From Peale to Pixar

Remembering How to Draw

by James Lancel McElhinney

John Gadsby Chapman, facial features American Drawing Book Nos I & II, Primary and Elementary, 1847Two disparate exhibitions appearing in New York in 2006 represent an unlikely convergence of wildly different aesthetic missions in venues that could not be more dissimilar. Yet they make the same points—drawing is necessary, so is entertainment, and they are not mutually exclusive.

“Teaching America to Draw: Instructional Manuals and Ephemera, 1745–1925,” at the Grolier Club, revealed how, more than a century and a half ago, educated Americans seldom questioned the value of drawing, and many practiced it, but ongoing discussions about the relevance of drawing in the computer age continue in American art schools, colleges and universities. More astonishing is that most teachers are less well informed on this subject than many of their students, who were first inspired to study drawing after seeing Toy Story or Finding Nemo. The artists who created those films were featured in the Pixar exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. To quote MoMA’s Website: “Demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between traditional and digital media pioneered by the studio over its twenty-year history, ‘Pixar: Twenty Years of Animation,’ is a tribute to the artists whose work has reinvented the genre.” By the end of its run, the exhibition’s catalogues had sold out, testimony to the show’s popularity. Digital projections in the larger galleries toured Pixar’s computer animation methods, but the genesis of Mr. Incredible and other virtual personalities was displayed in freehand drawings on paper and clay sculptures of characters’ heads in smaller rooms. The animation studio’s process employs everything from modeling mud and marks on a page to microchips and more. Revealing how advancements in animation software made proficiency in drawing a necessity, the exhibition made it clear that classical canons of form have been joined by new sequences and parameters of a very different nature. Clip art became nothing more than a wagonload of dingbats and other assorted ciphers. Growing to accommodate virtuosity equal to, or beyond that associated with traditional painting and sculpture, electronic media demands higher levels of skill and imagination achieved through proficiency in drawing. Pixar Animation Studios is not unique in this philosophy, but part of a popular groundswell of interest in drawing.

One of my students at the Art Students League of New York reported to me that, in the middle of the exhibitions floor at the SIGGRAF conference this year in Boston, SONY Imageworks had set up a life drawing classroom. Drawing figures on souvenir T-shirts may offend cringing purists, but to young artists working in electronic media, rediscovering the human figure through drawing is exciting, invigorating and rewarding. To quote my student: “Ten years ago you could get into the business with just software skills. Nowadays there are two kinds of digital artists. The ones who can draw become designers. The rest are stuck in tech support. The computer is just a tool.”

Sande Scoredos, Executive Director of Training and Artist Development at SONY Imageworks, notes: “Master instructor Karl Gnass has been teaching life drawing classes at Imageworks every week since 1996. His life drawing classes not only improve aesthetics and animation skills but also increase powers of observation, communication and visualization. These studio art classes are considered a staple of the Imageworks Training & Artist Development core curriculum and are available to everyone at Imageworks.” Gnass is a painter who has published Spirit of the Pose: Sketchbook 1. Like Gary Faigin in Seattle—whose book on human physiognomy is a standard text for many animators as well as studio artists—Gnass has something in common with Rembrandt Peale and John Gadsby Chapman, whose instructional manuals were on exhibition at the Grolier Club. Gnass’s Website, linked to Bud Plant.com, offers a series of three CDs titled “The Virtual Pose,” featuring nude models in assorted positions, marketed to professionals but available to a general audience.

After decades of being defined by its novelty alone, digital and computer assisted art is coming into its own, like printing in the late fifteenth century and photography four centuries later. Digital animation is just the latest begat in the descent of entertainment technology. From glass-plate photography to Edison’s Kinetoscope, from the brothers Méliès to Monsters, Inc., each new generation is a nervous presence to the one it supplants. Those who are too deeply invested in the nuts and bolts of old technologies to make use of new ones are bound for oblivion, along with those who cannot distinguish tools from skills—which is precisely the confusion about what drawing is.

Digital artists study life drawing at privately run ateliers and traditional drawing programs. Life drawing classes convene at computer art trade fairs. Mass market books such as Michael Steinhart’s The Undressed Art, Why We Draw (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) celebrate the challenges and pleasures of amateur life drawing. A recent issue of the fashionable magazine Artnews was devoted to drawing. Galleries offer works on paper in greater abundance. Ten years ago, dealers would have told you that drawing was a soft market, and I am sure that a few cynical wags will dismiss the rising interest in works on paper as just a commercial trend. I disagree. Book displays in any well-stocked art supply store offer vast selections of drawing manuals, many focusing on perspective, anatomy, physiognomy and the figure in general. Many students at the unaccredited Art Students League of New York hold BFA degrees or better. They are there to backfill skills they failed to receive at their alma mater. Figure drawing has until recently been seen as obsolete or at best a stylistic reaction against avant-garde postmodernism. Why now is there a sudden rush back to drawing by people who have little or nothing to do with the art world, which can neither be thanked nor blamed for the trend?

Chapman would have understood the current revival of drawing. He was active during a revolutionary period in visual communication and new media, in many ways like our own. Photography and chromolithography, together with industrial printing and a boom in publishing, inundated modern industrial societies in a deluge of imagery—works of art, topographical and town views, exotic pictures from scientific explorations, chorographic and cartographic surveys. Intensifying the visual culture around them increased the desire of ordinary people to intersect with it. The same thing could easily be happening today.

“If you can learn to write you can learn to draw,” extols Chapman on the title page of his 1847 American Drawing Book. Art crusaders such as Chapman and Rembrandt Peale advocated universal drawing instruction. Peale taught drawing at Central High School in Philadelphia as a fundamental skill, like handwriting. Visual literacy was widely recognized as a necessity in a free society, whose citizens daily consumed larger helpings of visual data. Peale and Chapman wrote the first truly popular drawing manuals in the United States, offering more affordable alternatives to precursors such as Fielding Lucas’s 1827 Progressive Drawing Book. Peale’s 1836 Graphics sold out of multiple printings over the course of three decades. The tone of John Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing

In February, 1803—around the same time Charles Willson Peale launched the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and New York’s Columbian Academy of Art’s Archibald Robertson published Elements of the Graphic Arts—Congress authorized the Department of Drawing at the new United States Military Academy. According to the 1821 Regulations, all cadets were required to study drawing for two hours a day during their Second Level. In 1834—the same year Rembrandt Peale published Graphics—painter and National Academician Robert W. Weir became the new teacher of drawing at West Point, a post he held for forty-two years. According to an 1881 property list of the Academy’s Department of Drawing, the inventories would not be out of place in an art school. Drawing master Charles Larned’s 1898 syllabus presents the value of the freehand drawing course

as a way to stimulate the faculties of observation, the sense of proportion and formal memory, and to enable the graduate to make such drawings and sketches as are rendered necessary. Some lectures will be given on the subjects of Sculpture, Painting and the Fine Arts in general, and the class will be taken to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to study selected works of Architecture, Paintings and Sculpture.

Changes over the years led the Academy to abandon the drawing class in 1920. The West Point Museum displays drawings by former cadets Jefferson Davis, Seth Eastman, Ulysses S. Grant and James McNeill Whistler, among others. An art history position was recently added to the faculty. I asked David Reel, the new Director of the West Point Museum and former art collections curator, when the Academy was planning to hire a new drawing master. He smiled. While he could not say, he did not rule out the possibility.

Writing about the Grolier Club exhibition in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman remarked: “From 1820 to 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals circulated, now souvenirs of our bygone cultural aspirations. Not many of these manuals are still intact because they were so heavily used, worn down like church relics, which supplicants rubbed smooth from caressing.” He describes the way that art, like playing an instrument and singing around the family piano, brought people together in the pleasure of doing something creative. He goes on to note: “Amateurism was a virtue, and the time and effort entailed in learning to draw, as with playing the piano, enhanced its desirability.” Lamenting the current habit of passive spectatorship, he echoes familiar complaints about the entropic decline of citizenship into consumerism, aggravated by general apathy and alienating pod technologies. Kimmelman observes:

There was also a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem: the shift in values is implied by some of the later books in the show. Consciously or not, they parallel changes in modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude.

The progress and decline of drawing instruction during the twentieth century can be traced to this shift. When Rembrandt Peale created a drawing course at Central High School in Philadelphia, he was thinking less about personal empowerment in terms of self-expression and more in terms of skills and knowledge. Freehand drawing, penmanship and mechanical drawing were, in that sense, means to the same end. Thomas Eakins completed his training in drawing at Central High School, where Benjamin Eakins, the painter’s father, worked as drawing master.

Today K–12 art classes have been dropped from core studies in many states, in part because well-intentioned art teachers back in the 1960s and 1970s focused on self-esteem and expressiveness as selling points for art in the schools, but nobody is buying that pitch today. To make matters worse, in a move that made as much sense as a bachelor’s degree in grammer, syntax or pushups, drawing as a major was introduced into high education a quarter century ago, limiting how drawing could be taught. It was no longer as a realm of skill and knowledge but a genre of processes carried out on paper.

The perception that drawing is chiefly about self-expression ignores the fact that everything in the man-made world passes through a drawing process on its way to production. Drawing, in one form or another, is practiced by architects, engineers, animators, carpenters, cartoonists, cartographers, mathematicians, designers of every stripe and, of course, fine artists—who represent a minute demographic sample.

In his review, Kimmelman quotes Albert A. Anderson, Jr., one of the Grolier show’s organizers (with William L. Joyce and Sandra K. Stelts): “Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress.” He disagrees with Anderson’s assertion, arguing that “doodling and drawing are not the same.” I might add that Mr. Anderson reinforces my point about the view of drawing as limited to artistic endeavor. If the Grolier show was a message in a bottle, the contents of that message are that drawing is not limited by artistic endeavor and self-expression.

Both exhibitions explored intersections of art and entertainment: at the Grolier Club, drawing as a source of personal pleasure; at MoMA, drawing in the service of entertainment media. One of the blunders committed by the institutional academic avant-garde was equating its version of artistic advancement with technological progress in a way that fantasized a real link between the rarified science of computer engineering and their own critical and theoretical practices. In fact, there never was a connection, except when computer-assisted tasking dwelt mostly in theoretical models and a working data processor took up half a basketball court. The triumph of computer science was realized when PCs went into homes and offices across the globe.

Modernism-bashing realists can finally relax. The war they are fighting is over, and they have to find something else to argue about other than the relative merits of fine art versus craft, abstraction versus realism and object versus subject. If some disagree that filmmaking is the new history painting, they would be wise to remember that many American history paintings were produced to generate revenue as entertainments. Phillipot’s panorama of the fighting at Gettysburg and Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware come to mind. Historic models for American artist/showmen predate Charles Willson Peale’s ill-fated Arch, his son Rembrandt’s The Court of Death, Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse and Frederic Edwin Church’s 1857 Niagara, which members of polite society—who would never dream of admitting one of Mr. Barnum’s elephants into their gardens—stood in line and paid two bits to see.

Traveling internationally with his “Indian Gallery,” comprised of artworks, ethnographic artifacts and live entertainment by indigenous dancers, painter George Catlin presaged Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders” by half a century and modern performance art by more than twice that. John Mix Stanley’s huge “Western Wilds” panorama passed a quarter mile of painted, backlit scenes between giant rollers for Washingtonians in 1854. The creative teams at SONY Imageworks and Pixar Animation Studios can trace their bloodlines back to magic lantern shows, stereoscopes and nickelodeons, to Thomas Nast’s 1867 theatrical “Caricaturama” and Church’s Heart of the Andes, viewed through opera glasses.

If the Pixar show at MoMA showed us how far we have come, “Teaching America to Draw” showed how much we have lost. Educated Americans 150 years ago could draw. They possessed a more highly refined and developed visual intelligence than educated Americans today who cannot—a chilling thought, when one ponders the fact that people today encounter and process more visual data in a week than those living a century and half ago did in a lifetime. Given our preparation, we flatter ourselves to boast that we have been favored by anything but retrograde progress.

The crisis of visual literacy today can be ameliorated by teaching drawing and design skills outside the pseudo-pedagogical sandbox of artistic self-expression. Drawing is not just for artists, but for everyone. American students today learn to read and write without anyone expecting them to become great writers. There is no reason why students cannot develop their visual intelligence without being expected to possess artistic ambition. It seems very likely that the kind of excitement being generated by ubiquitous imagery will infect us all with a desire to connect with it.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2006, Volume 23, Number 4