The Cart Before the Horse?

There is great interest today in reviving traditional methods and techniques of painting. Much of this interest comes about from the loss or absence of these methods in the teaching curricula of many art schools and university art programs. We have informally surveyed numerous artists of our generation who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s and found similar stories of art curricula based on "free expression", unfettered by knowledge of the craft and techniques of painting. It was believed then that the Big Idea was paramount, and artists should choose the media to suit their big creative ideas on a case-by-case basis, as needed.

The knowledgeable application of that media, whether oil paint, chalk, watercolor, collage or something else, was considered to be of less importance, even irrelevant or out of fashion. In a sense, those instructors were accurate – museums are chock full of concept-driven artworks today. However, for we who were interested in painting and drawing as a means of expression, those teaching attitudes left us to spend decades rediscovering and slowly learning the skills and techniques we needed. Today, new ateliers and some of the finest artists are helping to directly pass along their hard-won traditional skills to a new generation hungry for this knowledge.

Using sight-size method in the Adirondacks, NY. Watercolor painting by John Hulsey.
Using sight-size method in the Adirondacks, NY.
Watercolor painting by John Hulsey.

One of the traditional techniques of drawing and painting experiencing a revival is called the sight-size method. It was developed to enable the artist to accurately measure and copy the model, still-life or landscape and transpose those measurements onto the paper or canvas. In its most technical form, the student would place their easel near to the subject and mark that position with tape on the floor. Stepping back a few paces, the student would establish a viewing position where by looking back and forth from subject to canvas, the two would appear to be the same size. That position would also be marked. These positions would never vary throughout the drawing or painting. Tools would be used – a plumb line for vertical and horizontal measurements, perhaps a mirror or a ruler as well could be employed for accuracy.

Sargent used a plumb bob to get the vertical line of his model's head, neck and torso. Many artists use the shaft of a brush held at arm's length to achieve a similar result. This is a very useful skill for developing the student's eye and probably should be taught in every first year art program.

However, accuracy is not art, it is only a craft, one of the many an artist must have in the toolbox. Once the skills and craft of art have been mastered, the artist is able to come full circle to create an expression, or idea of the subject before him – an artful blending of concept and skill. It is only at this point that accuracy can be altered, or even abandoned if the idea demands it. The master artist combines a powerful visual memory, imagination and technical skills to create an art which is at once both realistic, yet has never existed before. In our view, this is the very height of representational art.

Please join us on The Artist's Road for more interesting and informative articles. We believe that more artists in the world is a good thing!

–John and Ann


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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

4 thoughts on “The Cart Before the Horse?

  1. I greatly appreciate your statement about accuracy not being BEING art … only a tool, a potentially powerful and wonderful to be sure for an artist to use. Mimetic accuracy must be in the service of, subservient to poetics/aesthetics and the intention of the artist!

    John H.

  2. Thanks for your post!

    I am aghast that you say that “many art schools and university art programs” don’t teach technique. Most U.S. art schools, colleges, and university art programs do teach about technique and the use of materials.

    I was born in the 50s and attended college in the 70s … and a graduate program in the 80s. There were professors then, as now, firmly committed to technical excellence and those who were much more interested technical experimentation. And there were/are schools with SOME instructors with a strong anti-material/pro-conceptual only bias.

    Now, I only teach privately but In my thirty plus career as an artist-professor, I taught for three colleges and served as an adjunct art professor for six others. I also visited dozens and dozens of college and university art programs. Every one of them taught traditional to modern (Ecole de Beaux Art to Bauhaus) techniques in drawing, design, and painting, many even had specialized courses in the use/creation of archival artist materials.

    At the very largest art schools and universities, you can get through an fine art program with little technical emphasis … IF … you only pick the professors that do not emphasize it. At most schools though, you can not help but get a healthy dose of technique.

    So, that part of your otherwise wonderful post, reads a bit like a marketing ploy by those who want to return to the 1850s.

    All the best, John H

  3. Well, let me say that as someone that’s been officially painting oil landscapes for 15 yrs now that I have seen and heard so many sides on this discussion. My wife took University art classes herself and while there was SOME technique taught it was minimal in the overall percentage of the course. That there was the favorite periods of the professor and there was much taught about those artist and some of the techniques used.
    Then I have heard that the ateliers and schools and even workshops are a better choice as it isn’t a pass and fail process. That it is all learning and doing. And one can learn from several artist that are practicing and selling art that can also in the course offer insights into how to do that as well.
    While I love learning personally about most anything in life and most certainly want to know how to best create the things I am trying to express, I also like trying out things on my own without really following someones guide. For some reason I almost shudder when I hear the comment, “they have command of their brush work”. That is not something I am ever going to try to impress someone with. I want what I paint to be enjoyed, cause pause for thought maybe and that one can see in the painting what I am trying to get across without adding text to it. That if they were to name it from looking at it that it would be close to what I thought it should have been titled.
    In my mind sometimes I paint to capture beauty and mood. And then there are times I am in a happy frame of mind and want to paint something fun that will prevoke NO thought and it is clear as day. Even then though there will be those that want to see a deeper meaning to it. If that is how they enjoy art then so be it. I also never want to paint in one style, one media etc.. I love acrylic because the speed in which you can get a thought on paper. WHen I work with oil I often will work wet on wet. I am changing that a bit and trying to have two paintings going so I can work on one while the other dries a bit. But I have found the passion will sometimes change for the topic I was working on. Like stopping and starting conversations. So for me I am thinking that I will embrace all styles of learning. And this I will say I am a bit afraid of. That people with all the digital advances will stop going out to galleries and either look online or just create with software what pleases them and it will change art more than we think. Art is a discussion on life and something that reflects life. If we lose that we lose a lot. I myself have looked at art online and it is convenient.

  4. This is an excellent post on a subject that should have been addressed long ago.

    I was in college and art school from 1956 through 1960. I can testify that there were very few colleges and art schools teaching the traditional skills and techniques of drawing and painting. As students, we used to joke that there was a good chance realistic drawing and painting may become a lost art—much the same as vaulting was during the dark ages.

    At the time, abstract non objective art was taught as if it was a religion. There was only one way to think and work. The prevailing thought was that there was no longer a need to learn the skills of representational drawing and painting.

    This was true in the majority of the schools and universities. Many of my friends faced the same type of problem in large universities throughout the country. I was lucky because I was able to supplement my university training with classes in figure drawing, a home study course and working with professional illustrators.

    During this time, American Artist magazine was one of the few voices in the world of fine art promoting representational art and the skills needed for its creation.

    Paul Sullivan