Breugel was funny

Pieter Breugel the Elder was really funny.

Some of his paintings were clearly intended to be humorous, like this big famous one, Netherlandish Proverbs:

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It’s a very large (4×6 foot!) rebus-like picture puzzle of various colloquial expressions, many of which we still have in English (the Wikipedia article has a listing of many of them). This painting is readymade for a funny execution, but nobody else could have packed it so densely with hilarious idiots:

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Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain, pt. 2: What is Design?

“The Hunters in the Snow” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Both the “optical” and the “constructive” drawing approaches are useful, but they don’t make successful pictures on their own. Drawing systems, like all techniques, are servants of a higher overarching purpose: design. Design transcends styles, techniques, and media. Techniques are useful tools to learn, and it’s never bad to expand our abilities; but it’s also easy to get stuck if you elevate a particular technique (like “realism“) into the goal of art itself. The technique is just a means to an end. The real point is to make a powerful image, and the power of an image ultimately derives from abstract qualities we call design and composition.

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Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain, pt. I

Optical Drawing

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, is one of the best drawing instruction books ever written. It is rightfully recommended to beginner artists all the time. It gets undeniable results. If you’ve never drawn before, or if your drawing hasn’t progressed past your childhood abilities, DotRSotB can provide critical skills that you will use for the rest of your artistic life. The before-and-after images say it all. Students of Edwards’ method show dramatic improvement after only a few days of instruction and exercises. There are few other artistic curricula that can boast the same degree of improvement in such a short time.

However, I hear a frequent question from novice artists who have “graduated” from the DotRSotB exercises: “What now?”

DotRSotB teaches you how to draw what your eyes see. I like to call this approach Optical drawing, because it’s oriented around trusting your eyes and getting out of the way of your literal visual perception. Unfortunately, Optical drawing doesn’t do much to teach you how to draw things that aren’t in front of your eyes, i.e., things you want to invent from your imagination. Some people only care about being able to draw from life, and DotRSotB provides a very good set of skills to develop life drawing ability. But those of us who also want to be able to draw from imagination will need more instruction and a separate, parallel set of drawing skills—Constructive drawing.

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Beyond Realism

“Realism” is hard to learn. It takes a great deal of effort, concentration, and persistence to acquire. There are art schools and curricula dedicated to “realism”, and they reliably produce skilled painters and draftsmen. However, there is also a low-key ideological cult of “realism” as the only true, objective measure of art and artists.

Why do I put “realism” in quotes? Well, what do we mean by “real”? The term itself is a classic example of begging the question. “Realism” as an artistic concept is infused with a lot of value judgement. Depending on your personal philosophy, it can be easy to conflate “realistic art” with some kind of higher intellectual truth. But if one technical approach is called “realism,” does that make other approaches “unreal”? Invoking “realism” as a category or priority is usually a chauvinistic loyalty to a certain type of artistic interpretation, not an appeal to truth in itself.

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