Section 24. The Subjective Element

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Section 24. The Subjective Element


Half Hour Ex. 52: Gesture Drawing in Oil (5 drawings) Ex. 53: Half-Hour Study in Oil (one) Ex. 52: Gesture Drawing in Oil (5 drawings) Ex. 53: Half-Hour Study in Oil (one) Ex. 52: Gesture Drawing in Oil (5 drawings)
One Hour Ex. 51: Sustained Study in Oil Color, Nude (one study composed of three drawings) Ex. 33 and 50: Study of the Bones and Muscles (two drawings)
Quarter Hour Rest Rest Rest Rest Rest
Quarter Hour Ex. 46: Straight and Curved Lines (15 drawings) * Ex. 52: Gesture Drawing in Oil (3 drawings) Ex. 55: Modelling The Straight and Curve (one drawing) Ex. 52: Gesture Drawing in Oil (3 drawings) Ex. 56: Straight and Curve m Frames (one drawing)
One Hour Ex. 57: The Subjective Study (one) Ex. 51: Sustained Study in Oil Color, Clothed (one drawing)  Ex. 10 and 51: The Head in Oil (one drawing)

* Sometimes substitute or incorporate Exercise 54.



Ex. 14 or 30: The Daily Composition.

Ex. 34: The Long Composition (fifteen minutes a day for one week).

Ex. 47: Composition from Reproductions (one hour a week).

Remember the Daily Composition (Ex. 14 or 30) every day.


The Relationship of Experiences

Every fresh experience is related, whether consciously or not, to some past experience. To say that in a practical way for the art student:

When you first see a new model, something about that model — whether the pose or the figure or the shape of the nose or the color of the hair — immediately reminds you of something else that you have seen. This happens whether you will it or not. Naturally this memory of the other person or thing has a tendency to influence, to color, what you see now. This is as it should be and only the student with a rigid academic training would completely overcome this tendency. An overemphasis of the immediate experience (that is, of the objective) would tend to isolate it from everything else we know. There must always be something of the subjective. It is these relationships of our experiences — our ability to relate them — that make each of us a complete entity. This exercise attempts to utilize these relationships in connection with the study of art.


When you look at the model or at what the model is doing, attempt to visualize the thing or person that the model or the pose reminds you of. You may find this difficult in the beginning. You are apt to have a great many different thoughts that do not seem at all related either to the model or to one another, but no matter how far-fetched your thought is, or the object that you visualize, it is bound to have been at least partially influenced by the present experience, that of looking at the model. It is quite possible, because the effort is necessarily a little self-conscious in the beginning, that you won’t be able to formulate any thoughts relating to the model, that your mind will seem a blank. If so, then deliberately think of something. It may be a fish or a horse or a flower. While it is apparently a forced idea, it too is necessarily influenced by the model. So put down whatever you think of, no matter how you manage to think of it, using any medium you choose. It acts as a starting point. Looking back and forth from this starting point to the model, go on adding other things, some of them suggested by the starting point and some by the model. It may seem that you get no suggestions from the model. Nevertheless, if you continue to look at the model and back again at the drawing, you may rest assured that a certain amount of the impulse will come from each. And a certain amount of it will come from whatever experiences you have had, what has happened to you during the day, what is going on around you, the conditions of your drawing material, the very sounds in the room or coming in from outside, whether you are conscious of hearing them or not.

In the beginning we said that correct observation utilizes as many of the senses as can reach through the eye at one time. In the beginning we emphasized most the sense of touch. This exercise can bring into play hearing, taste, and smell to an equal degree. This study is much like the word-association test used in psychology, in which you call a word and have the hearer give his immediate reaction with another word. A new model walks into the studio and takes a pose. The first form or shape that flashes into your mind (which can be put into a word) is a fish. You put down a drawing of a fish. If this were a word-association test, it would work somewhat in this manner. The fish makes you think of a fishline and the fishline makes you think of a boat. The boat is one with funnels out of which smoke is coming. The smoke makes you think of fire and the fire makes you think of destruction and falling objects. But weaving the model into this train of thought tends to change it. For example, it happens that the model makes you think of a fish. You draw a fish and then glance back at the model. The model has a petulant mouth which makes you think of a circle, but when you glance back to the paper on which the fish was drawn, the circle evolves into a net. As you glance back at the model, you carry the impulse of the net, which causes you to look, let us say, at the model’s hair. The hair, yellow and smooth and silky, makes you think of wheat. But as you carry this impulse back to the drawing of the fish with the net, it becomes merged with the idea on your paper and the wheat becomes seaweed. Of course, it might become something else. This is merely an example. No mind can tell how another mind will work. I cannot look into another mind, nor can a person look into his own mind for something that has not yet happened.

The things that come into your mind need not necessarily be real or familiar shapes. For example, the shrill noise of a fire siren may intrude from outside and cause you to run a thin, piercing line all the way through your drawing. What you draw need not be anything so recognizable as a fish. It need not necessarily be anything that could be expressed by a word. We attach too much significance to the word, which is apt to be misleading. Subconscious thoughts are so fast that we cannot grasp them. You probably missed about six before you got to the fish. If you really put down your subconscious thoughts, you would hardly have been aware of the impulse which you put down. Sometimes when students show me their drawings, they say half-apologetically, ‘I don’t know why I drew that. I just drew it.’ When that happens they are doing the exercise in the best possible way. Be guided by your own feeling in relation to the subject. Naturally, you don’t have to start with a person to practice this exercise. Look around at the place where you happen to be sitting and put down the first thing that comes into your mind. Suppose you find yourself in a grove of thick pine trees and the branches overhead remind you of an umbrella. Draw the umbrella, then look again at the place. The drawing, as it develops, need not contain any self-conscious composition, but if the shapes and movements fit together, or compose, that too is all right.

The Quality of Gesture

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fish At Play by Chao-K’eh-hsiung (Chinese, Sung Dynasty)
The artist’s constant effort is to abstract from the fish that quality which is most fish-like


From these first crude beginnings you begin to become aware that the quality of the model which suggested a fish was fish-like, not because the model looked like a fish especially, but because he or she suggested the capability of a fish. A fish looks like a fish because of its capability for a certain kind of gesture or a certain kind of life. The artist’s constant effort is to abstract from the fish that quality which is most fish-like — its gesture. Therefore, you will find yourself putting down, not a fish, but a drawing which is the gesture of a fish and which might coincide with the gesture of other things. Similarly, when you draw the grove of pine trees, you may find yourself drawing neither the trees nor the umbrella but that gesture which made you think of the one when you saw the other.

The Purpose

Courtesy of B. & A. Silberman Galleries, New York
Dream of the Butterflies by Redon
Drawing or painting may express ideas formed by means of visual
experience without being necessarily a literal recording of that experience


We are not trying to develop surrealism or any particular type of painting in this exercise. It helps you to see with more discrimination and should add something to any sort of drawing of the model. We are trying to loose certain powers that you have. You do not even need to understand them. Our particular object is to bring you back to seeing the model and representing the model in a manner more personally truthful than in any other exercise yet described. As you go on, you will develop the ability to relate the meaningful parts of your experience and gain a better command over those forces, those ingredients, which are peculiarly your own. There is some part of each human being, no matter how many millions of human beings there are and have been and will be, that is totally different from every other. That is natural, for no two people have the same heritage combined with the same experiences in the same order. All the tendencies of training to make people conform to their social environment are unable to defeat this little grain of personality that is theirs.

There is a tendency in art schools — there usually has been a tendency in anything called a school — to make a great virtue of conformity. Nothing could be more false in art. The subconscious mind has a logic of its own that often transcends the logic of the conscious mind. This exercise, practiced purely as exercise, will enable the subconscious mind to work for you when you need it. It is my belief that the truly great artists of all times — and this is one reason for their greatness — have allowed the subconscious to work for them much of the time. This does not mean that conscious energy, the activity of the conscious mind, is not also very necessary. But relax the conscious mind and let the subconscious work by the direct stimulation of an event. From long practice we attain what we all strive for — that equilibrium, the proper balance, between the subjective and the objective impulse, between the conscious use of the model and the subconscious reaction. You are trying to weld those two impulses together. The proportion of each required to produce the most fruitful act for the individual may be different for different people and at different times in the life of one individual. It may take more of the subjective to weigh the same with one as with another, but the balance must be attained. If I force myself completely on the model, that is wrong. Or if the model forces itself completely on me, that is wrong. There is a place in the middle where we meet and continually interact.

Concept and Appearance

Drawing or painting may be thought of as a way of expressing certain of our ideas about objects, which have been formed by means of visual experience, without being necessarily a literal recording of that experience. Our concept of an object is far from being identical with the projection of that object upon the retina of the eye. Indeed we may express our concept in the terms of drawing and painting without in any way imitating the visual image. Forms do not have to be taken from the visible world — it is equally logical to borrow from the invisible world. On the other hand, it is not necessary self-consciously to ignore or exclude the forms of the visible world. Even a subjective study may bear a physical resemblance to the model. Just as there is variety in all of nature, there is variety in people. One may paint abstractly and another not, but they make use of the same impulses and when they use them correctly a work of art can result.

Subject matter is not as important as you may think. The subject is only a mears of exchange. It has no absolute value — its value is relative. Time and circumstances affect it as they do all other things. It must not matter to the artist what subject matter temporarily proves convenient. The subject which is proper for you is that which gives you sufficient impulse to go on to a real creative effort. At the time when you are most interested in the act of painting, the subject will become entirely fused with the painting. Art is supposed to transcend the episode and give a pleasure for itself. The episode is a starting place for the artist, and a very necessary one, but it is also a leaving-off place for the artist when he is producing art and it is a leaving-off place for the person who looks at the picture with real art appreciation. The sketchiest and most trivial subjects are as susceptible as any others of the most profound artistic reconstruction. All that is required is an artist capable of penetrating them.

Draw for fifteen hours as directed in Schedule 24.