Throughout history, and indeed long before recorded history, humans created images from their stored memories and from their imagination. We may suppose that this began with a practical, survival purpose in mind, with an experienced hunter educating younger members of his tribe, showing them what the animals they would encounter looked like, and perhaps what to expect of them, how to stalk them, and so on. Drawing was a means of communication before written languages had been developed, and in fact written language evolved from drawing. Drawing was thus instrumental in the advancement of human intelligence, and I assert that it still is. Its educational benefits are not limited to art endeavors. Drawing develops mental faculties that play into all learning, broadening and facilitating the growth of the mind, increasing the individual’s intelligence, and the earlier in life it is introduced, the greater are the benefits to be derived from it. The mind can be trained to observe and retain what was observed, by drawing. This improves the memory, perceptive powers and analytical facilities. By drawing later what was observed earlier, we develop the memory even more.
The relevance of this in today’s world, when we no longer need to hunt wild animals for food, lies in the role it plays in the artist’s strivings to create compelling images or sculptures that express whatever is felt strongly enough by the creative individual to warrant addressing in his/her art. This is nothing new. Artists created from their imagination throughout the centuries, giving life to their fantasies, dreams, aspirations, mythological stories, etc. The success of these endeavors depends on the degree of mastery of the creative individual in the depiction of imagery that mimics the appearance of a three-dimensional scene convincingly enough to engage the viewer’s attention, and hopefully to intrigue the intended audience. The ability to do this is developed by the same processes today as in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, on through the 19th century and even the 20th century in certain circles. Drawing from direct observation was an early step in art students’ training, which began in childhood in former times. By their late teens the students were able to draw from stored knowledge and imagination, having completed an extensive training that included anatomy, perspective, and drawing from memory. These students went on to become Masters.
And now in the 21st century, the ability to create art from our heads is what we will need in order to create compelling images that transcend the limitations imposed by incomplete training that does not involve thorough coverage of anatomy, perspective, and memory drawing/painting. True artistic freedom begins with mastery of these fundamentals, along with everything else the great Masters of the past had been taught. The effectiveness of visual art depends heavily on these abilities on the part of artists, every bit as much now as it did in the preceding several centuries, and it will continue to do so into the future as well.
Virgil Elliott is the author of Traditional Oil Painting – Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, published by Random House, and has contributed to or been mentioned in a number of other books, and written many articles in various art magazines over the decades. He has been designated a Living Master by the Art Renewal Center, among the distinctions bestowed on him by art associations. Elliott has taught art off and on from 1982, privately and in a number of institutions, including the College of Marin (Indian Valley Campus, Ignacio, California), but his primary focus has always been the creation of artwork, with teaching and writing secondary and ancillary to that interest and pursuit.
A new edition of his book is due for release in February of 2019.
An active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists’ Paints and materials for the last 22 years, Virgil Elliott is widely regarded as an expert on oil painting materials and methods, whose advice is and has been sought by artists and students in all parts of the world for many years.
In addition to painting and writing, Virgil is an accomplished musician on guitar and Renaissance lute.