I came across these terms in an article on contemporary art. There the observation was made that a lot of artists have great technique but very little substance .
It made me think!
Up until now, the focus for me had been on improving my technique but what is meant by substance? Does my art have substance and how is it measured?
My art does have a theme which is wildlife. It is what I am interested in and… it is what I enjoy drawing. But my assumption is that the writer of the article on contemporary art would regard that in itself as insufficient to give the art substance. So, should I be placing more emphasis on the substance of a drawing?
On reviewing the drawings that I have completed, most are head portraits where the challenge had been to improve my technique particularly in the rendering of the eyes. It is important to me that my subjects have well drawn eyes. In my view, this is what brings life to a subject. But what motivated me in the first place to choose a particular subject to draw?
Take this drawing of a red squirrel, it does radiate “cuteness” , but that was not the attraction. My interest was more to do with the way this particular animal seemed to have suddenly stopped on that branch with a direct look of inquisitiveness. I imagine the squirrel to be asking the question:
Is there an opportunity for food here?
If the squirrel was not inquisitive, it would struggle to find enough food.
On the other hand, this Hare that I have still to finish is not as cute as the squirrel.
Surviving in open fields and on mountain tops constantly exposed to the elements and predators particularly those that may fly in from above, must result in the animal living constantly on its nerves. To me that wide eyed alert look suggests fear and I imagine it to be constantly asking the question:
Are you going to eat me?
Would giving more emphasis to such concepts improve the substance of my art? Who decides what substance is?
Another drawing worth considering is the cheetah.
It is an animal built for speed and to reflect that, there are a lot of what I would describe as loose strokes but in this context, hopefully, it conveys motion and therefore I am relaxed about that.
As for another piece that I am currently working on which is an Orangutan and her baby… this is a piece that I did consider in a bit more detail.
It is on a dark surface. I did that deliberately as the fiery orange and reds of the animal against the black background in my view inject an element of fear into the piece. This is particularly relevant when you consider that the motivation behind the piece was to raise awareness of the indiscriminate destruction of their rain forest habitat. The fear experienced by these animals when the destruction begins can only be imagined!
However, I do accept that these interpretations of my art are mine and I guess they may not necessarily be shared by the viewer. Should that differing view be considered a problem?
Through discussion with my partner, we both agreed that every picture does have a story. But, how that story is interpreted will be up to the viewer. I may draw a squirrel with the intention of interpreting the inquisitive nature of a squirrel so vital for it’s survival but for others, they may be happy to admire it for its cuteness. The fact that I used loose strokes to convey the speed that a cheetah can achieve may be criticized by some but for others the choice of stroke is irrelevant. What matters to them is the entirety of the piece and whether they like it or not. Does that difference in opinion of the technique matter?
For me what matters the most is that I am happy with the piece and that it has meaning to at least someone! Now, I do acknowledge that my art may not be regarded by many as deep and meaningful. But then, I don’t think it matters how academic or how simple that meaning is as long as it is accessible. Differences in the opinion of the interpretation of a drawing and the technique and style of a piece creates the opportunity for discussion. That is what makes art interesting and I would suggest is what gives it substance. As for the measurement of that substance surely that can be measured by how much discussion a particular piece of art generates!
In conclusion : I will keep drawing what I draw, strive to improve my technique and will think a bit more about the story my art is trying to convey. What I will not do is get too hung up about substance!
My latest project involved taking four sketches of big cats that were drawn using charcoal: a tiger. a lion, a leopard, and a cheetah and redoing them in color. Here are the charcoal cats and here are the cats in color.
charcoal sketches of a tiger, lioness, cheetah and leopard
Drawings in color of a tiger, lioness, cheetah and a leopard
Do I have a favorite?
The answer is no as they all have different expressions and characteristics. The tiger looks chilled, the lioness looks as if it is thinking about something important, the cheetah is clearly on a mission and the leopard still looks as though he is startled!
I really enjoyed drawing them!
But what next!
As using shades of orange for the tiger was new to me in contrast to the usual of using browns, blacks, and greys, I think I will now go and explore the color orange.
I completed the lioness and I am very happy with the way she turned out.
Progress then turned to the other three cats. I began with the leopard that had a startled expression. Having continued to layer up the fur and refine the detail I thought the expression would soften. It hasn’t… it still has a startled look. At first, I admit I was a bit unsure. But now I am now OK with it. It is good to capture emotion within a drawing rather than always portraying a perceived perfection. The expression did provoke discussion which is always welcome.
Portrait of a Lioness
Leopard work in progress
A nearly finished Tiger
Two images showing the early stages of drawing a cheetah
After good progress, I then did some more work on the tiger.
Thankfully with the inclusion of the eyes, it is now looking a lot less ghoulish. Usually, I am building up the texture of brown, black or grey fur and therefore combining all the different oranges, yellows, and reds with cinnamon and terracotta to build a plush tiger coat has been quite a challenge.
Being so engrossed in this, I did not do my usual of rotating between drawings. I find rotating between different drawings worthwhile as it lets you figure out where to go and what to do next. Not taking that time to consider a drawing can lead to mistakes. This nearly happened with the tiger as the area around the mouth was in danger of looking like he was recovering from an anesthetic after a trip to the dentist!
As well as that near miss, the result of not rotating between drawings is that no further progress has been made on the cheetah.
I will now give the tiger some space and will continue with the cheetah and the Leopard.