An Artist’s Tools

One of my hobbies is drawing. I primarily use pencils and charcoal and have experimented with pastels (with mixed results). Eventually I will branch out into water colors and oils. It is a hobby that gives me a great deal of enjoyment particularly when the results seem to confirm that I actually have some talent.

 Mazey_1  Landscape1

I even like to just simply color and am delighted that a former guilty pleasure of mine has gone main-stream with a recent surge in coloring books for older people (not just kids).

All artists use tools of one sort or another to achieve certain effects with their artwork. Pencils, pens, paints, crayons, markers, brushes, palettes, erasers, blenders are likely the ones most familiar to people. Gridded sketchboards, wooden mannequins, erasing shields, sandpaper, rulers and compasses are all part of an artist’s toolkit along with oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, graphite and whatever the artist prefers to use as a medium. Color wheels are used to help achieve proper mixing of colors. Innovative artists experiment with unusual media or tools in an attempt to develop new or intriguing works of art.

Artists of previous centuries endlessly experimented trying out different techniques. During the Renaissance, breakthroughs in perspective and how colors are affected by lighting led to an increased realism in paintings and sculptures. At the end of the nineteenth century, many artists began to break away from realism to produce abstract works of art.

Changes in styles of art are always controversial of course. Howls of outrage have frequently followed any departure from the convention of what to depict and how to depict it. Usually though this involves the art itself. The use of tools is rarely singled out for criticism.

An interesting exception to this came to my attention when reading a recent issue of Astronomy Magazine. Now one wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see anything about art and painting in a science periodical devoted to studies of the planets, stars and distant galaxies. But the writer, Jeff Hester, in his article entitled A False Dichotomy was expressing his puzzlement over an issue that had cropped up a number of years ago in the art world.

In 2001, an English artist, David Hockney, devised a theory in which he postulated that a number of Renaissance painters including the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer had used optical devices in order to achieve the photorealistic light and details in their paintings. However when he presented this theory to scholars at the New York University, the reaction to it was comparable to the reaction produced when someone noisily breaks wind in a crowded elevator. The idea that famous painters might have used lenses and mirrors derived from the scientific breakthroughs of the times rather than rely on pure unassisted talent was vigorously condemned rather than intelligently discussed or debated. Mr. Hester wrote that he was profoundly baffled by the attitude that the use of scientific devices in art somehow debased the paintings and that no artist worth his salt would ever stoop to using them. As he wrote:

“The notion of a gulf between science and art would have puzzled Leonardo da Vinci. He and others moved beyond received wisdom – and invented modern science – precisely by applying an artist’s creativity and careful eye to questions of how the world works.”

Mr. Hester himself has good reason to write in this vein. As an astrophysicist he was part of the team that helped restore the flawed Hubble Space telescope and along with Paul Scowen created the iconic Hubble photograph titled The Pillars Of Creation.


He speculates that many people today are put off by the perception of science as something tedious, dry, implacable and anything but artistic. One would think that the Hubble image would flatly contradict that.

Evidently not. The idea of optics being used in painting is still apparently controversial even today. Mr. Hester’s article describes a recent film called “Tim’s Vermeer” where a computer animator Tim Jenison became fascinated by the idea and tried to see if he could indeed create a painting using an optical device to duplicate the type of lighting and realism found in a Vermeer painting. The film was produced by the stage magicians Penn and Teller, chronicling his efforts to accomplish this.

While the film received widespread critical praise, it also attracted the same crowd that howled in protest when the theory was first suggested. Critics such as Jonathan Jones  mercilessly lambasted the film (though Mr. Jones grudgingly admitted it was possible Vermeer might have used optics). Reading the criticism leads me to think that the real issue is not how Vermeer did his painting but the perception that members of the hoi-polloi (in the forms of an obviously untalented inventor and that execrable pair of entertainers, Penn and Teller) would dare (DARE!) to poke their unwanted noses into the sublime august hallways treaded by art critics and historians and offer a demonstration of how Mr. Vermeer might have produced his painting. Mr. Jones seems to have missed that Tim wasn’t trying to create a work of art; he was just trying to duplicate the technique Vermeer might have used.

The use of tools, scientific or otherwise shouldn’t really be a controversy, for heaven’s sake. If it is, then am I in trouble if I use a mathematician’s compass to draw a circle? (Math and art? Eww-icky-poo!) Should I use a coffee can lid instead? If I use a ruler to draw a straight line, will the art police burst out of the woodwork to snatch it away and start smacking my hand? (Bad artist! Bad! Bad!)

Nobody knows for sure if Vermeer actually did use optics, and we probably never will. But if he did, it doesn’t mean he was a humbug, just that he spared no efforts in producing the best work of art that he possibly could. You certainly don’t need to be an art snob to appreciate the results.

Oh, yes, and remember the old adage: Those who can, do; those can’t, criticize.