Kay Kane – Animation as Conservation: Classical Values in Contemporary Practice

Something curious happened to visual fine art over the course of the twentieth century, something that did not happen to other art forms.[1] It shed any semblance of a disciplinary base. The term ‘Fine Art’ used to denote the traditional plastic arts – drawing, painting, sculpture – as distinguished, on the one hand, from other art forms like music, dance, literature and drama and, on the other, from those professions that put similar skill sets to practical uses in architecture, illustration, natural history and so on. In this framework, fine art was defined not only by its technical accomplishment but by its non-utilitarian intentions, which were presumed to focus on more transcendent values, whether cultural or religious or, in the Western tradition, the quest for beauty and the sublime. Indeed, this non-utilitarian character is practically all that survives of the old tradition in contemporary fine art, which is often aggressively assertive in its pointlessness, by which I meaning its resistance to any easy interpretation of the quality and character of the values at which it aims.

Fine art was not traditionally presumed to be within the reach of all. It required mastery over a discipline or set of disciplines, which implied a long and conscientious apprenticeship to support and develop whatever native genius a would-be artist might have. Most fundamental was learning to draw. Drawing implied an intense and repeated encounter with the world via pencil or charcoal in an attempt to translate what was observed, always filtered of course through the artist’s particular sensibility, onto some accommodating surface. In 1880, Vincent van Gogh decided he would dedicate three years to learning to draw before even approaching the use of colour, even attending the Academy in Brussels despite his aversion to formal schools. It is hard to imagine a fine art student today being encouraged along such a disciplinary road by their institution. On the contrary, the trend has been increasingly away from an intensive acquisition of skills in general and from drawing in particular.

Browsing the fine art curricula of colleges of art, one often finds hardly more than a glancing mention of drawing.[2] It does not seem to be regarded any longer as a necessary foundational skill. For example, Central St Martins in London (where I was trained) briefly mentions drawing in what it calls its “2D pathway,” but most of its course description reveals how thoroughly visual art has been subsumed under quasi-philosophical discourse.

Intertextuality of appropriation provides a theoretical language for practice … Discussions arising might include those on ontology and the ‘coming into being’ of presence, phenomenology of the self revealed, evocation and mnemonic construction, spatial control and the historical problem of monumentality, and the semiotics of scale” (University of the Arts London 2014).

In colleges with which I am familiar in Australia, the situation is even worse, with drawing being not merely minimally offered in fine art courses but positively discouraged on the grounds that too much skill of the old-fashioned kind will inhibit a student’s ‘creativity’ (personal communication from Head of Fine Art of Australian college, 2014) – as it no doubt inhibited van Gogh’s.

One may assume that this is simply the consequence of a century or more of assault on traditional forms and practices by the forces of modernism, post-modernism and whatever the latest –ism may be. That must certainly be part of the story (as we will pursue) but can’t be all of it. Music, dance, literature, drama have all been assailed, transformed and transmuted by these social and aesthetic forces, but one can hardly be a contemporary musician, dancer, writer or dramatist without acquiring a considerable disciplinary base affording technical mastery. One cannot convincingly sing atonally unless one has first learnt to sing, dance an abstract piece unless one has thoroughly learnt to dance, deconstruct a sentence in the manner of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett unless one has already learnt to construct them in the manner of Henry James. Even the deformations of early modernist visual artists – a Picasso or Matisse – only made sense as intentional deviations from an already accomplished norm.

In this paper I will argue that the discipline of drawing the human figure, which is no longer seen as fundamental to Western fine art practice and training, remains highly pertinent to animation studies. The kinaesthetic aspects of figure drawing, I will claim, make it especially valuable for animation students. It is this enduring value that allows animation to conserve artistic values elsewhere largely devalued. I will begin by first examining the turn against disciplinary skills in the visual fine arts in terms of the main trajectories of modernist and post-modernist history.  I will then consider why other art forms, despite responding to the same forces of change, did not show an equivalent neglect of basic discipline to connect this shift with the endurance of these fundamental skills in animation education. Finally, through an analysis of the process of teaching traditional drawing skills, I will seek to expound the nature of the values, including but beyond purely instrumental ones, that animation conserves in its teaching and practice.

The Eclipse of Disciplinary Skills in Fine Art

A couple of broad trends in modernism – one reductionist, the other toward a cult of the ugly – seemed inevitably to relegate the acquisition of traditional artistic skills to a non-necessity, or even a hindrance. Stephen Hicks (2004) points out that the reductionist aspiration was to reduce art to its pure essentials by progressively eliminating ‘inessential’ elements − narrative, three-dimensionality, form, colour − in other words, all the elements central to traditional representation. Whatever was left at the end would presumably be pure ‘art.’ This program led to the huge variety of non-representational and abstract art forms − Malevich’s white square on white background being most emblematic – as well as to such ideological obsessions as ‘being true to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas’ (n.p.). It reached its natural terminus in conceptual art in which ultra-minimalist work (such as Carl Andre’s bricks in the Tate Gallery) was generally an occasion for the accompanying pseudo-philosophical explanations of the concepts informing it.

The reductionist mission betrayed a profoundly puritanical streak in its search for aesthetic essences. Certainly the public was not expected in any immediate fashion to enjoy the works generated, though they might come to appreciate them given a suitably rigorous initiation by artists and their critical interpreters. More significantly from the perspective of this paper, by eliminating all alleged ‘inessentials,’ reductionist art also eliminated the need for the skills that artists had traditionally laboured long and hard to acquire in the performance of their work. This inevitably changed not only perceptions of art in general but of the artist as well. The latter was no longer considered to be the skilled master of a craft capable of sensuously rendering works replete with meaning and feeling, but anyone with the capacity (or audacity) to come up with a plausible explanation of why whatever they happened to exhibit to the world should be regarded as art. Creativity thus became divorced from any necessary disciplinary base.

This situation was not mitigated by the contrary trend in modernism toward portraying the ugly reality of existence. Nietzsche had denied any connection between truth and beauty and argued that reality was inherently ugly, which was why, he said, we needed the illusory beauty of art to enable us to bear it (Nietzsche 1968). Many modern artists were not inclined to offer this consolation and chose truth over beauty. Thus as reductionism gave us less and less to contemplate (a kind of Zen of modern art), ugly truthfulness gave us more and more, but more of a generally repellent, intentionally shocking or horrifying kind. Its ire (especially after the cataclysm of the First World War had revealed the destructive potential embedded in the idea of human progress) was directed at the purveyors of values that had turned out to be false but which had taken us all in − beauty, rationality, order, harmony, pleasure, love (Steiner 2001; Kane 2013). Art as traditionally understood was itself an illusion whose pretensions needed to be punctured, as Duchamp famously did when he exhibited his urinal as art (not a washbasin or tap, note, but a urinal). The aestheticism of the nineteenth century thus gave way to the provocative anti-aestheticism of the twentieth: in place of superficial beauty artists would present us with an abattoir, in place of order chaos, in place of smooth colour harmonies coagulated masses of muddy paint. The violence and ugliness of the means were essential to the effects aimed at, meaning the sort of technical control instilled by traditional practice was no longer highly relevant.

The transition from modernism to postmodernism modified but hardly altered this rather negative scenario.[3] If ugly modernism was founded on a singular value, truth, postmodern philosophy argued that truth (in any absolute sense and especially about values) was beyond the grasp of any of us, leading to radical relativism (‘my opinion is as good as yours’ and vice versa).[4] But anyone who believes this can never confidently assert any values at all, except ironically (witness postmodernism’s emphasis on ‘playfulness’ and its mantra ‘anything goes’). But its claim about the questionability of all values, including aesthetic ones, easily melded with the modernism’s attack on traditional values. And what postmodernism carried over, above all, from modernism was the idea that new and original art must shock the public’s sensibilities and that nothing could in principle be too extreme, setting up an escalating contest of ‘in your face’ exhibits each of which, like the latest episode in a successful Hollywood movie franchise, tried to outdo the last in sheer sensationalism (from Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ  to Tracey Emin’s My Bed to Damien Hirst’s ‘production line’ of dissected sharks and crucified cows and so on and on). Meanwhile, the wild eclecticism of its means and methods further undermined any lingering idea of visual art as the special preserve of people of particular talent, sensibility and skill.

It is worth noting, in this history, a paradoxical double movement in which art became simultaneously more elitist and more democratic. On the one hand, art was a puzzle wrapped in philosophical jargon whose meaning was accessible only to the specially initiated; on the other, anyone could be an artist, no skills required, just a little imagination and the chutzpah to thrust a bold and preferably offensive idea or image into the public square. Indeed postmodernism attempted to dissolve any distinction between high and low art on the grounds that this represented a hierarchical (therefore undemocratic) system of values. But in a world where aesthetic values were either (a) too profound for any but the most sophisticated to appreciate or (b) actually non-existent or illusory, then confident judgments about what constituted value in art became extremely problematic or impossible, and aesthetic criticism irrelevant. In such a milieu the final arbiter of taste inevitably became commerce, guided not by aesthetic judgment but by notoriety and thus saleability.[5]

It is worth pausing here to consider why an old-style disciplinary base has remained fundamental in other art forms such as music, dance, etc. It was certainly not that they were not subject to the same pressures of reductive minimalism, fragmentation and anti-aestheticism as visual art, or to the general revolutionary spirit that intentionally distanced itself from the assumptions of nineteenth-century Neoclassicism or Romanticism. With regard to dance, the reason seems intuitively obvious. The body is the dancer’s instrument and only the strictest regime of disciplinary training will allow that instrument to be potently deployed to serve the varying visions and intentions of choreographers, who must themselves be intimately acquainted with the physical limits and possibilities of dance expression. In music, while it is true that there exist modern pieces consisting mainly of silence or the production of odd sounds from various non-instruments, these are still generally performed (when they are at all) by trained musicians who can, and must, turn their skills to a wide range of music, ancient and modern. And these pieces are typically composed by people with similar training. The fact that the classical repertoire has always remained very much in vogue in musical performances no doubt compels musicians to tread the traditional disciplinary path, but even the work of the most notable modern composers – John Cage, Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen – rests on a solid foundation of musical knowledge that included harmony and counterpoint. Perhaps, indeed, it is the necessity of performance that commands the maintenance of a genuine disciplinary base. Theatre has its examples of intentionally undisciplined avant-garde performance, but in the main is dominated by a range of settled masterpieces from Elizabethan times onward, with which contemporary playwrights and actors must inevitably contend if they are to gain an audience. Writers in general have of course the advantage of acquiring linguistic skills at their mother’s knee and skills of writing over the ordinary course of things, although most writers of any note still spend a long apprenticeship perfecting their craft and developing their unique voice.

All art forms have been subject to the dominance of ‘ideas’ over the past century or so, as well as to the cult of the new,[6] but in none but the visual arts has the ascendancy of the idea, however obscure, reached such heights as almost to obliterate the performative aspects of a work. I am, of course, taking a broad brush approach here to the contemporary visual art world that overlooks many artists of considerable skill and accomplishment, but my target is the mainstream of contemporary art. If it seems strange to speak of a ‘mainstream’ in such a radically diverse world, this is nevertheless justified by the powerful ideological commitments underlying the diversity (indeed, the ‘anything-goes’ attitude ensures and promotes superficial diversity). In that mainstream it is quite rare to find work that can, in effect, speak for itself, as performances in music, theatre and dance must generally do if they are to speak to an audience at all. (This does not mean, by the way, that an audience must fully understand the real source and power of a work they have appreciated – does anyone after four centuries fully understand Hamlet?) A great deal of modern art exists in physical form only as a challenge to the viewer to accept it as art, with the consequence that audiences are inexorably drawn into a long internal debate among artists themselves about meaning and art. As Hicks (2004) observed, “in modernism, art becomes a philosophical enterprise rather than an artistic one. The driving purpose of modernism is not to do art but to find out what art is” (n.p., emphasis in original). This is an extremely self-referential and rather sterile purpose. It means that a work is not really expected to speak for itself (that is, to attract interest in its own self-existent right) but must rely on being ‘explained’ philosophically by the artist or some fellow-travelling critic, usually in impenetrable prose that mystifies and intimidates the public and convinces them that there must be some value in something they cannot comprehend. The actual work is, in a profound sense, only an occasion for its explanation. And if no explanation is provided an audience can be relied on to assume, after so many years of this kind of thing, that the puzzling or confronting objects they are asked to appreciate must have some deep meaning that is inevitably beyond their grasp.

Animation as conservation

It is interesting to consideration animation in view of all that has been said about fine art. Animation is a relatively recent art form, often not regarded as a genuine art form at all but as merely a branch of popular, particularly youthful, entertainment. In truth animation, like the world of cinema of which it is part, encompasses every niche from popular to pornographic to avant-garde. Yet its enduring popular association with entertainment may be an advantage when we consider it in the light of the conservation of classical skills. Animation has today, in the guise of CGI, expanded its realm mightily into mainstream film, not to mention into the massive gaming industry, and thus is very big business indeed. And animation, with its central focus on figures and objects in motion against some ground, assumes that skill in drawing is an essential foundation for expression and creativity. This skill is no doubt instrumental to typical story-telling, but is also inseparable from the aesthetic achievement of a particular work.

This is in contrast to a common situation in fine art. Indeed a senior figure in my college in Australia recently told his fine art students that “drawing is dead.”[7] I regard this as a deeply unfortunate circumstance. The animators themselves struggle through three years of challenging work, discovering the difficulties and rewards of successful drawing, then graduate and often get good jobs in major companies and productions. Many who keep in touch tell me their drawing courses were among the most valuable they took. I say this not for self-congratulation, but because I believe it indicates a more than merely instrumental value in classical drawing instruction. What this value is I will try to expound here.

Learning to draw from life is a foundational discipline for animation students whatever their ultimate intentions. Common skill sets acquired by animators will, indeed, be very differently applied depending on differing individual characters, imaginations, sensibilities and intentions. Learning to draw is not about learning a style, but more akin to the strenuous training of dancers who must learn the possibilities of expressive bodily motion and the muscular and mental control it takes to realize them. Drawing from life, then, is about translating a broad array of observed visual forms – human, natural, man-made – from 3D to 2D. Translation is here the operative word, as opposed to copying or mimesis. Anyone who has ever tried their hand at drawing knows how much easier it is to copy from someone else’s completed drawing than to draw directly from observed life.[8] That is because in the former all the decisions have already been made and the copyist has nothing to do but reproduce these as faithfully as he or she may. Certainly, copying can be a valuable learning exercise, particularly if using the work of artistic masters; careful copies can instruct on the decisions artists have made to achieve their effects. Drawing from life, however, can never be copying because the world which presents itself to our everyday senses with such apparent clarity and solidity tends to dissolve into uncertainty and complexity when we attempt to translate it convincingly onto a plain surface.

Van Gogh noted of his study of modelling and perspective at the Academy that “you have to know just to be able to draw the least thing”(Tralbaut 1969, p. 21). This is true, and some of the necessary knowledge, for example the rules of perspective which have been comprehensively laid down after many centuries of discovery, are nowadays relatively easy to convey and to start to practice. I say ‘relatively’, but in fact every dedicated act of drawing is a journey of discovery, a journey toward learning to seeor rather, re-learning to see (Berger 1972). Our ingenious brains, with no input from us apart from our normal infantile interaction with the world, have already constructed that world in such a solid manner as to allow us to negotiate and manipulate it for the most part successfully (Langer 1988; Dutton 2009).[9] This unconscious construction has enabled us to know much about the world through sheer familiarity, and this knowledge informs what are called our ‘customary perceptions’ (Torreano 2007, p. 14). But when we come to draw from life that knowledge is often more of a hindrance than a help. We are all familiar with a child’s naïve drawings of a chair, or a cup. The child knows the chair has four legs and the cup is round, and will draw them thus however visually odd the result. Yet first year animation students are seldom more sophisticated, and drawing instructors find that it takes considerable effort to teach them to ‘bracket’ what they know and look carefully at what they actually see (Hedgpeth and Missal 2004, p. 5-6).

Much that is important in drawing cannot be readily reduced to the application of technical rules, but it is important to note that even applying well-known rules of perspective and foreshortening involves a considerable mental wrench for the novice. Drawing, when done with sincere concentration, is thus always a strenuous activity, and like all strenuous activity encompasses failures and frustrations but can also lead to a sense of progress and accomplishment that is immensely rewarding. Learning to draw is therefore a gradual and cumulative process in which each small accomplishment is consolidated and built upon. At my college drawing courses for animation are designed over three years in a process that I call Strata Teaching, with a preliminary stratum being carefully laid down before students can advance to higher strata.

The idea of strata teaching is that laying down successive layers of skill and experience allows graduating students to embark on their own individual paths in the security of deep levels of competency. The first year is pivotal and designed to help students come to grips visually with the difference between seeing and knowing, with emphasis on a variety of observational strategies, such as ‘seeing flat’ and working always from the general to the particular. The basic tenet is, not that students should learn to draw objects with photographic precision, but rather that they should begin to have an understanding of the elements that are the core of the drawing process. This is particularly important for animation students whose final animations may be very far removed from customary perceptions. They should imbibe the understanding that drawing and seeing are not clearly separable, but intimately connected: one learns to see through drawing and learns to draw through seeing, is a process that (perhaps counterintuitively) genuinely stimulates rather than stifling the student’s imagination (Steinhart 2004, p. 35-56).  Through rigorous practice, the student comes to feel that drawing embodies a genuinely independent way of thinking, a way of discovering the seen world and the infinite possibilities of its representation which animators can endlessly explore. As Robert Henri (2007, p. 86) says: “It is harder to see than it is to express.”

In the second year the fundamentals are revised after which students move on to acquire experience and mastery in creating line, shape and tonal value. They are shown the importance of a sound understanding of proportion, dimension and structure. As the American drawing instructor and artist Nathan Goldstein (2005) has insisted, an analytical approach that gives due importance to dimension and structure does not necessarily lead to tight or ‘academic’ results but benefits creative interpretation and can uncover a rich source of dynamic invention. Harold Speed (1972, p. 73) wrote long ago: “A drawing is not necessarily academic because it is thorough, but only because it is dead.” As always, drawing is taught as a process of discovery and decision-making, each stroke marking a small but significant decision, one that either opens up or delimits the possibility of the next stroke and so on and on until the drawing is complete. Students are instructed in continuous cross-referencing within a picture as they proceed to reveal direction, alignment and repeated motif, which is particularly valuable training for animation students.[10] The student must at each point strive to find the alignment with other forms that makes a line really count, so that drawing becomes simultaneously a disciplining and creative process. Students are introduced to a broader range of approaches to show that there is not one single approach or ‘correct’ way of drawing.[11]

In the third year the knowledge and skills already gained are rehearsed and consolidated, then students move on to more subtle and detailed aspects of successful drawing, like the phrasing of concave and convex contours and how to deal with values of light. Of particular importance is instruction in the structural significance of enclosures and especially negative space (Goldstein and Fishman 2005, p. 146-148; Mattesi 2006, p. 99, p. 173). Many students have particular difficulty with the concept of negative space. Our customary perception presents things to us as positively given, as simply there. But the secure presence of objects in a successful composition is generally founded on absences, on what is not there. The positive is only positive on a ground of negative spaces whose interrelationships are an integral though far from obvious part of a picture. Students are instructed carefully to analyse well-known pictures in order to discover that even representational drawings depend on abstract interlocking and echoing shapes and planes across a surface. They are also introduced to the use of colour work as an aspect of drawing, learning to see colour in terms of shades of grey to evaluate them properly in a structural sense.

The point of all this is not to make each person draw like every other, but to instil fundamental precepts and strategies that allow students to train and coordinate their observational eye and executive hand in such a way as to found and release their own unique creative potential. The overall aim is to allow them command over the page and control over the effects they wish to convey, whatever these may be, so that such effects grow out of expressive intentions informed by growing skill and understanding. Across all strata, regular sessions of life drawing of the human figure are employed, the most challenging of subjects. The great animator and teacher Glenn Vilppu (1997) once entitled an essay: “Never Underestimate the Power of Life Drawing.” And indeed the human figure retains great power to affect us deeply, embodying extraordinary energies and metaphors that are important to artists and public alike. People are always interested in people and view them with a more knowing and demanding eye than they do other things. While they can be very forgiving of ambiguities and inconsistencies in perspective and proportion in, say, a landscape, they demand much more of the artist where the human figure is concerned. What is most desired, no matter what the style, is a strong sense of the figure’s presence, which is not just a matter of anatomical accuracy. The point is to select, organize and simplify from the figure in a way that is vital and expressively eloquent.

And of course vitality and expressive eloquence are precisely what all good animators aim to achieve. That is why drawing the human figure, whatever its suspect status now in fine art, remains fundamental to animation studies. The kinaesthetic aspects of figure drawing make it especially valuable for animation students. Learning to render human bodies effectively is in large part learning to feel in one’s own body what the observed figure must feel like – its rhythms, tensions, weight distribution, attitudes and so on – and then translating that feeling into a drawing. Long before technology enabled putting figures into animated motion, artists sought to express rhythm and movement in static work through careful, kinaesthetic study of figures rendered in drawings and paintings. The disciplinary study of finding movement and attitude in a figure at rest provides a wellspring of intensity that can enrich students’ drawing when they approach animation proper.[12]

These disciplines learnt by animators may not be overt in their final products, for drawings are commonly converted into cells and painted over, while computer animation may involve very little preliminary drawing at all. Nevertheless, the skills of translation learnt in life drawing will deeply inform the creativity and imaginative sensibilities of the animator and securely anchor their work. They form the body of the iceberg concealed beneath the surface. At the end of a foundational course of classical drawing would-be animators should emerge, not as hidebound products of academic instruction, but as emergent artists with strengthened creative sinews that gives them the command and freedom to produce work of charm, spontaneity and surprise.  They will have learnt to perceive relationships of figures and grounds in the surrounding world that are not immediately obvious. They will have learnt to discern in a sophisticated manner issues of size, scale, shape, spatial relationship, as well as surface interplays of texture within a wash of lights and darks.

This is quite analogous to experience of life generally, in which the meaning and significance of things and events as they occur are not immediately obvious, but require us to learn to look below superficial manifestations for deeper perceptions and insights. And although all students will all have learned ‘aesthetic perception’ (drawing what you see) as opposed to the ‘customary perception’ (seeing what you know), no two will respond to the same set of cues at the same time or in the same way. It is assumed in our program that in teaching these foundational skills each person’s view will be unique, therefore we do not overly concern ourselves (as many other contemporary courses do) with ‘originality’. Such instruction is not about grasping after alternative or ‘original’ style for the sake of it, but rather about building a sure foundation for properly and profoundly developing one’s own special perception and skill. The graduate student emerges with a new sense of empowerment and promise, and capacity to realize whatever individual vision he or she might wish to pursue.


The best instruction in drawing has never been about enforced obedience to technical rules, but rather about instilling open principles and precepts that, through intensive learning and practice, liberate and expand a student’s natural powers and abilities. To whatever extent fine art has foregone or become suspicious of such instruction it has, I believe, suffered a loss. Insofar as animation studies continue to value this mode of learning they have performed a valuable act of conservation. American artist John Nava (2013), whose son is a successful video game art director and animator, notes of his son and his friends that

all these guys can draw. They can draw with pencil […] it’s amazing what (my son) can do with his number two pencil. […] And then he can also take his iPad out and use it to make a digital plein air painting of some riverbed in Sedona. So these guys in this industry know how to draw. They know about volume, they know about color, they know about lines, they know about anatomy, they know all this stuff […] and they’re always totally in awe when they’re standing in front of a little oil painting. […] Because they get the authenticity (p. 179-80).

It may be that the conservation of classical values is in part a matter of instrumental necessity relating to the inevitable pictorial demands of animation. Yet we should nevertheless be glad that there exists a modern art form that makes such demanding demands when other forms are abandoning them. This is not just a matter of sentimental antiquarianism, of nostalgia for a lost age, but of understanding the enduring value of disciplinary practice that forces artists (perhaps despite themselves) to see, perceive, encounter and, in a profound way, translate their inhabited world.

There remains an important philosophical aspect to this if we believe Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher much in vogue with nineteent-century artists, but much ignored by their modernist and post-modernist successors. Schopenhauer thought that to transcend the instrumental craving of our inexorable will we had to leave our will-serving rationality behind. As he said, “knowledge remains as a rule subordinate to the service of the will, as indeed it originated for this service […] In the case of the animals this subjection of knowledge to the will can never be reversed. In the case of people it can be reversed only in exceptional cases” (1995, p. 101). These exceptional cases involved a state of “pure, will-less knowledge” that occurred when we contemplated an object, not as something instrumentally related to our will’s desires, but simply for itself. For Schopenhauer it was artists above all who were capable of this transcendent contemplation. Artists absorbed in their work are no longer single beings but feel themselves at one with everything in a state of well-being. If one is simply one’s normal self in any scene of life, one may experience it as tedious or insufferable in some way or another, but one has only to make it the subject of a sketch with pencil or words in order for it “to appear interesting, charming, and enviable.” In the artist’s pure objective perception, the intellect is freed from service to the will and is able to roam free but “with the highest energy.” Moreover, artists can objectify their purified perceptions in work that allows others, in contemplating it, to experience a similar transcendence.

This remains a fair description of what students undergoing the kind of instruction here outlined experience – something that puts them deeply in touch with themselves while simultaneously transcending those everyday selves. If, therefore, there are enduring values in the classical tradition that animation by dint of its own requirements preserves, we should be grateful to that art form (however humble it appears to those now designated ‘artists’) for its service to artistic and human conservation.

Kay Kane is a Lecturer in Life Drawing at the Griffith Film School, Queensland College of Art at Griffith University (Australia).


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[1] I mean, of course, with the advent of modernism whose origins lie in the late nineteenth century but which takes centre stage in the early 1900s, often conventionally dating from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon  of 1907.

[2]Fine art courses surveyed which offered no or minimal offerings in drawing (and no separate courses devoted to drawing) included The California Institute of the Arts, San Francisco Arts Institute, Queensland College of Art (Australia), Chelsea College of Arts, Central St Martins, Slade School of Fine Art and Wimbledon College of Art. There are of course exceptions that persist in old practices, for example, in Britain the University of the Arts London, Camberwell, offers a Bachelor of Fine Art (Drawing) and Leeds makes a point of difference with ‘common introductory programme with a strong emphasis on drawing, an approach for which the College is renowned’. In New York the School of Visual Arts and the National Academy School of Fine Arts still insist on strong drawing foundations.

[3] When precisely this transition occurred is, of course, a matter of debate and definition which, in the fragmented world of contemporary art, is no easy matter. But certainly by the late 1960s and 1970s the label ‘postmodern’ was being frequently applied to art that was seen as rejecting modernist values and ambitions, by, for example, undercutting modernist ‘grand narratives’. Much of this art aimed to repudiate the idea of pure form and to eradicate the distinction between high and low art by emphasising pluralism, diversity, instability and impermanence (Cole and Gealt 1989, p. 323).

[4] This rests on a philosophical view that human beings lack any sure foundations of value, whether in religion, metaphysics, history or, as it turns out, aesthetics, and that to pretend otherwise is self-deceiving. Indeed about the only ‘positive’ value (if it is that) that post-modernism can maintain is authenticity, which implies that you are inauthentic when you deceive yourself that your work can be built on any sure ground, or touch any true value.

[5] If this was an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of charlatanism, the successful charlatans have not noticeably resisted (whatever their ironic disclaimers) the label of ‘genius’ traditionally attached to masters of former times even if expressing some discomfort with their success. See the example of Damien Hirst in an interview with Boldizar (2009) who gave up his previous chasing of money, power and success because, he said, it wasn’t something one could carry on with. “It’s almost like you’ve been flirting or courting with the devil or something. Not even the devil, but definitely the darkest forces in the art world” (Boldizar 2009, p. 7). A despised philistine art world that apparently deserved whatever it got when it let itself be conned, for Hirst asserted: “I love the fact that before this recession loads of people were buying my work, buying and selling, and now it’s worth less than they bought it for” (ibid., p. 19).

[6] Robert Hughes (1991) famously titled his best-selling book and TV series on the history of modern art The Shock of the New, signalling the advent of innovation as, not just a value of contemporary art, but perhaps the key value.

[7] A message that many students seem not to have fully imbibed. I teach drawing to animators and gamers but am perennially besieged by fine art students pleading to audit my courses because they cannot get the instruction they desire in their own department.

[8] It is also easier, in a sense, to draw from a photograph because the camera has already made the decisions, although the results are seldom satisfactory precisely for that reason.

[9] What a powerful yet fragile achievement this is can easily be judged any time we get drunk or are otherwise drugged and the solid world becomes fluid around us.

[10] ‘Cross referencing’ connotes seeking out connections and relationships in a subject so as not to see any part of the form in isolation. It may involve looking along horizontals, verticals or obliques combined with consideration of shape both negative and positive, and assessing their relative positions in relation to each other.

[11] These approaches encompass a philosophical understanding of the necessity of translation and of the importance of attempting to see more than is immediately obvious rather than adopting a simply mimetic approach. Students learn to draw from the general to the particular while considering the thrust of forms in space, the distribution of weight over the form, and the importance of shape. A variety of teaching strategies are interwoven to develop students’ conceptual as well as technical skills.

[12] With regard to this tactile, kinaesthetic dimension, I believe it is also important to conserve in foundational lessons the directness of pencil, charcoal or other drawing implement on a surface. One learns again through feel the different expressive possibilities of different grades of soft or hard implements on surfaces of varying texture and receptivity. This is not possible with computer technology, although repeated experience of the materiality and varying responsiveness of medium and surface will feed into computer drawn images to lend strength and immediacy. The more unforgiving the medium, indeed, the more one can learn about courage and invention. I myself like to draw in biro, the most unforgiving medium because a mark made cannot be erased. One is committed from the first stroke and forced to find a way of making each successive stroke work to ultimate advantage. It is an excellent exercise in inventive risk-taking.

© Kay Kane

Edited by Amy Ratelle