It seems hard to be writing about hope without sliding into platitudes. On every front, politically, economically, socially, environmentally, culturally we seem to be set on destructive pathways, and any positivity has to overcome a barrage of the negative. But the bloody-minded part of me is fighting not to be overwhelmed by all this bleakness and I’m supported in this by, amongst others, the little groups of sketchers who have been regularly gathering via Zoom. Unable to fulfil the urban sketching aim of ‘drawing the world one drawing at a time’ in its original sense, we’ve been finding all sorts of ways to explore and draw the world we are in, or would like to be in. Of course, it is all conducted online, with photos and Google maps and street views. It’s important though to remember that Google has it’s own particular perspective on the world, and to not take it too seriously.
I’m always interested in perspective. The Gloucestershire Urban Sketchers have been doing a series of ‘Perspective Challenges’, choosing a photo each week to stretch our ability to capture unusual angles and views. We started with classical perspective, straight lines, vanishing points and all – looking upwards at skyscrapers, down narrow descending pathways, up at looming bridges. Even translating a two dimensional photo into a sketch can be challenging with these sorts of subjects.
But in the end it seems to me a rigid and unsatisfying way to look at the world, and it has driven me back to re-reading David Hockney talking about perspective. So many years of exposure to photography have almost convinced us that we really do see the world in the same ways as a camera. In fact our eyes work differently from a camera lens, giving us a much more fluid, partial, fragmented view as they scan the surroundings, and many artists have tried to capture that.
“Most people feel that the world looks like the photograph. I believe it almost does, but not quite. And that little bit makes all the difference” *
Having two eyes means we can see more than one view at a time. I was talking with another group facilitator about working online, who mentioned that in a real time group, it seemed possible to focus both on the group as a whole and on particular members at the same time. Online it seemed more difficult – switching from gallery to speaker view meant losing clear visual contact with the whole group.
Despite our own experience, however, the acceptable way to see the world and reproduce it in our popular culture is to use classical perspective. Drawings are commonly judged by their representational accuracy, which is translated as adherence to this particular way of seeing the world. Difference is often criticized as ignorance, naivety, or lack of skill. Who knew Picasso could ‘really’ draw??
Any rigid adherence to one perspective seems particularly problematic right now. It’s one of the depressing features of life now, where nationalism and sectionalism have become more pervasive and more violent. Even in the small world of urban sketching we need to stay open to multiple ways of seeing and representing what we think we see. Retreating into nationalism cuts us off from other traditions that look at the world differently. Japanese and Chinese painting have a very different take on perspective, for example; so too does Native American, Aboriginal and Maori art. So do many painters, sculptors, printers, both past and present, who can help prise us out of our preferred mind-set if we let them.
- A History of Pictures David Hockney and Martin Gayford 2016 p.73