Grids, Scaling Up, Tracing: Cheating?
There’s an exercise in a few OCA art courses that holds within it all sorts of possibilities, but is often treated in a cursory manner.
Students are asked to transfer a simple line drawing to a larger sheet using a grid. You know the drill, I’m sure. A grid is laid over a source drawing and then a larger grid with the same arrangement of squares is drawn on a large sheet of paper. The content of each square is then transferred across. The result ought to be a fairly accurate transcription of the source. I use the technique myself, though I ‘grid-up’ black and white photographs in Photoshop before the transfer. The images are more complex, but the principle is the same.
Techniques for transferring images from one place to another have always been exploited. Tracing, for example, has always had a place in art. The mythic ‘birth of drawing’ tells the story of a Greek girl tracing the outline of her true love before he goes to war, creating a presence that indicates an absence.
There is scholarly discussion about whether Vermeer used a Camera Obscura to layout his exquisite paintings. Opinion is split (see here for more information) but it’s certainly possible. Dürer made a woodcut of an elaborate device for plotting a three-dimensional form onto a two-dimensional surface.
Scaling up using a grid is a technique that would have been familiar to fresco painters, muralists and so on, and it allows for impressive works to be made. When working close to a large wall or ceiling, it’s impossible and/or inconvenient to keep stepping back to see if the perspective or scale is right, for instance. A drawing, gridded up and transferred correctly, makes life a lot easier.
The advent of photography made a difference to how pictures were made and/or composed. Artist became liberated from slavish representation and started to play more with abstraction and the surface quality of paintings, collages and drawings. But some artists integrated photography into their practice. Matisse, for instance, took reference shots of his paintings as they evolved.
Nowadays it’s common for laptops and projectors to be used for transferring small drawings onto large surfaces. I’ve used both overhead and digital projectors to create work, making part of the job relatively easy. There is an interesting probem, though. You get in the way of yourself by throwing an annoying shadow onto the image. I once tried drawing the shadow I cast as I was drawing. The drawing arm kept extending.
So, are these techniques cheating? Surely any drawing made freehand while looking at the subject are more valid / true / honest? Perhaps, but I think you’d need to define those terms. By using techniques that help us transfer what we see (and linear perspective might once have been seen as a ‘cheat’, too), allows a degree of freedom. The focus of the artist can, for example, be on mark-making rather than simple accuracy. Even the simple technique of transferring using a grid produces wildly different results, depending on the ability of the artist.
Cheats also offer the possibility of making superhuman works like the portraits made made by Chuck Close. It’s easy to forget that for the vast majority of art history, pictures were made by groups of people, with the master directing activity and adding finishing touches. Would that count as cheating?
I contend that pretty much any shortcut or cheat is worth trying, but it won’t ever be a substitute for pushing ideas around, freehand, on a piece of paper. Visual experimentation ought to be important to any artist. I’ve advocated the importance of getting on with it on this blog a few times, but I don’t think it can be said enough. Anything that helps us work through ideas can help. Collage, photocopying, photography, tracing, and projections can all offer ways of re-thinking imagery and ought to be used freely. Art isn’t sport. The rules, such as they are, are made to be tested and stretched.
A caveat: Notwithstanding all that I’ve just written, in an academic context certain rules do apply. Plagiarism is forbidden and painting or drawing over other people’s work in order to make something that looks ‘right’ is not on. But borrowing a composition or tracing a detail might be a way of learning about how something was solved. Using a grid to transfer your own compositional sketch from an A6 thumbnail to A3 might save you a lot of time and heartache.