Monday 6/25: Looking up to Vincent

My nostril at the start of class

I’m still a little intimidated by my attempts at realism. I’m should-ing, but I’m trying not to. It’s hard not to feel a little nervous in my attachment to this. It’s supposed to be me, and it’s supposed to be accurate. I’m having a particularly hard time figuring out proportions based on what I’ve drawn. There aren’t many things on my face that are measurable in left nostril-widths. (Note: looking over this on Friday, I can’t believe how wrong I was about that.) Professor Ruby gave us more instruction in class today about how to understand facial proportions with the string and/or a solid object, but it’s slow going.

One thing that’s giving me a bit more confidence is reading more about self-portraiture and other artists’ struggle with proportion. In the sections on portraiture in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards talks about how van Gogh (whose self-portraits are some of my favorite paintings) struggled with proportion. She cites a letter he wrote to his brother about how he was working on proportion, which is “necessary to draw the slightest thing.” I attempted to find the full text online, but the translations must be different, because vangoghletters.org has 35 letters that are similar enough to come up in a search. Point made, Vincent van Gogh told his brother that proportions were hard, many times.

Edwards uses his “Man with Saw” drawing as an example of his struggles with proportion. To be fair, this isn’t the most representative example. Going through this incredible gallery of van Gogh’s drawings, it’s probably the worst-proportioned thing van Gogh drew after he became serious about art.

Van Gogh’s Man with Saw, via vangoghgallery.com

However, the eyes are too high on the face, which is a common error. (Edwards calls this the “cut-off skull problem” which is a little morbid.) People believe that the features take up more of the face than they actually do; this is because facial features like eyes, noses, and mouths draw the eye and give more visual information than the forehead or the chin and cheeks. Van Gogh was five years older than me when he did this, which is incredibly comforting in terms of my worries about being too old to learn to draw. Within a year, he was doing drawings like this. I doubt I’m ever going to get to his level; I enjoy art and it’s something I want to get better at, but it’s unlikely to be my life’s work and obsession, like it was for him. Still, it’s encouraging to know that this kind of improvement is possible.

It’s been amazing to spend a few hours immersing myself in van Gogh’s processes. I’d never seen more than one or two of his drawings before, and looking at the progression, I’m just fascinated and encouraged. Though, given his mental health problems and self-doubt, I feel a little bad for picking on Vincent van Gogh’s early work. I haven’t done very much to really understand proportion in 3.5 hours I spent working on my actual drawing today. Anyone have a time machine? I know just how to make his day.

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One response »

  1. This is a really helpful comparison of looking at VG work over a five year period of time and concentrating on the idea of proportion. The way you explain it makes me want to adopt it as a mechanism to show in the class next time we work on this project. It seems like it is helpful in illustrating our symbolic (wrong) thinking about features and proportions and the wrong marks that often result, as well as an inspiration for progress. Thanks for this research!

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