The Frisbee of Art

Pope Boniface VIII was looking for a new artist to work on the frescoes in St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sent a courtier out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work that he could judge. The courtier approached the painter Giotto and asked for a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Instead of a study of angels and saints, which the courtier expected, Giotto took a brush loaded with red paint and drew a perfect circle. The courtier was furious, thinking he had been made a fool of; nonetheless, he took the drawing back to Boniface. The Pope understood the significance of the red circle, and Giotto got the job.

This is often told as the story of the ultimate test of drawing, and I don’t dispute that it is very hard to draw a perfect circle. However, I would argue that it is much more useful to be able to draw a circle existing in space, a circle seen turned at various angles as we usually encounter it in the world. We need to be able to draw an ellipse.

The ellipse is the Frisbee of art, the circle freed from its flatness that sails out into imagined space tilting this way and that and ending up on the top of the soup bowl and silver cup in Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s still life or, imagine this, on the wheels of the speeding Batmobile.

Jean-Baptiste Chardin The Silver Goblet
Pablo Picasso,  Mother and Child

Once you tune into ellipses, you will begin to see them everywhere: in art, as in the Chardin painting, or in life, in your morning coffee cup or the table top on which the cup sits. The ellipse is also implicit in every cylindrical form whether or not we see its end exposed (as it would be in a can or a cup or a length of pipe). Just look at the Picasso “Mother and Child.” Highlighting the ellipses, as I have done, helps you to understand the basic roundness of those limbs, encouraging you to see and to draw with a volumetric rather than a flat perception of what you are observing. So the ellipse is important because it exists in so many places as an actual shape, and because it is “buried” in so many round forms that we are likely to draw.

The challenge of drawing an ellipse is that it must be done with enough speed to engage the natural “roundingness” of your reflexes. In essence, you are deciding to make a particular shaped ellipse and then letting your hand and wrist move autonomously to accomplish the job. Much of what you are practicing in learning to draw is engaging your fine motor skills in this way, so that the hand moves to do your bidding without a ”controlling” space between deciding to make a particular line and the hand moving to do it. Before this kind of almost simultaneous cooperation between your brain and your hand occurs, you will tend to worry the line out in slow incremental steps. In this hand-eye coordination, drawing is an athletic activity that benefits from practice, like golf or tennis. On a page of your drawing pad, make various kinds of ellipses as a warmup for the exercise below. Keep the movement of your hand fluid and relatively fast.

Let’s begin by drawing a pot. A few words on perspective are in order before we start. Think of looking at a can of soda on a table in front of you: the implied ellipse at the bottom of the can where it sits on the table is rounder that the ellipse at the top of the can because you are looking down on it more. If it’s easier to observe this in a straight-sided drinking glass then use that as an example. This describes the basic idea, illustrated by the diagram below, that as you look down on an ellipse you see more of it than if the ellipse is higher up relative to your eye level.

Start your drawing by looking at the top of the pot and making an ellipse as close as you can to the shape you see. Give it a couple of tries if you need to. Now bring down two outside-edge lines to where the pot bulges out. Add a center line all the way down to where you think the bottom of the pot is. Now add two horizontal lines, one at the bulge point and one a little above the bottom of the pot. These lines will guide you as you make the two ellipses that describe the cylindrical shape of the pot. Make the ellipse at the bulge point a little rounder than the top ellipse. Make the bottom ellipse rounder still. Now, looking at the outside edges at the bottom of the pot, draw connecting curves between the two ellipses, trying to capture the nature of the shapes in the way that the bulge is more pronounced at the top, like shoulders, and then curves inward.

Congratulations! You have now made a basic linear drawing of a pot. I encourage you to strengthen your understanding of analyzing round forms by doing an additional exercise; choose a basically cylindrical object from your surroundings and draw it using ellipses in the same way I have just demonstrated. Because you will be studying an object in three dimensions rather than in a photograph it may be easier to see the ellipses. I have photographed a group of household objects to suggest some of the things that you might consider.

Household Objects

In the next column I’ll show the same pot we’ve just drawn in a more dramatic light to make it easier to understand its volumes, so you can see how the direction the light comes from affects the shadows. You’ll have an opportunity to practice the logic and art of shading.

James McMullan, New York Times


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