Learn to Draw > A history of pictures

To understand the differences between drawing and painting we need a closer study of the development of pictorial representation. This requires a history lesson.

The story begins about 30,000 years ago in the Old Stone Age, and with something of a flourish - with colored cave paintings. A dispute as to whether line drawing or graphic coloring came first seems totally irrelevant as we admire these first, highly artistic creations of the human imagination. As we have shown, areas of color can hardly be set down without an outline, and the line drawing must have originated simultaneously with the graphic coloring. The outline is not there as an end in itself but as a starting point. A pure line drawing may be equivocal, the area it encloses may be either substance or space.

For example, if you draw a circle no one can tell whether it indicates a hole, a raised plane, a column seen from above, or a sphere. A simple outline, even when it is unequivocal, makes greater demands on the imagination of the beholder than a shaded or colored representation, or one drawn in perspective. A picture which has all these elements is the least demanding.

a circle from different angles appears to be a very different shape

At least until the second half of the last century one of the foremost aims of the student of painting and drawing was to create a perfect illusion of the impression derived from nature. In every age there were other no less important problems and aims, but teaching was based on the assumption that the true reproduction of nature was the aim of the accomplished artist, and that this formed the basis of his creative activity.

Apelles, who worked as court painter to Alexander the Great, was the most famous painter in Antiquity. Among the many anecdotes concerning him is one illustrating this high regard for perfect naturalism. He once engaged in a public competition with a colleague; each was to paint a picture. Apelles' contemporary produced a picture of grapes which looked so real that the birds came to eat them. After due admiration of this feat the audience called on Apelles to unveil his picture. This he could not do, for the veil was all he had painted. Thus, Apelles succeeded in deceiving even the human eye.

The anecdote is, of course, apocryphal, and since no work by Apelles has. survived it is impossible to know how closely naturalistic his painting was.

A few decades ago there were still theatre curtains which had to be studied for some time, before one could decide whether they were of draped material or merely painted linen.

Naturalistic representation ceased to be generally admired only with the advent of photography, when first blackand-white and then color photographs surpassed any drawing or painting in naturalism. Against this new invention painters and draftsmen had only one trump card, but it outplayed anything photography could do: even the best photograph is powerless against the artist's creative interpretation, against his intensified reformulation of his experience of reality. This does not imply that there was nothing more than unquestioning naturalistic reproduction in art until the advent of photography; the great artists have never been satisfied with that.

If we study the bison painted (along with many other animals) in the cave of Altamira in northern Spain, perhaps 30,000 years ago, we can see such closeness to nature that the photograph could tell us little more of the animal's anatomy or proportions or of any important details; yet the drawing tells us something essentially more important even than this from the strong broad concept of the form. It is this which makes it impressive and imparts the menacing effect of the size and weight of the beast without any comparison with man or plant to give it relative scale. The drawing is by no means a mechanical, naturalistic reproduction but an allembracing representation of its subject.

a bison drawn/painted more than 12,000 years ago

It would be interesting to know the circumstances which gave rise to this picture which is even today unsurpassed in its power and impact. There is no evidence remaining, but much can be deduced. It is certainly not painted from life. Apart from the impossibility of keeping the creature still while the artist drew it, the position in which it is depicted is composite and is not literally possible. Yet the picture is not untrue.

Evidently the artist frequently watched these beasts in this and other poses and studied dead ones for all the details. Then, his mind full of all these impressions, he created the picture out of his head. This is in great measure why these pictures are so magnificent. An artist who always draws from a model cannot draw freely. The faculty of memory is not as objective as a camera, but it is truer in its ability to sift away the unessential, omitting incidental and fortuitous characteristics and revealing only the typical.

Painting techniques through early history

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