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The draughtsman’s contract: how an artist creates an image: John Willats

The draughtsman’s contract: how an artist creates an image: John Willats

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J O H N W I L L AT S



The image captured by a drawing machine or camera is necessarily in perspective, and

all through this period the optical basis of perspective was seen as a guarantee of its truth.

In 1665 Robert Hooke,1 Curator of Experiments and sometime Secretary to the Royal

Society, and himself the inventor of a drawing machine, argued that the exact recording of

visual observations was the key to new and true knowledge:

Shewing, that there is not so much requir’d towards it, any strength of Imagination,

or exactness of Method, or depth of Contemplation (though the addition of these,

where they can be had, musts needs produce a much more perfect composure) as a

sincere Hand, and a faithful Eye, to examine, and to record, the things themselves as

they appear.

Fifty years later Dr Brook Taylor in his famous book2 on perspective commented:

A Picture drawn in the utmost Degree of Perfection, and placed in a proper

Position, ought so to appear to the Spectator, that he should not be able to distinguish what is there represented, from the real original Objects actually placed

where they are represented to be. In order to produce this effect, it is necessary

that the Rays of Light ought to come from the several Parts of the Picture to the

Spectator’s Eye, with all the same Circumstances of Direction, Strength of Light

and Shadow, and Colour, as they would so from the corresponding Parts of the real

Objects seen in their proper Places.

In our own century the same sentiments find an echo in J.J. Gibson’s3 early definition of a

“faithful” picture – the definition which is likely to remain in most people’s minds, in spite

of all Gibson’s subsequent efforts to correct it:

A delimited surface so processed that it yields a sheaf of light-rays to a given point

which is the same as would be the sheaf of rays from the original scene to a given

point.

If the optical basis of perspective is to be accepted as a guarantee of truth, as these

authorities suggest, then our draughtsman Mr Neville would seem to be right: using a

drawing machine or better still a camera is all that is necessary to make a truthful picture. If

this were the case, then picture making, and analysing pictures, would indeed be trivial

pursuits. But in fact photographs, or pictures which look realistic in a photographic way,

only give one kind of truth: truth to appearances. Another kind of truth, equally important

both to artists and to architects and engineers, is truth about the shapes of objects as they

really are, independent of any particular viewpoint. This is the truth that Cézanne and later

the Cubists were after: the kind of descriptions of objects that we arrive at in our minds

after the visual system has processed and collated the immediate and transitory sensations

available at the retina. David Marr,4 attempting to describe this end-point or goal of the

visual process, called it the “3-D model” and described images of this kind as “canonical.”

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The attempt to depict this kind of “canonical” image led artists after Cézanne, and

especially those of our own century, to abandon perspective:5

Perspective is as accidental a thing as lighting. . . . Certainly reality shows us

those objects mutilated in this way. But in reality, we can change position: a step

to the right and a step to the left complete our vision. The knowledge we have

of an object is, as I said before, a complex sum of perceptions. The plastic image

does not move: it must be complete at first sight: therefore it must renounce

perspective.

In practice, these different kinds of truths are expressed in pictures through different

kinds of formal structures. The two main ones are the drawings systems which, like perspective, give an account of the spatial relationships between objects, and the denotation systems

which say how the various marks in the picture surface are related to objects in the real

world.

Pictures can be based on any of a number of different drawing systems or combinations

of systems. The following pictures, taken more or less at random from various periods and

cultures, are simply intended to illustrate a few of the systems which are available.

Figure 3.1 shows a view of Venice drawn by Canaletto and illustrates what everyone

knows about perspective: that the orthogonals, or lines representing edges in depth, converge

to a vanishing point. Pictures of this kind give an optically true impression of the inclination

of such edges and their projected lengths as they appear in the visual field.

Figure 3.2 is taken from a Chinese painting and is drawn in oblique projection. In this

system the orthogonals are parallel instead of converging as they do in perspective. Pictures

drawn in this system have the advantage over pictures in perspective in that they can be

extended without distortion in any direction, whereas pictures in perspective can show only

a limited field of view. Moreover, edges in depth, as well as edges in the other two (frontal)

directions, can be shown as true lengths.

Figure 3.3 shows a detail from a 14th century Italian painting drawn in a system known as

horizontal oblique projection. In this system the side and front faces of an object are joined

together and shown as true shapes.

Horizontal oblique projection has a sister system called vertical oblique projection in which

the top and front of an object are shown together. Two examples are shown here. In the first,

a detail of a painting by David Hockney, the front of the house is shown as a true shape but

the roof is somewhat foreshortened (Figure 3.4). The second example (Figure 3.5) is an

architect’s drawing and a strict version of vertical oblique projection; although in this context it would perhaps be better described as a variety of axonometric projection. (Rather

confusingly, different disciplines have different names for the systems.) Normal axonometric

projection with the plan of the building shown at an angle to the paper is in common use

for architect’s drawings, but a frontal view such as the one shown here is something of a

rarity.

Pictures in orthographic projection (Figures 3.6 and 3.7) show only one face of an object,

always as a true shape. Sometimes this true shape also corresponds to a possible view, as in

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the architect’s drawing shown in Figure 3.6 top. Figure 3.6 lower is a sectional plan of the

same building and the idea of a view here is largely irrelevant, since the architect’s intention

is not to show an aerial view of the building with the roof taken off, but to show the shapes

of the various rooms, and how they are connected. Similarly, the child’s drawing of a house

shown in Figure 3.7 could be a sectional view through a snowdrift, but is more likely

intended to show a house surrounded by snow: a topological rather than a projective

relationship.

No picture on a two-dimensional surface can give the whole truth about the shape of a

three-dimensional object. Instead, pictures in perspective are useful for showing the

appearance of objects from a particular viewpoint, whereas pictures in some of the other

systems show the true lengths of edges or the true shapes of surfaces. David Marr

would say that pictures in perspective aim at giving a viewer-centred description of the

world, while pictures in some of the other systems are intended to give object-centred

descriptions.



Figure 3.1 Perspective: Canaletto, Venice: The Libraria and Campanile from the Piazzetta, mid-1730s. Ink

over pencil, 27 × 37.5 cm.



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Figure 3.2 Oblique projection: Lady Wen-chi’s Return to China: Fourth Leaf, c. 1100, Northern Sung.

Ink and colours on silk, 24.8 × 67.2 cm.



Figure 3.3 Horizontal oblique projection: Master of the Blessed Clare, Adoration of the Magi, midfourteenth century, Riminese School. Oil on wood.



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Figure 3.4 Vertical oblique projection: David Hockney, Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, 1962 (detail).

Oil on canvas.



Figure 3.5 Vertical oblique projection: Feilden Clegg Design, Architects, Bolbeck Park, Milton Keynes,

Commended Scheme, 1984 (detail).



Figure 3.6 Orthographic projection: Bob Mitchell, Architect, Proprietor’s Cottage, Hollens Hotel, Grasmere,

1984 (detail).



Figure 3.7 Orthographic projection: Arfan Khan, aged 7.5, House with a Huge Snowdrift.



J O H N W I L L AT S



[. . .]



Hybrid pictures

Hybrids may occur accidentally or be more or less contrived. Natural hybrids often occur

when the pictures produced by a culture are undergoing a change: for example, when the

Italian artists of the 14th and 15th centuries were struggling to master perspective. In this

period we often find pictures made up of mixtures of old and new drawing systems.

Similarly, hybrids can occur during transitional stages as children learn to draw. The

drawing systems and denotation systems seem to get “out of step” and a child may try to

graft a new drawing system on to an old denotation system with incongruous results.

Hybrids also occur when one culture influences another: Persian miniature paintings, for

example, which contain drawing and denotation systems from both East and West, or the

marvellous “botanical” drawings produced by local Indian and Chinese artists for officers of

the East India Company. Figures 3.8 and 3.9 illustrate the contrasting ways in which Eastern

art could be influenced by the West. In the first example the traditional denotation system is

retained but allied to a new drawing system. In the second example the drawing system is

traditional but is married to a new denotation system.

Figure 3.8 is a Japanese woodcut which bears the inscription A Perspective Picture of the

Foxes’ Wedding Procession. The drawing system is straightforward linear perspective: commonplace in Western art but something of a novelty in Japanese pictures as the inclusion of



Figure 3.8 Utagawa Toyoharu, 1735–1814, A Perspective Picture of the Foxes’ Wedding Procession.

Woodcut, 23.3 × 33.7 cm.



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Figure 3.9 Min Qiji, A Moonlight Scene from Xi Xian Ji, Dream of the Western Chamber, 1640. Colour

print.



the word “perspective” in the title suggests. But the denotation system is completely traditional. The picture shows a night scene and the lamp on the left is alight. A Western artist

would have seized on this as an excuse to show all sorts of lighting effects: cast shadow, tonal

modelling and highlights. Instead, all the objects here, apart from the stars and the black

sky, appear just as they would do in broad daylight; or rather an idealized daylight in which

only the permanent, object-centred features of the scene are shown. In other words, the

drawing system on which the picture is based – linear perspective – is well over to the

viewer-centred end of the spectrum of drawing systems, but the marks in the picture depict

features taken from an object-centred description.

Figure 3.9, a Chinese wood block colour print, also shows a night scene. Like the

painting shown in Figure 3.2, the drawing system used is oblique projection, probably

the most commonly used system in Chinese pictures. What is quite extraordinary is that the

artist has included a very realistic-looking shadow. The artist may have seen shadows in

Western painting, or the idea of including a shadow may have been a personal discovery. In

either case, the structure used in this picture is the reverse of that used in The Foxes’ Wedding

Procession: a drawing system towards the object-centred end of the spectrum is married to a

denotation system towards the viewer-centred end.

In these hybrids the marriage of styles seems to have come about more or less by chance. In

David Hockney’s The Second Marriage (Figure 3.10) the marriage has been arranged. The head

of the woman was painted from a photograph and a number of other parts of the picture – the

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man’s glasses, his face and his clothes and the bottle on the table – are painted in what

Hockney elsewhere called “an illusionistic style.” The strokes and blobs on the curtains and

the sofa also seem to refer to the illusionistic effect of Impressionism and Pointillism, and the

squarish marks on the floor recall both mosaics and the neo-impressionism of an early

Matisse. But in fact all these marks form part of the real decoration of the surfaces:

A curtain, after all, is exactly like a painting; you can take a painting off a stretcher,

hang it up like a curtain, so a painted curtain could be very real. All the philosophical

things about flatness, if you go into it, are about reality, and if you cut out illusion

then painting becomes completely “real.”6

The inclusion of real wallpaper in the painting, an old trick taken over from the Cubists,

carries the idea to its logical conclusion. So the picture contains examples taken from both

extremes of the denotation systems: photography, capturing the transitory effects of light,

and the inclusion of the real object itself.

The drawing systems used in the picture are equally complex. The bride’s head is,

inevitably, in perspective, since it is taken from a photograph. The picture as a whole is in



Figure 3.10 David Hockney, The Second Marriage, 1963. Oil on canvas, 183 × 183 cm.



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oblique projection, by reason of its shape, and so is the table. But the bride’s foot is shown

perfectly flat and stands on the bottom of the picture, making this edge into the floor – just

as children often make their houses and people stand on the bottom edge of the paper

(Figure 3.7).

In artificial hybrids like this – and hybrids are the rule rather than the exception in 20th

century painting – the artist cannot simply be externalizing an internal image which could

conceivably form some intermediate stage in the visual process. Still less is the artist “copying” the array of light received on the retina, after the manner of Gibson’s “faithful” pictures.

Rather, in pictures such as these, the elementary units of the perceptual system – the

primitives, the coordinate systems – have been set free from the constraints of vision and

reassembled as elements in a formal language.



Conclusions

Pictures can be described in terms of two kinds of formal systems: the drawing systems,

which say where the marks in the picture go, and the denotation systems, which say what

the marks in the picture stand for. Both systems can contribute to give either a viewercentred or an object-centred description of the world. Drawing systems like perspective, for

example, show the disposition of edges or other features as they appear in the visual field

(viewer-centred) while some of the other drawing systems describe the direction of edges in

real space, irrespective of any particular viewpoint (object-centred). Among the denotation

systems some, such as impressionism, show the colour and intensity of light rays as they

reach the eye (viewer-centred); others, such as those used by technical draughtsmen, use

lines to stand for objective features such as edges and corners (object-centred).

Few pictures give purely viewer-centred or purely object-centred accounts of the world.

Most pictures fall somewhere in between, and among them are those I have called “hybrids”:

pictures in which, for example, the positions of the marks are determined by a viewercentred drawing system such as perspective, while the marks themselves describe real

objective features. Conversely, there are other hybrids in which the drawing system

describes the location of features according to some objective frame of reference while the

marks describe such transitory effects as highlights and shadows.

What can we deduce from the existence of these hybrids? Firstly that at least some

pictures are not wholly “natural,” either in the crude sense of replicating the visual array as

it impinges on the retina, or in the subtler sense of having been derived more or less directly

from some internal representation which forms part of the visual system. Nor are these

pictures wholly “conventional” since either the drawing system or the denotation system

will be taken fairly directly from the laws of optics. Pictures like this are in part artificial and

in part taken from Nature.

Secondly, their existence suggests that there is no single ultimately truthful kind of

picture: pictures say different things about the world, according to what systems they use. In

the past, artists tried to give as true account as possible within the limitations of whatever

drawing and denotation systems were available at the time. The results thus varied from one

culture to another.

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At first the different systems, like different species of roses, developed in isolation. Then,

through the interactions of war and trade, systems used by one culture would be intermarried with those of another, just as hybrid roses came about when China or Damascus roses

were brought to Europe. Nowadays painters and designers, like rose growers, can hybridize

deliberately to produce whatever characteristics they wish. Choosing the right mix of systems to suit the job in hand is an important part of the draughtsman’s contract.



NOTES

1

2

3

4



Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London: 1965.

Brook Taylor, New Principles of Linear Perspective, London: 1719.

J.J. Gibson, A theory of pictorial representation, Audio-Visual Communications Review, 1954.

D. Marr, Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual

Information, San Fransisco: W.H. Freeman, 1982.

5 J. Rivière, Sur les tendances actuelles de la peinture, Revue d’Europe et d’Amérique, 1912.

6 D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney, London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.



FURTHER READING

Alberti, L. B. ([1435] 1991). On Painting, trans. C. Grayson. London: Penguin.

Curry, A. (2006). “Drawing Conclusions: the importance of drawing in the process of costume

design”. Costume Symposium 2006, at The Arts Institute at Bournemouth, pp. 123–40.

Kingston, A., ed. (2003). What is Drawing? London: Black Dog Publishing.

Willats, J. (1997). Art and Representation: new principles in the analysis of pictures. Princeton University

Press.



SOURCE

H. Barlow, C. Blakemore and M. Weston-Smith, eds (1990). Images and Understanding. Cambridge

University Press, pp. 235–43, 249–54.



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