Thursday, June 14, 2012

A tragedy of morals

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
 I recently read a certain story in which the emotional climax hinged on a decision to do evil to prevent evil. That is not how the narrative presented it: it is written as a tragic necessity, someone loving his friend enough to take his friend's life. I believe other readers found this extremely moving, while I found it shocking and off-putting; in fact if not name, murder.

Why does this happen? I currently think it stems from godlessness, the idea expressed by Carl Sagan — "... there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us." (via Wright) — that makes life a closed system, pain a negative-sum game, killing about cutting off all hurt rather than all help.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Master Class in Figure Drawing

Robert Beverly Hale, compiled and edited by Terence Coyle. Watson-Guptill Publications, 1991 paperback edition (ISBN 0-8230-3014-8).

What this book is not: This book is not a reference to human anatomy or an introduction to how to draw in general. I was much happier once I stopped trying to use it this way.

What this book is: This appears to be a compilation of transcribed lectures from Hale's figure drawing classes at the Art Students League. It is arranged by areas of the body (but only loosely) and illustrated with various "Great Master Drawings" marked up with letters which are referenced by the text.

This book is best read in order, mixed with practice drawing from other references (books like Winslow's Classic Human Anatomy, or probably better yet, live figure models). If I had more time (it is due back at the library shortly), that is how I'd use it. It contains observations about anatomy as it pertains to the artist (e.g., how it is often drawn and what the salient facts and shapes are) mixed with more general advice about how to approach drawing and how not to approach it, and some witticisms and practical (but irrelevant to drawing) commentary about various pieces of anatomy.

The illustrations are generally legible, but not great; the letters are sometimes hard to make out (they are usually in red, sometimes on top of black) and I wouldn't assume, in general, that they accurately depict anything other than what Hale discusses in the text, though most of them are quite good.

His lectures assume you know certain terms such as mass, value, form, plane, all in the artistic senses of the word. It may be possible to pick it up from context but I found it quite confusing at first.

Bottom line: Fairly good if you can take the time to practice using what he teaches with supplemental references (books, other people, a mirror).  I suppose that is the point of drawing anyway; no one takes it up just to copy other artists' work, unless he is a forger, perhaps.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink; or, a discussion of art tutorials

(Note: I may update this post occasionally as I encounter further books.)

A little over two months ago, I decided to learn to draw, at least enough to depict a recognizable face. Being of a scholarly temperament, that quickly expanded into reading everything I could easily find about how to draw humans, rather than actually practicing drawing, which consensus says is the best way to learn to draw. Well, I still intend to practice, just as soon as I'm finished with this book... and that one...

Unfortunately, there are quite a few poor art tutorial books available, and the good ones are not so easy to find. As far as approach, most divide into one of two camps.

The first is the depiction camp, focusing on being able to draw what you see. The hardest part of this is seeing. This camp is ably led by Betty Edwards of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, who tells you up front that she is not going to tell you how to draw from memory or imagination. This is a good place to start if you don't think you can draw, because the truth is that you probably can and that it's actually not difficult to learn --  not to imply that it's easy to do -- you simply have to take time and care in accurately seeing the values and proportions of what's in front of you, and copying them onto paper. This leads to fast results, but is limited compared to what you can do by construction. Maughan and Hammond are also in this camp, based on the very limited representation of their books I've seen (Maughan's Artist's Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, which isn't complete at all, and Hammond's book on drawing portraits with colored pencil, which I didn't even bother to check out of the library, though I might in the future for the discussion of color).

The second is the construction camp. Pretty much every book aimed at serious (not to imply professional) artists goes this route: understanding the structure of what you want to depict rather than merely copying it. Robert Beverly Hale, George Bridgman, Burne Hogarth are all in this camp, though some are more able teachers than others. Construction is by far the more powerful approach, but requires a correspondingly larger investment in the artist's education. I started with the wrong book in this class and was horribly confused by the discussions of masses and planes that are nearly universal. Hale's Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters seems to be a pretty good place to start, though he is opinionated.

There are also anatomy reference books, which are predicated on the assumption that you want to be able to construct a human figure; I don't consider myself to be at a point where I can judge most of these adequately, though Gary Faigin's book on facial expressions is absolutely fascinating and Valerie Winslow's Classic Human Anatomy seems nearly comprehensive for general body structure, though it lacks much information about sex and age differences. Terence Coyle's Anatomy Lessons from the Great Masters (it has Hale's name on the front, but it's by Coyle) has a more concise, but less comprehensive discussion illustrated by classic drawings.

Finally, there are technique books. Several of the above mention or even recommend some techniques, both as far as media (graphite? charcoal? using a prepared ground?) and drawing (gesture drawing, contour drawing, crosshatching); many other books only seem to discuss the technique without discussing the ideas behind it. Michael Wood's Starting Pencil Drawing and Stan Smith's Drawing: The Complete Course were two that I found in the library. Both have some good ideas, sometimes between the lines, but cover the techniques of drawing more than how to see or know what you are drawing. Contour drawing, for example, is a worthwhile exercise because it forces you to look at the object you're depicting rather than the result on paper, but not every book that suggests it as an exercise explains this! Wood's book is notable for suggesting varying the width of lines to suggest shadows, and for advising the reader to use tone rather than lines to depict volumes more realistically (lines, after all, only exist as ideas, not in the real world), but probably isn't worth keeping. Smith's book covers various techniques like prepared grounds, ink drawings, washes, erasing, systems of proportions and ways to measure them when drawing from life, repairing damaged drawings, etc., but seems more about hands-on direction and practice copying than the theory that would let you tackle projects of your own (instead of his prepared projects). It does include a page depicting the proportions of children at 3 or 4 different ages, which might be of some interest.

In practically all of these cases, the student is left to determine which exercises to do and what to practice on their own. Betty Edwards book has actual exercises; Hale is rather opinionated about what students should practice; but most other books suggest exercises less directly, with some only telling how they do things and leaving you to figure out how to practice that yourself. Stan Smith's book has a project with four basic shapes (sphere, cube, cylinder, cone) but doesn't, if I recall correctly, explain that practicing those at various angles is valuable for more than just the ability to shade them correctly; it's an important step in being able to draw constructed figures.

Bottom line: of reading many books there is no end, but it's probably a better use of your time to get one or two (Edwards and Hale are the two I'd recommend) and use the time you would have spent reading the others to practice. I expect the anatomy references are more useful once you have basic skills, but I'm not there yet!

And an aside: While I was at the art store to get a 4B pencil and a kneaded eraser, I picked up a cheap Manuscript fountain pen aimed at calligraphy. The same lessons about seeing that apply to drawing apply here: if you focus on copying an alphabet like the chancery Italic J. Pickering uses, and don't rush, it really isn't that hard. Edwards book actually has an afterword or appendix that discusses handwriting. As a bonus, letters are easier to draw recognizably than faces, so satisfactory results require less work. Margaret Shepherd's book Learn Calligraphy seems to have a pretty good selection of alphabets, and there are also many resources online, such as IAMPETH (esp. good for Spencerian, I've heard, though I haven't tried it yet) and the Fountain Pen Network forums.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

In the Forests of the Night

This book by Kersten Hamilton was fantastic. I thought Tyger, Tyger (the first book in the series) was good, but this one exceeded it by far. Maybe that's partly due to the groundwork laid in Tyger, Tyger, though; this definitely doesn't stand alone.

I love the humor and the strong, distinct characters and the way Teagan is part of a family with friends and parents who aren't pushovers and aren't stupid, and are willing to take the things she says are happening on faith. I like that Christian faith is part of their lives and the way the worldbuilding reflects that, but leaves room for mystery and laughter. I love how the duct tape comes in handy in the first book. I love the last line of this second book.

So what are these books about? They start with Teagan, studying to become a veterinarian, being warned by her friend that the goblins in Teagan's mother's paintings (she is a book illustrator) are going to come alive and hurt her family. It doesn't quite happen that way, but shortly after her parents agree to foster her cousin Finn, bad things start happening, and Finn's explanation about goblins seems to be the truth. And that's only the beginning...

Definitely, highly recommended. Be warned that this story isn't over yet; the book doesn't exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it's not resolved either. There is supposed to be at least one more book, though I have a hard time believing that will be enough to tie everything up.

Three books about negotiation

I thought I'd mention three books I've read about negotiation, each of which takes a different approach:

Herb Cohen's You Can Negotiate Anything discusses what I'd call the theory of negotiation, the important principles involved: time, power, information. He mixes humorous examples (an insurance adjustor who gave him hundreds of dollars just because he didn't say anything in response to the first X offers, for example) with ideas. He talks about the worst person to negotiate for (yourself) and about being willing to coming to an agreement by discussing considerations other than money. Some of the examples are a little dated, but overall I'd say this is a timeless overview anyone involved in business should read at least once. (And if you ever buy or sell anything, including your labor, you are involved in business!)

Leigh Steinberg's book Winning with Integrity (written with or perhaps by Michael D'Orso) contains more and less practical advice. If Cohen covers the principles, Steinberg covers numerous specific rules of thumb -- applications. Steinberg is a sports attorney who, if the stories in this book are the whole picture, always manages to negotiate higher contracts for the players he represents than any that have gone before. I don't agree with everything he says; for example, for him, the goal of negotiation is to get the best deal possible, but I'm satisfied with a good enough deal. (Note that "good enough" may be quite a high bar, as discussed in The Paradox of Choice, another good read.) Still, if you're selling anything, it's worth considering his ideas to see if there are any that might help you come to an agreement (read: sale) more easily.

Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion discusses the touchy-feely factors that can lead to agreements. It's both entertaining and horrifying when you realize how irrational the decisions we make are. The edition I read included ideas about how to avoid these techniques being used on you by salesmen, so it has a slight pro-customer bias, but mostly I found it to be a make-you-think read about why and how we make decisions about who to trust and what to do. Even tactics that are obviously fake (sitcom laugh tracks are cited as an example) can have a substantial influence on what you're willing to do or agree to. Definitely worth reading for anyone who makes decisions (and that's everyone).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

100 Cupboards series

I wish I had heard of these books by N. D. Wilson a little sooner. They tell, in charming fashion, the tale of Henry York (and his family), from Henry, Kansas to an ancient city by the sea and from learning to pitch a baseball to dealing with typewriter-obsessed faeren and undying evil. The characters are distinctly themselves, the plot is solid, and the ending is quite satisfying. What more can I say? Wilson uses English in a surprising, humorous way that I've only seen from a few other writers. Check them out.

The books are 100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, and The Chestnut King.