Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The imitation game

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Drawing by Henri Matisse

Yesterday, while browsing at my local thrift store, I picked up a copy of a beautiful little volume called Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters by Robert Beverly Hale. The book is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of one hundred drawings by the likes of Leonardo, Cambiaso, and Degas, interspersed with notes and commentary from one of the century’s legendary drawing teachers. (Hale was a curator of American paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an instructor at the Art Students League, and the author of the article on drawing in the Encyclopedia Britannica.) I would have loved it in any case, but I was especially charmed by the curmudgeonly note on the first page:

It has always seemed to me that if you really wanted to excel in drawing the figure, you should go and study with the greatest living master of figure drawing. But the trouble is that there is no one alive today who can draw the figure very well; there is, perhaps, no one alive today who can draw the figure even as well as the worst artist represented in this book…But things are not as bad as they seem, because in these days of unlimited reproductions you can study with any of the old masters you wish.

Hale’s book, in short, represents a conscious return to the classic method of art instruction, which consisted of studying and emulating the drawings of past masters. For those of us accustomed to the idea that drawing ought to be done from life, this may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s grounded on a commonsensical understanding of what art requires. Few if any major artists have ever tried to draw exactly what they saw; every work of art, even the most representational, is the result of an intricate process of selection, emphasis, and omission. (Speaking of how artists will eliminate certain features, like cast shadows, for the sake of clarity of form, Hale quotes James McNeill Whistler: “When one of Whistler’s students said, ‘I like to draw what I see,’ the artist answered, ‘Wait ’til you see what you draw!'”) It’s the finished piece that matters, not its theoretical fidelity to its source, and it’s by studying the work of more experienced artists that we develop our intuition of what to include and what to leave out. Trial and error will accomplish much the same thing, but it’s always nice to have a model to follow.

Samson and Delilah by Luca Cambiaso

And this kind of imitation is central to all of the arts, including writing. All good fiction is the product of selection, or of “learning what not to say,” as Beryl Bainbridge notes, and most attempts to write down an unmediated string of impressions end up totally unreadable. Direct observation of life alone won’t teach us the fundamentals of plot, structure, concision, or any of the other strategies an author uses—as a visual artist does—to coherently project sensory experience onto a two-dimensional plane. There are countless approaches that an author can take, just as the sketches of Raphael and Daumier have little in common, but they’re all united by an effort to solve the same set of problems. And while it’s important to learn to see the world with a writer’s eye, it’s equally crucial to study great writing for what it tells us about the transmutation of the world into words. I learned how to draw by copying images from books and comics, and my education of a writer consisted of loving pastiches of the writers I admired. Even if we’re just imitating superficial elements of style, if we’ve chosen the right exemplars, we’ll end up absorbing something more valuable along the way.

Of course, slavish imitation can be a trap of its own. There’s a very real sense, for instance, in which the arts of China—while beautiful in their own right—eventually degenerated into the unthinking reproduction of traditional motifs, as E.H. Gombrich describes in a story in Art and Illusion:

James Cheng, who taught painting to a group of Chinese trained in different conventions, once told me of a sketching expedition he made with his students to a famous beauty spot, one of Peking’s old city gates. The task baffled them. In the end, one of the students asked to be given at least a picture postcard of the building so that they would have something to copy.

And when we look at the rows of novels on sale on the shelf of new releases, it’s easy to see them as a series of imitations of a handful of essential authors. (It’s worth noting that this is also a publishing strategy: marketing departments love to make a novel look more or less exactly like the ones you’ve liked in the past, down to the typeface on the cover.) But for all that, there are still times, especially early on, when imitation is more useful as a means of learning than the pursuit of blind originality. Most of what occurs to us has been done before, and better, by others, and it’s only by passionate study of the past that we can find our way into our own future.

Written by nevalalee

August 13, 2014 at 9:19 am

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