Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Article: Giacometti Drawing Technique

Alberto Giacometti.

One of my transplant professors once remarked that he thought that the art department should build an alter to Giacometti for us to bow down to every morning. I guess he had a point, as every teacher who had been there taught the Giacometti method (Usually just referred to as Giacometti) as if it were some form of scripture. My favorite teacher, at the beginning of every semester, would hand out the Giacometti Waiver to all of his students which suggested if they didn't use the method it was their own decision and if their artwork didn't turn out as planned, well, too bad. It was a technique that undoubtedly worked, but was such a pain in the butt to learn.

Albert Giacometti seemed to me an odd choice. The method didn't typically render anything remotely in his style (from what I could see) and I really had no idea what he had to do with the whole thing. The story I heard (but could never really verify) stated he was hit by a taxi and became obsessed with where things appeared in space. The searching lines so obvious in his work are the only things that connect the man and the method. At least for me. If you can clear this up, please leave a comment.

I'm moving on to the technique.

When an artist looks it does not matter what is being looked at. A still life, a landscape, a person, anything, the object doesn't matter. The only thing that matters for a perfect rendering is where everything is. As my teacher puts it, "The most important thing in drawing is the most important thing in real estate: Location, Location, Location!" A shape isn't important. Do not try to reproduce a shape, but the location of the shape. Do not ask "What shape is that?" but ask "Where?" Where exactly it seems to fade, or become darker, or something else entirely? This may seem overwhelming at first, where exactly do we start on a blank sheet of paper? How do we measure?

The Grid

The grid is not a new concept for artists. Durer has an infamous set up that comes readily to mind. I am sure everyone finds the concept familiar: Evenly spaced vertical and horizontal lines are placed on the drawing and painting surface, scaled down and put on the image that is being reproduced, and the relationship between the objects and the lines is dutifully reproduced in a scantron like way. Yay.

What is wrong with this? A few things come to mind. The first problem is without a complicated 3D grid set up in front of a model, you are stuck reproducing flat, already drawn images, or photographs. Which I think is pretty good for practice, but doesn't work so well if you want to draw from life, do plein air landscapes, or work from a master copy you cannot grid off (without getting kicked out of the museums at any rate).

It is also arbitrary. We can choose one inch grids, two inch, five centimeters, whatever, and the only thing that really matters is the proportion of the two grids. There is no real relation between the grid and the objects being created. The grid certainly makes the process easier, and it does have its place in learning, but it's good to know the limitations of tools.

And with this type of grid, an artist will more than likely put down a contour line and rarely move it. The searching lines that put an object in space are lost.

The Giacometti Grid

The defining characteristic of the Giacometti grid is that the vertical and horizontal lines used are a response to the objects themselves. The lines are not some arbitrary tool, but an integral part of the drawing process that allows the artist to really engage in a conversation with what is seen.

A lot of artists, while drawing, will use a vertical line to see where a shoulder lines up with the foot of a figure, or how high an apple is compared to the honey jar in a still life. It's a pretty common practice to use a plumb line (or a paintbrush as one). And the Giacometti grid is no different, except in application. In a pure Giacometti drawing, no diagonals or contour lines are expressed. Just the searching, vertical and horizontal lines of relationships between points.

Giacometti Figures in a Room
18 x 24
Graphite on Newsprint

This is one of my first (fairly) good Giacometti drawings I did almost four years ago. I was still relying too much on contour, but I am getting the searching line down.

Their are two ways to use this method, the first you can decide to do a gesture to get things in kind of the right position, and then begin moving things to the exact location. For that image I did not start with a quick gesture (do not read as outline, I'll do another article on gesture drawing soon).

Let's say we are drawing a still life with bottles and apples.

To start, you pick a place to put a vertical line, such as the edge of a bottle, or the center, and make sure you lightly add this line all the way from the top to the bottom of the paper, not just where you think the object should begin and end. If you want to, mark the points where you think this will be the case. Then move on to another vertical, where the space between the two lines will be the space between two objects. The key to this step is working very lightly. These lines are not etched in stone and will have to be moved.

I usually do a few vertical, and move on to horizontal lines, eye level or the horizon is a good horizontal to start with. Then I work with the heights of the objects, and seeing where those grid lines intersect with the other objects.

After that work back and forth. The relationship between all the lines is what is important, so measure distances, and see exactly where all the lines cross, meet. Do not feel you have to stay with a line, if a line you've already done seems to be in the wrong place. Remember, place is the most important! Just make a darker, more correct line. Through the course of the drawing, you'll get darker and darker, and everything should be more and more correct.

Proportions are easy to measure, and if you get something wrong, you don't have to erase, just a new line, a new point, and on to correct everything else.

I like to keep little notes, small dots that suggest the nature of what they represent. A dark smudge for a shadow, longer dot for a line, small bent line for a corner. These are not outlines, but small notes that are easy to move around. That way we are not married to our outlines. Because there are none!

While the obvious drawback is this technique in its pure form will not result in a finished piece, using this form for practice will help anyone see location so they can become a better draftsman. The other drawback is that this technique is hard to learn. I have seen some of the best artists just reduced to tears while learning this. (And blind contour drawing as well, but more people seem familiar with this.) But it is invaluable if you ever do learn this. Everyone can use it in the composition stages of their work, and everyone who learns and masters this technique is always a better artist than when they started.

Tune is next time when I explain this with how to pictures.
I've just been informed artists are visual learners and I'm an anomaly. Fun.



zeca said...

From my point of view, Giacometti doesn't really make much use of a grid like that which you refer. Such method is found more deeply used in authors like TapiƩs, for examples. Giacometti reacts to the positioning of elements in space by tracing lines that don't just measure in 2d, but in the actual perspective and spacial definition of things. Like the lines touch objects and have a direction (or multiple in space), so it's a more diagramatic, schematic and caligrafic aproach to the use of line. Rather then just pure and simple measurement of the scale relationships formed. He's more interesested in the interplay of volumes and shapes in space then he is on the relative disposition of things in the retinal image (flat image).

Vi said...

Thank you for clarifying some things about Giacometti.

As I said I don't know much about him, and all I know is this method which we were taught as, "The Giacometti Method." When I first wrote this there was nothing online about this method of drawing that I could easily find, and I thought it would be useful to write up what I was taught to try and help other artists since this method is integral to my work.

Overall I hope it helps out other artists and doesn't make art historians wince too much.