Note: This is originally published in the second edition of the artist’s drawing book “Drawing by Mau-Kun Yim” in 2000.
Since the publication of the first edition of my drawing collection in 1993, I have received many inquiries about a new edition. After many years of delay due to various reasons, I am happy to offer this new selection of drawings. I would also like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts with those of you who love Realistic painting and care about the training of drawing.
Blast from the past
Recently I was re-reading “Letters to Beginning Painters,” a book on Realistic painting written by G.M. Khrapkovskiy, the famous art educator from the former Soviet Union. The author mentioned an anecdote in the preface of the book. At the outset of the October Revolution, left-wing government officials decried all classic forms of art as “art for the landlords and the bourgeoisie.” They went to such an extreme as to smear works created by the painters of The Society of the Traveling Exhibitions, noted for their depiction of Russian peasants and village life. The left-wing officials abolished traditional fine art academies and replaced them with craft schools. Fine art teachers and professors were dismissed.
Artists who were studying at the craft school were unhappy with the quality of education. They wanted to learn fine art. So they decided to start a private painting school by renting a small studio on the eighth floor of an apartment building in Moscow. The instructor was Kartovsky, a talented student and protégé of Chestshakoff, the master of drawing. Kartovsky preserved and passed down Chestshakoff’s training on drawing. He taught this group of twenty students and built the foundation of their art training. All the young painters who studied with Kartovsky later emerged as accomplished painters and the pillars of many fine art academies.
Beauty is often defined differently in every new era. This story shows, regardless of what the new “wave” is in each era, there will always be a small group of artists who hang on to the art of realism. Over the past decades, art schools all over the world have ignored realistic art, casting it as conventional and unoriginal. Modern Art has monopolized art education systems around the globe. This phenomenon is worthy of our attention. Why did this happen? There are two reasons. First, the fast pace of the changing society and the rapid development in industrialization and commercialization greatly influenced the standards of valuing and judging fine art. Second, the rise of modern art brought forth relentless attacks on traditional art forms. The impact of modern art shook up traditional aesthetics and caused a big stir on art education
The four main art forms of the 20th century
Let me clarify what I mean by an art form. In the one hundred years between the Post-Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century artists, art diverged into four main forms: Realism, Expressionism, Abstract Art, and Conceptual Art. The four art forms differ not only in techniques but in aesthetic standards. Therefore, it is inappropriate to label one or the other as conservative or progressive.
The strong contrast between Realistic and Abstract Art makes it easy to distinguish the two. On the other hand, it can be difficult to differentiate Conceptual Art from Abstract art. In Conceptual Art, the idea behind an artwork weighs more than its physical representation. Regardless if the piece of artwork is a meticulous installation, a simple display of an object, or even an action performed by real people, it is the concept behind the artwork that counts. Rather than applying ideas, concepts and thoughts, Abstract Art evoke emotions, which are, by nature, abstract and thus appropriate for the art form. The distinction between Realism and Expressionism is the most challenging. Expressionism exaggerates and distorts. On the contrary, Realism avoids exaggeration and distortion. Realistic Art can be uncouth and crude; it can also be fine and delicate. But it is never exaggerated or distorted.
Various art forms have emerged in the last four to five hundred years of western art history. Each of these art forms has its unique and irreplaceable aesthetics. The fact that each art movement has its unique function and representative artists demonstrates that the history of art is a record of diverse aesthetics. Each art form radiates light from their own perspectives. Artist can explore all the different art forms and choose to work with the ones that best suit them. No one needs to be limited in a certain art form or within certain aesthetic standards.
Aesthetic intuition and the Realistic painting crisis
Realism is not only a school of art, but an art form that has existed from the beginning of times. A term I like to use is a “stream” of art form, as in the ebb and flow of a river stream. The stream of Realistic art has never disappeared from the long river of art. Realistic art runs through the entire art history basically because it is directly connected with the aesthetic intuition of all human beings. For example, the beauty of a rose and that of Cleopatra is so evident that it needs no more justification than human being’s intuitive definition of beauty. This kind of aesthetic experience is innate. Realistic art reflects the innate and intuitive aesthetic experience. Rather than fading away, Realism evolves through time and progresses in content and techniques. In my opinion, the main problem with Realistic art lies not in whether it needs to be transformed into other streams of art but in whether it matches the contemporary style.
There is no doubt that Realistic art and especially Realistic painting is in danger. The rapid pace of the society has compressed the time needed for building the foundation of all disciplines. Painters rely heavily on photographs with the increasing availability of cameras. As a result, artists are gradually losing the ability to paint, but they degenerate to copying photographs. The camera constricts the painters’ imagination and creative energy. Paintings created from photographs often appear too scattered or detailed, as such is the main problem of the Naturalist movement.
It is not unreasonable to assert that the rise of cameras not only gave birth to Modernism (artists stopped pursuing representational art because they can not compete with the photograph’s verisimilitude), but it also repressed the development of Realism. The repression offers one of the reasons that very few contemporary painters reach the stature of the nineteenth century master Realists. However, there is an even more important explanation for the undignified state of Realism painting. That is, there is a huge chasm in art education.
Art education needs to diverge
This is not the first time that art education is at the center of a debate. The core of the issue can be defined as: Is it necessary for art teachers to continue teaching the basic proficiencies for depicting shapes and forms? Some people think that such an emphasis on pictorial representation can be eliminated. They argue that traditional art education kills the young artist’s creativity and hampers artists from fully expressing themselves. They advocate heuristic education and promote the idea that the academy should operate as an environment rich in resources and information, and should not seek to teach, train or establish any standard of aesthetic value. In their view, art education functions as the means to inspire creative and artistic individuals to express themselves. This line of thinking is reasonable for students who are interested in Abstractionism and Conceptualism. It is also the current mainstay of fine art academies in Europe and the United States. However, this argument leaves no room and no choice for students who are innately drawn to representational art. This dilemma shows that art education needs to diverge. I see only one reasonable solution to this dilemma: art schools and departments need to hire good teachers of different art streams from whom the students can choose to work with; or, each art school or department needs to determine what their specialty is in terms of the different art styles and focus on the education of their specialty. The students can in turn decide which schools they want to attend. Even so, Realism art education faces another critical problem—there are very few living Realistic-painting masters to hand down the heritage. The future of Realistic painting education is quite pitiable.
The nineteenth century Russian Realistic painters created the climax of Realistic art—one that is methodical and fascinating. Thanks to the education provided by the St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Fine Arts, painters like Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Valentin Serov became world-renown masters. Together they not only created artistic gems in genre painting and history painting, but also magnificent portraits, which were to become the common treasure of mankind. The State Academic Institute was renamed the Repin Academy of Fine Art when the Soviet government rose to power. During this period, the academy put special focus on the training of colors. Also, the painting masters gave very much emphasis to depicting peasant lives. In any case, the highlight of art education focused on the fundamentals of pictorial representation such as drawing. Drawing became a Russian heritage ever since Chestshakoff came on the scene.
A major debate regarding basic drawing training concerns whether students should draw real objects from life. This raises the question of whether they need to work industriously on drawing the human body and classical bust statues. In fact, such studies are the core strength of academic art training because they have been created through careful design and tested over time. If such studies are removed, the spirit of academic training would be diluted. Such studies train the students to learn the structure, anatomy, space, texture, movement and facial expressions of the human figure. Without such training, it is impossible to paint portraits that accurately represent an individual’s appearance and spirit. Neither would it be possible to paint narrative paintings composed of realistic human figures.
Drawing is the basis of representational painting
While drawing is not the basis of all art forms, it is no doubt the foundation for Realistic painting. The ability to draw is not necessary for artists specializing in Modernism, especially for Conceptual artists.
To produce a good drawing, the artist needs to observe an object first-hand. After careful analysis and understanding, the artist depicts the structure, solidity, space and texture of the object in two-dimensional form. Drawing serves not only as a basic training tool for the artist to sharpen their ability of depicting shapes and forms, it is in and of itself a unique art form rich in artistic value. Drawing is the most simple but refined means of representation for humans to perceive beauty.
There are no colors in drawing. This monochrome artistic language serves to translate the colorful world perceived by the eye through tonal drawing. In order to depict the multi-colored world with one color, a successful drawing calls for generalization, extraction and characterization. The essence of its beauty is manifested in the different tones, lines and strokes. It is a difficult art form because there are very specific rules in the pursuit of this fine art.
Beginning artists often practice drawing by copying artworks handed down from the masters. However, it is very important for artists to draw from life. The artist needs to train the eye, the brain and the hand to work together to depict accurately while not failing to create aesthetic value. This is why drawing from life is a good way to correct the problems resulting from copying photographs. Many artists stop working on drawing as soon as they graduate from art schools. These artists turn their attention to creating narrative paintings or other works for sale. Very few artists work on continual self-education and improvement on drawing. Sometimes, they dedicate more effort in transferring the styles and techniques of other art forms to their own works rather than seeking to advance in basic drawing skills. This is why Realistic painting has been reduced to the current status of flat and superficial art. In my opinion, this is mainly due to the deficiency in the research and understanding of drawing.
Artists who possess good drawing skills often work well with multiple art forms. By contrast, artists with no foundation in pictorial representation would need to rebuild their training when they return to Realistic painting. The techniques of depicting forms and shapes are valuable knowledge that contemporary painters inherited from art masters over the course of several hundred years. It is not a free gift. There is no prodigy in drawing. The skills are not hereditary. Every artist needs to start from the scratch and work hard to perfect their drawing.
Is the revival of Realism a mere dream?
Art students are not unfamiliar with the saying, “drawing is the basis of painting.” However, the meaning of this cliché is not easy to grasp. I have come to make sense of it only after more than twenty years of arduous painting and teaching. Moreover, during the past decade I have committed myself to painting large-scale narrative paintings. I have had to create numerous human figures for these projects, which led me to conclude that the only key to painting lively characters is through a solid and on-going training on drawing. It is a long and winding journey, but at the end of the day, it is worth the effort.
I have chosen a large number of new works for this edition. Notably, I have compiled drawings of various methods and styles. I also included some notes to explain the background material and some reflections as I drew. Hopefully, this will facilitate the reader’s understanding of my works as well as motivating them to pick up the charcoal and draw. I have chosen not to write too much on the techniques of drawing. As a form of visual art, the drawings should explain themselves. I invite the reader to pick the drawings they like and spend time studying them. I believe this is the best way to learn, allowing your eyes, your heart and your mind to work together and define for yourself the beauty of a drawing.
Recently, some art critics in Europe began advocating the concept of “returning to the Renaissance; returning to the nineteenth century.” Nevertheless, today’s artists still face a hostile environment for Realistic art. The revival of Realism might be a mere dream. However, human civilization has witnessed the realization of many dreams. When this dream comes true, spectacular works of Realistic art will be created and excellent painters will appear who will outshine the author of this book. I am looking forward to that day.
May 31, 2000 in Taipei