Many years ago when I attended my very first life-drawing session, (at that week-long camp in Montana). I thought I had it all figured out. Just draw what you see, make it accurate, and poof! It’s a good drawing...well... not so fast....
So in that class I was scribbling along, finding the form or the “gesture" and refining as I went. The artist that was leading the session looked at my drawings at one point and said “You need to feel the “fast" and "slow" of the contours of the forms."
This sounded confusing to me. "Just draw what you see" was the only mantra I had. And I was pretty good at being accurate.
Then she explained that drawings can be like driving a car on a road. On the straight-aways and slight curves, you can go faster. A free, fast line representing the curve of a leg, etc, will be more beautiful than a line that is painstakingly drawn. Even if it is slightly inaccurate. Hmmm….that’s the key- more beautiful. A line is not just about accuracy, it is about how the artist represents what he sees.
So a good, long line, say, running down an arm needs to be like that- fast and free. It keeps the integrity of the line and keeps it from feeling “pinched.”
Sargent knew the value of fast and slow lines. You can see the speed with which the lines down the necks were drawn below and then how slowly the curves in the ears are by comparison.
Think of our signatures - we whip them out rather quickly and that is exactly what makes them very hard to forge, and what makes forgeries easy to discern. A forger has to slow down to get those curves just right. It makes them more shaky and uncertain when trying to copy it and so we can see that....
Then she explained that as a curve gets “tighter," like the curves around the feet and hand below.......the “car” (and our lines) have to travel slower in order to get the curves more accurate. An artist has to slow down physically - truly changing the monentum of the mark- while drawing these lines so it can "make the bend” of the form. So a good drawing is mesh of fast and slow curves. Accuracy versus freedom.
This brings up the idea of putting “art" into artwork. It is what high school students need to learn when they do all those drawings of portraits and the images are so blurry from them smearing the lead around with their fingers. They are missing the "beauty of the line” and how lines can be put to work to show how forms act. You can always tell a professional artist by the way they draw.
Linework can be more expressive and individualized than any meticulous and accurate smearing. For example, a few free flowing and fast-drawn lines can represent “hair" better than thousands of mincing little lines. After all, a drawing is a representation, is it not? It is not the real thing. The marks we make only represent what we see. If our line-work is stiff and scared, our drawings will be too!
So if you like drawing, or just like to view drawings, the next time you see a good drawing, think about the speeds of both the artist and the lines!