Read an Excerpt
Abstraction in Art and Nature
By Nathan Cabot Hale
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1993 Nathan Cabot Hale
All rights reserved.
The Meaning of Abstraction
The biggest challenge to the artist in the twentieth century is learning the abstract language of art. Long ago it was enough to copy the surface forms of nature, but now it is our task to get to the root of nature's meanings. There is no other way to do this than to learn the kind of reasoning that enables us to look beneath the surface of things. The artists of our time are attempting to learn and develop this kind of insight. Not all of their experiments have been successful; some have led the creators into corridors from which there is no outlet.
In the general confusion of twentieth-century styles, it has been difficult for the average person to understand the art of our time; but it is far more difficult for the artist and art student because their careers demand that they find their own path through the chaos. We are faced with so many different schools of thought and conflicting points of view that we overlook the meaning of the word abstraction—which simply means the act of drawing out the essential qualities in a thing, a series of things, or a situation.
EVOLUTION OF ABSTRACTION
This book is intended as a guide to help you through the maze of abstract schools to the simple problems of abstraction. Whether you are an art student or an artist learning on your own, this text will help you to grasp the fundamentals of the abstract language of art. It may seem boastful for me to claim that this book will make the problems of abstraction clear. But the answers to these problems are accessible to anyone who takes the time to do a little detective work and to follow the clues that can be found in nature and in the art of the past.
We must try to step aside from the confusion of schools, movements, and current fads, and attempt to see the whole story of art as a meaningful effort of mankind. This confusion is particularly damaging when it happens in the art schools because the pressure of having to "choose sides" narrows the student's point of view, rather than enlarging it. Being forced to make such a choice prevents the student from exploring and freely selecting the kind of expression that is closest to his heart, his character, or his talents. In this book, I hope to avoid this kind of narrowness. Although, as a working artist, I may follow a certain path—the path that is best for me—! hope this book will encourage you to find the one that is best for you. Art is a product of evolution—not often a result of revolution—a product of the meaningful insights accumulated by artists over thousands of years. Fortunately, these insights cannot be easily erased; they continue to endure and they eventually modify and absorb the useful products of revolution.
The language of the abstract elements of art has developed gradually—as mankind has developed. This language is by no means a product of the twentieth century alone. Over thirty thousand years, each of the seven abstract elements of art in Western civilization has emerged to become part of our cultural treasury. These elements are (1) line, (2) shape-form-mass, (3) pattern, (4) scale-proportion-space, (5) analysis-dissection, (6) lightness-darkness, and (7) color. When we understand the amount of time it has taken to build these seven elements, we can begin to value them as a hard-won heritage.
LEARNING THE ABSTRACT LANGUAGE
My own study of the historical growth of the abstract elements of art—and of the growth of a child's capacity to make pictures—has suggested a natural way to present abstraction to you in this book. Each chapter will carry you one step further along the sequence: from line to shape, to form, to mass, etc. By the time you reach the end of this volume, you will have begun to understand just how artists weave the various strands of art into a sum that is greater than its parts. Equally important, you will have made some firm steps in that direction yourself.
If each artist had to start completely anew—as though he were the first artist in creation—he would be overwhelmed by the magic oneness that exists in nature. Nature hides all meanings in her great, seeming simplicity. All things work together in nature, and it seems almost impossible for the art student to cope with it all in one lifetime or a dozen lifetimes—even if he has the innate capacities of a Leonardo da Vinci. Without the heritage of the abstract elements of art, he would never know where to begin. These elements of art are a refined understanding and reflection of the creative ways of nature. They are the keys to nature's expressions and secrets.
As you learn the abstract elements of art one by one-through study, observation, and drawing—you go through a natural growth process. You extend the logic of nature within yourself. As you develop mastery of these elements, you become a deeper, richer personality with an increasing ability to see beyond the surface of things. This development requires time and patience on your part, and the recognition of your individual needs. One person may require greater study and greater practice in the meaning and use of line; another may have a strong, natural aptitude for line, but the reverse may be true when it comes to color or pattern. It is best to work most intensively on the things in which you are weak; your strong qualities will take care of themselves. The style that you develop eventually will be an expression of your personality, your background, and the amount of learning that you achieve.
I have tried very hard to stress the fact that these abstract elements of art are not isolated from one another, but that there is a natural order and sequence which creates pattern and logic. This logic is the first thing that I want you to understand. It is the skeleton or framework of the learning process you will follow in this book. Each of these chapters is actually a work outline, designed to give you practical experience and familiarity with the elements of art as you find them in nature and in the work of the artists who understood abstraction. The remaining part that completes this book is you, of course, and the effort you spend learning by doing the work outlined in each project. You are just as much a part of this book as I am.
WORDS VS. IMAGES
There is one serious drawback to this book, however, and it is in my reaching you through the use of words. We, as artists, are not basically concerned with words. For example, when we try to understand the lines that exist in a landscape, we draw these lines, not say them with words. Words are useful to us, as artists, only if we place drawing before the spoken or written word.
When I said earlier that abstraction means the act of drawing out the essential qualities in a thing, a series of things, or a situation, I really meant draw with a pencil on a piece of paper. When I talk about your understanding the abstract elements of something, I mean that you are able to draw its line, form, patterns, and all of the features that we artists communicate without words. For example, when we try to understand the human figure and express our understanding, we learn to draw the lines of the skeletal structure and the shapes of the bones; we learn to draw the shapes of the muscular masses; we learn to draw the patterns of the mass relationships, the scale of the forms, etc. It is not important to name these things or to tell what they do in words; we do all of our telling by drawing. This does not mean that knowing the names of things is not useful. It is. But words can be a trap for the artist.
The abstract elements of art are categories—ways of classifying things that exist in nature. These abstract elements enable you to transmit the reality of nature—or the feelings that nature creates inside of you—to the picture surface. Whether your work is faithfully realistic or completely abstract, whether your work reflects nature like a mirror or is an altogether inner vision, the abstract elements of art are the tools that you will use.
A STUDY PROGRAM AND MATERIALS YOU WILL NEED
What I have said has been very solemn and serious. Art has its solemn and serious aspects because it deals with the whole spectrum of human feeling. However, there is much joy, tenderness, pleasure, and freedom in art. The amount of fulfillment you find will be equal to the work you do. If you can set aside an hour each day and do these projects consistently over a period of months—as you do when you study a musical instrument—you will probably use this book to best advantage. But you may be the kind of person who works in spurts of energy, with periods of waiting between work periods; if this is so, work at your own speed.
The materials you will need for the projects are not expensive: a few pencils, some charcoal, a kneaded rubber eraser, some fixative, a pad of paper, and later on some oil paints or watercolors. If you buy the best, you might spend as much as twenty-five dollars, but you could get by spending ten.
Your place of study is important, and the way that you study goes hand in hand with this. Pick a quiet corner or a room to yourself, where you cannot be distracted. You should have a desk or table on which to put your drawing pad and materials. And it is good to have some shelf space where you can keep the various odds and ends that you will be asked to gather for study from the world around you.CHAPTER 2
The basic ingredient of the language of art is line, and line is something that we all tend to take for granted because paper and pencil have been our constant companions since childhood. In our culture, almost everyone learns to form letters and write words in the first grade, and children begin drawing pictures even before they enter school. Controlling our hands to make lines on paper is so basic to our way of life that it seems that millions of people should understand the nature of line in all its intricacies—but the fact is that few people understand it at all.
In our time, we are separated from the deeper meaning of lines by the fact that handwritten documents are not much used and that drawings and handmade illustrations, when used, are used for their effect rather than as a necessity. We generally read pages of mechanically made type and see far more photographs than drawings. To compound the problem, when we do write we use ballpoint pens or other instruments which give very little style or variation to the line of the handwritten signature we place at the end of our typewritten letter.
Of course, before the typewriter and the mechanical printing press came into such common use, and before the photograph and photoengraving came on to the scene, beautiful penmanship and skillful drawing were essential to the world's work and were considered much more important than they are today. The expert penman was employed to copy documents and records; the illustrator made drawings and engravings of important events or people, and pictured any other thing that could not be told adequately with words. The teaching of these skills on a high level was much more widespread than it is today.
It is very important for the artist and the art student to realize that the shift to mechanical type, photographic processes, and photoengraving has led to a decline in the skilled use of line—in art in general and particularly in the teaching of drawing. This decline has progressed for close to seventy years at this writing. At first glance, this might seem a disaster for the artist, as skillful drawing and the understanding of line are the cornerstones of art.
In reality, we may look on this decline in drawing as a disguised blessing because, in former days, good drawing was taken for granted to a very large degree. Until the present time, there has never been a period when it was possible to ask basic questions about drawing and line that have never been asked before. It is now possible for the field of art to develop some deeper self-knowledge about the whole vocabulary of the artist. The Impressionist painters began by asking the first and most important question in this search ...
DOES LINE EXIST?
The Impressionists made the bold statement that line does not exist in nature. For people whose culture is held together with writings, diagrams, and pictures, this is a very hard fact to accept. We are a reading, writing, mathematical, and picture-making society, and we do all these things by making or using lines without a single thought about the lines themselves. We take line so much for granted that we all think that line is a basic part of the structure of the universe.
Project: This project will help you to explore your ideas about line, because you may have some misconceptions about the subject. It will be better to discover these misconceptions in the beginning than to let them linger through our discussion. All you need for this project is pencil and paper.
I want you to list any object in nature that you regard as an example of pure line. Just write down its name; do not hesitate or worry about being wrong. List anything that you have customarily thought of as a pure line.
Now pick two of your best examples from the list and make simple drawings of them. If you can find a model of the example, draw from the model. When your drawings are finished, read the following section to see whether you have the correct ideas about line.
LINES ARE NOT LINES
The Impressionists realized that we use our pencil, pen, or brush to make marks on paper to represent things in our environment, but these marks on paper only represent real things or real feelings. For example, we call a crack in the sidewalk a line, but in reality it is only a space between two solid forms even though we may make a solid mark on our paper to represent the crack (Fig. 1). The further the two pieces of concrete are separated, the more apparent this truth becomes.
Other examples of things which appear to be lines—such as strands of hair, string (Fig. 2) or wire, a snake, a tree branch (Fig. 3)—all prove to have volume and form on close examination. When lumber is stacked, one board on top of another, we may say that we see lines where the boards meet and draw lines for this on our paper; but in reality, we are drawing the space between the boards where the light does not penetrate (Fig. 4). Or we draw the edge of the board that is bordered by the air around it.
Well, then, what about the seeming border line or contour line around a human figure or a rock? Surely this is a line! But all we have to do is to walk around the figure or the rock to see our line disappear and become a surface or a shape. Even when we make actual marks on paper and call them lines, closer examination with a magnifier proves them to be quite solid chunks of lead that cling to quite solid strands of paper fiber.
To those of us who use line a great deal, and who believe in its power and effectiveness, this discovery comes as a shock and a disappointment. But after we face this feeling of discouragement, we realize that we have made the first important step toward learning the intelligent use of the marks that we call lines. When you have made this step, you have begun to see nature as it really is instead of what it only appears to be on the surface. You are closer to understanding how to go about making images on paper because you have realized that the important thing in drawing is, first of all, your understanding of the object represented by the lines.
Project: Now you are going to re-examine your drawings from the first project and make new drawings using the concepts that you have just learned. You will need pencil and paper and the models that you originally used.
In your drawing, I want you to pay very close attention to the problems of contour line. Ordinarily, beginners make an even line around an object as though every part of the contour was the same distance from their eye. In reality, some of the contour lines are nearer the front of the form while others are farther away. Notice particularly how, instead of being a continuous line around an object, the contour line will break and a new line will start—either ahead of the old line or behind it.
These marks that you read on this paper as letters, words, and ideas can be traced back to certain activities of our earliest ancestors, just as we can trace back certain drawings on cave walls and on rocks as being their handiwork. As a matter of fact, pictures were the first means of writing. Writing developed very slowly out of the symbols of primitive drawing, just as today the child begins to draw faces and shapes of things before he learns to make letters, numbers, and words.
The ancient drawings on rocks and cave walls begin with a few simple lines that are very much like the stick figures that children draw. A stick figure requires only five or six marks to indicate the two-legged stance that has a very strong likeness to a man. As a matter of fact, this simple little device is so powerful and meaningful that even the artist of modern times begins the construction of his figures with a stick figure that duplicates the skeletal structure and the lines of the action (Fig. 5). Or if he does not actually draw it on the paper, he will develop and hold the image of the stick figure in his mind as he draws.
Excerpted from Abstraction in Art and Nature by Nathan Cabot Hale. Copyright © 1993 Nathan Cabot Hale. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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