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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

Drawing - as easy as 1,2,3. - Searching for a truthful line
By Susan Mackay
Aug 22, 2007 - 12:04:51 PM

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An ‘artist’ means many things to many people.   For me, though it has been a constant in my life, I have not always understood what I have been impelled to create or why.

Whilst working on the show ‘Into the Crimson Room’, I wrote this in my diary;


“.....comprehension at last.  

I am looking for the truth - The truth of a line or a structure.  

I am searching for the truth of an emotion or a passion.  

Just as I am in my life, looking for the truth of love and being”


When I tell people I meet that I am an artist, the usual response is,

“How lovely for you, I’m not artistic at all, I can’t draw”


It seems that to the general population, to be an artist, is limited and defined by the ability to draw.


However, art or being an artist is not limited to drawing.

Drawing is fundamental to artistic expression, and though I revolt against white paper and HB pencils, I am passionate about its importance as it is through the slow and careful observation of an object that nourishes understanding of an objects intrinsic nature.  


My parents have numerous expressions that they love to use.   Refined with use, anyone out with the family will have no idea what they are talking about.   “Talk to the turtles”   “You’re holding the bottle”   “Stop spilling your water” and “How are you going to eat your elephant?” are some examples.


“Eating your elephant” Is alluding to any problem you may encounter.   Their hypothesis is that, if you tackle it a ‘small piece at a time’ then you will succeed in eating your elephant – solving your problem.


Drawing is like that, mixed with an act of faith.


Like a problem, looking at something that you want to draw can seem overwhelming.   So much to try and put down on the paper, where to start, how to start????


It was my good friend Clare Bouglas who first enlightened me to the simple truth about ‘observed drawing’ (which means drawing a subject accurately – not as a form of emotional expression).

“It’s easy” she’d say,

And I, struggling with smudgy pencils would look at her unconvinced and depressed.

“Its just maths”

Not being very good at maths, this news did little to encourage me!

But she is right.   Observed drawing is quite simply maths. Everything that you see in front of you is made up of lines.   Lines that create forms, lines that are different lengths or thickness and fit in some relationship - comparison to each other:   Lines that have a mathematical truth.


The easiest way to describe what I mean is to use life drawing (drawing the nude human figure) as an example.   The human form is exactly proportioned.   In general the size of a persons head fits into their body seven times.   The size of an eye can fit in the space between the eyes.   The eyes are in the middle of the head.  The size of the foot fits between elbow and wrist.   Arms open wide is the same span as the height of a person.   And so on.


These are some examples of how proportions relate to each other.   In drawing a human we know these mathematical proportions and we can measure the sizes to check the accuracy of the drawing.   If my head is so big, does that fit seven times down to the feet?  


When it comes to drawing anything else – the same principles apply, by taking the ‘measurement’ of one part, it can be used as a ‘rule’ for measuring the rest of the image.


Have you ever seen the archetypal artist, in his studio, paint pots and canvases everywhere?   Standing behind his easel paintbrush in hand he stretches out his arm and squints at the paintbrush in his hand.  

He is using his paintbrush, pencil as a ‘yardstick’ to check the angles and measurements of the still life in front of him.


It sounds complicated- but it is not.   When each small area of the picture is looked at and worked on, trusting what is actually there, putting in the 75 degree angle that seems impossible, putting in a shadow in a place that you think there should be light -if you work on each small part honestly and then place in correct measured proportion to the rest of the picture, the finished product will be an accurate drawing.   It takes time and concentration – but anyone can do it with enough patience.



However, art is not just about drawing.   And there are very many ways of expressing ourselves beyond the tight format of observed drawing.   To be frank, I only find observed drawing exciting as a means to an end.   For example, once I had a project to recreate a fruit in enormous proportions out of clay.   To start this process required endless observed drawings, attempting to define the internal structure of the fruit- a pomegranate, in this case.   Clay has a memory and it is important, especially in creating large structures, when you first mould the clay that it is where you want it to stay, as in the kiln it will try to bend back to its original form- not pretty!   So it was especially important to have an absolute understanding of the structural properties of the fruit before embarking.   After the numerous drawings and close observation of the fruit from all angles, the knowledge gleaned seems to become imparted into the fingertips.   And creating from that saturation of information becomes instinctual, as the understanding of the form is absolute.


In that instance, observed drawing is a method of inquiry - questions and endless mathematically exact answers.


It is also from that place of absolute understanding that more ‘artistic expression’ becomes possible.   The manipulations of modern art, for example, Picasso, work because the artist already had an implicit understanding of the human form.   He was then able to create magnificent manipulations that reveal some greater truth, than a pure direct representation.


For example- Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), in this famous painting that has been attributed as the birth of cubism, we see how the natural form of the women- five prostitutes - have been manipulated.

This manipulation is successful because there is a deep seated understanding of the correct proportions of the female body.   In this painting, the forms have been heavily twisted and the natural curves have been replaced by hard lines.   Two of the women appear to be wearing African masks.   The eyes on the other women are emphasised and skewed, as are most of the features of the women.   Somehow by changing the image so violently, Picasso reveals a deeper truth.   The painting is as challenging as the eyes of the prostitutes.   The archetypal ‘object’- the female, the prostitute, has become the voyeur, with her confrontational gaze.   The use of masks is also interesting, classically attributed to Picasso’s interest in African art, but maybe an oblique reference to the role a prostitute plays - the mask she must wear to fulfil her function in society.   Also, the deep shadow on the face of the fifth prostitute may be clear evidence of the hidden part in society a prostitute plays.


Even without any interpretation of the painting, as a viewer we feel uncomfortable looking at this work.   By twisting the image, changing the perspective of the viewer, drawing hard lines and using a tight composition, Picasso has revealed a deeper truth, an uncomfortable truth that is cleverly reflected in the feeling of discomfort when looking at the painting.  


So, although observed drawing is vital, and taught correctly, should be as easy as 1,2,3, that is not the total picture when it comes to art or being an artist.  But it is through the skill of absolute understanding and observation that allows an artist to ‘create’ a new ‘image’ that reveals a deeper truth about life and our world.


  About the author: Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions.   Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at sozmac@hotmail.com

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