Back in May 2012 I figured with all the energy spent looking at painters, I should pick up painting. This was one of my early attempts for my buddy Jacob; I aimed at a chronological study of painting, and first went for the tedious techniques of the Flemish. My wife and I were going to have our first child in December, and in preparing for the mental state of parenthood, we found taboos against breast feeding absurd.
This painting was an homage to an old print my mom had of the Virgin Mary nursing lil baby Jesus in public, by Leonardo Da Vinci. How absurd, I thought, that in modern times people would throw shade at her for such an act, and that in America at least, such shaming tends to come from the more conservative branches of the religious Christian right.
A lot of living painters I really admire share my fascination with public domain art instruction books–AKA, their author died and the copyright expired–even if they don’t drink/bathe/muad’dib in the waters of public domain creative commons open source hippie socialism quite like I do.
I think a big part of this is due to the “mini dark age” of the 20th century–approximately 1890 to 1990, when modern art became the only accepted form of “real art.”. Even with a forgiving embrace of modern art, one must acknowledge that certain art ideas became taught instead of other art ideas. I read somewhere that Disney animators had to drive 40 miles to get a figure drawing class. And many older folk have told stories about art classes where their instruction was “express yourself!” Attempts at accuracy or realism were met with feedback of ranging from praise by an instructor that nonetheless couldn’t offer feedback to improve accuracy or realism, and on the opposite end were met with straight up antagonism from the instructor.
This dark age also came out in the publishing world. Ever scope old used books on painting at Goodwill or Half Price Books? A lot of them are REALLY bad, just “expressive” splotchy flowers and color right off a tube. Which is fun, but doesn’t really teach you hardcore technique. There’s some exceptions like Loomis, some Watson/Guptill stuff, andHow to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. But mostly art instruction books 1920-1990 are a wasteland. Only recently, with works like Classical Painting Atelier, Traditional Oil Painting, and Portrait Painting Atelier do the authors aim for the advanced calculus of painting, with homage to old masters.
These older books also occupy a strange point in history. Different technologies grew slowly, and adjacent to them our cultural ideas changed slowly. There’s an overlap from around the 1830’s to the 1920’s where three factors meet. First, academic technique was still valued and masters could be found to write a great book on the subject. Second, printing press technology was good enough to actually print that great book. Third, inklings of globalism could disseminate that book beyond the artist’s country of origin, to consumers that could actually afford books and art supplies. Some great works came out. Then with the dawn of photography and modern art, the production of great works slowed to a trickle.
The result? If you want a good read on art technique, you’ve got two choices. You can grab a $50 brand new book from the book store, OR you can read something from 1915.
Artists who give credence to “mini dark age” idea have a mission: a “mini renaissance.” I think this is why we have a fascination with public domain art books. If great realism in art is an unbroken lineage from Hellenistic Greece to the death of academic painting, it’s our sacred duty to pick that lineage up again, and keep it growing.
Great books I recommend, all in the public domain!
The Practice and Science of Drawing, by Harold Speed: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14264
The Practice of Oil Painting and of Drawing Associated With it, by Solomon Solomon: https://archive.org/details/practiceoilpain00sologoog
The Books of Andrew Loomis: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Loomis%2C+Andrew%22
Perspective by Rex Vicat Cole: https://archive.org/details/cu31924020581041