This blog...

...was initially for pieces done on a computer, but has since become a free-for-all. Here you'll find process work (digital and otherwise), sketch pages and studies, sometimes with commentary.

You can see the rest of my work here.

Remember kids : if you can't make pretty designs, at least make pretty lines!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Art Ethics ~ an essay

"This above all: to thine own self be true." ~Hamlet Act 1, scene 3

Not all of us are artists, but most of us (the non-psychopaths at least) have ethics, values that steer our actions and help us live the kind of lives we want.

Without ethics there are no guidelines -- no "moral compass" -- meaning every option, beneficial or harmful, can be explored.  

KILL, RAPE, STEAL : We know these acts produce harmful outcomes, so we avoid them.

ENCOURAGE, PRAISE, PROTECT : We know these acts produce beneficial outcomes, so we strive to embrace them.  

And so, in the same way aligning our behavior with our ethics benefits our lives as a whole, aligning our ARTISTIC APPROACH with our ethics can benefit our art as a whole.  Deviation from our ethics creates an undesirable contradiction.

Make a list of the things you most value in life.  Compile them over a week or two, as they occur to you.  They can be as broad as "beauty" or as specific as a trait you admire in a friend, such as "generosity."  My list, for instance, reads like this :

wit - decisiveness - articulation - playfulness - humor - thoughtfulness - grace - honesty - fullness - authenticity - simplicity - spontaneity - compatibility - courage - liveliness - lyricism - sweetness - intimacy - tact - drama

Now, think of ways you can apply each of those values artistically.  What makes a drawing "witty?"  How can a painting be "lyrical?"  What is a "courageous" sculpture?

If a piece of artwork sits well with us, odds are it's in alignment with one or several of our values.  If a piece of artwork sits poorly, odds are it's in some way contradictory.

Our artistic issues, more often than we realize, go so much deeper than surface mistakes like proportion and anatomy; they upset our very core.  Once we identify what that core wants and act from it, we will begin to produce artwork that satisfies us.

One morning, in a lifedrawing session, I was struck by a desire to draw the model from the top of a staircase.  I thought getting a different, aerial perspective would be beneficial to my study.  I moved my seat from its position (mere feet from the model stand), to the lofty platform, and went to work.  Right away, something felt wrong.  I was suddenly removed from the group and the model -- a voyeur.  The model I'd drawn from the stand felt very close and personal -- staring right down the barrel of the leg.  The foreshortening created lots of dramatic overlaps.  The facial expression read clearly.  The model I drew from the staircase was, by contrast, flat and anonymous.  What bothered me most wasn't my drawing -- my proportions and anatomy were accurate enough -- what bothered me was that, in the pursuit of novelty, I'd lost the intimacy I so value.  Without knowing it, I'd gone against my core.  

Values can be thought of as interchangeable pieces rather than a set framework, so your list will never be complete.  If you admire another person's values, you can incorporate them -- try them on as one would try on clothes, to see how they look and feel.  Keep the ones that fit; discard the rest.  You can't begin to act on a value until you know its yours.

The word "ethics" comes from the Greek "ethos," or "character."  What artist doesn't wish their art to posess character, or, more precisely, THEIR character? γνῶθι σεαυτόν  -- "Know thyself."  The closer we come to knowing ourselves -- and the ethics that drive us -- the closer our art will come to revealing our true character.

SUPPLEMENTAL : My friend and coworker Glenn Israel (who, in part, inspired this essay) was able to supply me with a handy flowchart for determining whether the values we hold are, in fact, ours, and what to do when we discover they are or aren't.  Thank you for this highly useful gift, Glenn!


David Bernal said...

Man, I love this!

Unknown said...

Bravo. Identity, not style or gimmick. I love it.

Paul Richards said...

Hahaha, John, you nailed in five words what just took me how many paragraphs to say? I value directness, so well done!

Unknown said...

This is really good, it's great and valuable to me to look at things from another perspective sometimes, and this might actually help me a lot (i tend to get really frustrated with my drawings). Nice read, thanks!

Unknown said...

Really nice read! I love how some things sound so obvious but it takes someone to tell you to be able to see it. Thanks!

Paulo Ruvalcaba said...

Thanks for sharing that! Good read!