
Artists quite often show me their work, and one of the comments I often make is that they need to improve their drawing. It is great that there are more and more people who are looking to traditional forms as inspiration for sacred art, and so I always want to be encouraging. There is hope; drawing is a skill that can be taught. Someone who wants to learn to draw can spend time learning the academic method of drawing, which trains the eye to observe nature and then to render it in two dimensions. Another thing to consider is an illustrator’s course, in which one can learn how to create new images without always having to set up a tableau of figures posed for the image. At some point, the good artist needs to be able to go beyond simply drawing, what he can see, and must be able to draw what is in his imagination too.
Here are two examples of faults that I often see. I don’t like highlighting what is bad in other peoples’ work, so I’ll use examples of my own to illustrate (I have plenty to choose from!)
The first is the drapery of cloth. In sacred art, the figures are often portrayed with draped clothing. It is vital that the folds in the cloth look natural and that there be a sense of a properly proportioned figure underneath. The only way that I know of to understand this is to study how material drapes over the human form. One of my frustrations when I was studying academic art was that we spent so much time studying the nude, but none devoted to studying clothes, which would have helped me.
Have a look at this painting of St Silouan the Athonite. At first glance, the folds in the cloth look natural, but if you look closer you can see that the deep red robe is done incorrectly in the region between the arms. The reason is that I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be painting, and so just guessed.
The figure can then be rotated for a three-quarter profile view, as in this figure of Elizabeth Prout, also by Aidan Hart, in which the line drawing in black on a plain brown robe is rendered without additional shading or highlights.
If we want the figure to look natural underneath the drapery, there are certain pressure points at which the figure supports or otherwise directly acts upon the clothing, which elsewhere hangs free. These are places such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and the crook in the elbow. If these pressure points are not placed in absolutely precise way, the whole figure looks wrong.
We can see how well John Singer Sargent does this in the painting below, a portrait of Mrs Henry White. Much of the dress is swirling away from direct contact with her body. This means that, in order for it to look as though it belongs to her, he has very few of these pressure points to work with, but these must be absolutely right. In this case, they are the shoulders and the tight-fitting waist and her hips. Her left hip is indicated with a tiny little detail, a conjunction of shadow and highlight. If these were not absolutely correct, the eye of the observer would pick it up instantly, and everything would look wrong.
Another common area of error is in the drawing of the proportions of hands and faces. In the example below, I copied a famous icon of St Matthew. When I showed it to my teacher, Aidan, he instantly pointed out that his right hand looked distorted. I replied that I noticed this, but thought that this was how it had looked in the original. Because I didn’t know if I was allowed to change it, I had left it exactly as I thought it had been done by the original artist. (I believed that when I said it, but now that I looked at it, I wonder if I copied inaccurately as well! You can see the original below and judge for yourself). Aidan immediately replied that it didn’t matter; if the original looked like that too, then the original was done badly, and I should be copying errors unthinkingly. Here’s the point: just because we are working in the iconographic style, that doesn’t mean that we accept anatomical inaccuracy. The goal is to be both anatomically correct and to work with the iconographic style, which is what all the great icon painters are able to do.