Tools of the trade

My wife, who is an artist, recently picked up a copy of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Recovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. She’d been having a discussion with an artist friend of hers about whether it’s wrong to use tracing, or other optical aids, when doing illustrations or paintings. In the book, Hockney advances the highly controversial theory that the dramatic surge in visual realism that occurred in the early 15th century was propelled by the use of optical projection techniques. The old masters, he claims, used mirrors, lenses, and the camera obscura to capture the outlines of the people and objects they painted.

Hockney says that a newly-available form of visualization led him to this conjecture:

Now with colour photocopiers and desktop printers anyone can produce cheap but good reproductions at home, and so place works that were previously separated by hundreds of miles side by side. This is what I did in my studio, and it allowed me to see the whole sweep of it all. It was only by putting pictures together in this way that I began to notice things; and I’m sure these things could only have been seen by an artist, a mark-maker, who is not as far from practice, or science, as an art historian. After all, I’m only saying that artists once knew how to use a tool, and that this knowledge was lost.

It all sounded perfectly plausible to me, but the art world isn’t buying it. Hockney’s critics cite a research paper by Microsoft’s Antonio Criminisi and Ricoh’s David Stork in which the authors show that Hockney’s central example — a painting of a chandelier — exhibits more irregularity than you’d expect if it had been rendered using an optical aid.

It’s fascinating stuff. I was already thinking about interviewing some folks at Microsoft Research about the state of computer vision, so maybe this will be the place to start.

But meanwhile, I’m left wondering about the context of the debate. Setting aside for the moment whether Hockney is right or wrong about the old masters’ use of optical aids, would they have been wrong to have used them in the way he suggests? Is that cheating? Should it diminish our appreciation of the work?

The art world says yes, it is cheating and does cheapen the work. But Hockney doesn’t see it that way. These optical aids, he argues, were just tools used by professionals who wisely chose to automate where they could in order to free up time and energy so they could add creative value where it mattered most.

My wife’s artist friend concurs. It’s not that she can’t draw freehand. She can and she does, but she also uses tracing techniques to identify landmarks and — because it’s commercial work she’s doing — to speed up some of the foundation-laying drudgery.

I’m sure the analogy is imperfect but, to a software guy, this all sounds very familiar. There are right and wrong ways to rely on software tools and frameworks, but I don’t think less of programmers to rely on them in the right ways. On the contrary, I think less of programmers who don’t.

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12 thoughts on “Tools of the trade

  1. I run Fabjectory – – (where we use rapid prototyping machines to make cool objects for people), and I get a couple emails a week from people with different “crazy” requests for things to be fabbed.

    One week I had an extended conversation with an artist in the UK who was trying to learn classical marble sculpture. His basic idea was that sculptors learn by creating copies of the great masters works and that many of these great works of sculpture are in private collections; to which there is limited access.

    He wondered if it would be possible to scan in one of these sculptures and then have a 3D replica made? (short answer: possible, not practical).

    However, this raises a third option to what you’ve laid out in your post. That in the same way that the Internet has acted as an accellerant on all the different fields of information exchange and learning, that optical reproduction techniques could have acted as a similar catalyst to the techniques of the 15th century.

    As to the contextual question: don’t tell the photocopier artists – – that it isn’t art.

    – Mike

  2. Just as with art, we build upon the shoulders of the many far more intelligent or at least far more specialized than ourselves. Tracing can be cheating if one were to produce a traced image sans modification as a freehand piece of work, but it’s the artist’s perspective based upon what was borrowed that makes the work of art.

    To claim originality specifically because every stroke was original would be to claim that those strokes were not once learned. We learn by tracing, even if indirectly.

    An experienced artist or programmer knows they can get the shape of things correct because experience dictates the shape of things. Tracing from memory. But why waste time drawing that which we’ve drawn hundreds of times when those shapes are already provided?

    Otherwise, my experience with those angry with those who are willing to trace are mostly projecting from their own lack of creativity.

  3. As every struggle artist knows, the challenge in painting is not the shapes and the forms. The challenge is the interpretation. And right behind interpretaion is the choice of subject, angle, perspective for the painting. Sadly, I spend hours and hours on these issues. Capturing the forms, whether by hand or by tracing, is a relatively quick process and important in distinguising an intriguing painting from a dull one.

  4. Correction to 5. I typed too quickly. In the last line I meant to say that capturing the forms is NOT importantant in distuinguishing an intriguing painting from a dull one.

  5. oops slight corrction!
    That is one of the papers the Cambridges UK Lab that did
    _not_ involve Criminisi.

  6. “The art world says yes, it is cheating and does cheapen the work…” This is the same art world that worships Warhol? Remember all those lovingly traced and transfered Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes? Same artworld that’s constantly driving up the prices of his serigraphs–silk screened prints that his employees made in his name? I wouldn’t worry too much about what the art world has to say: it’s fickle, fadish and trite. And it will deny saying it later.

  7. My wife, who is a professional artist, read the book and found it convincing. But putting aside whether it is correct or not, the first thing I think about when reading about this controversy is the attitude some folks have about artists using photographic references. Somehow it is cheating? My wife makes some salient points about why anyone who simply copies a photo does not produce good art. Photographs distort images in characteristic ways, and also do funny things to value. Compresses them, I think. What looks good in a photo might not look good as, say, a watercolor. To produce a good picture from a photo reference, you still have to have skills and creativity. Same with using optics to project an image onto your canvas.

  8. A few points…

    1) If it was possible at that time to use optical instruments to create more lifelike paintings, then at least one person did so. I’d assume a few.

    2) Were any of the ‘masters’ included in that group? Analysis can help reveal. But, at least the wealthier of them could have afforded the creation of the custom instruments. Maybe they deserve the most scrutiny. Were the poor, disrespected impressionists perhaps also technological reactionaries?

    3) Beware cultural-recency bias; folks back then may not have viewed using instruments as being necessarily suspect. While we, with our abundance of technologies, have developed a great sentimentalized nostalgia over hand made objects. How could one now, in hindsight, apply the heavily-hijacked word ‘authentic’ – not so long ago, anything made by humans at all was ‘authentic’!

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