What’s the point of realistic drawing?

He Wears a Blue Bonnet (c) Tim Gomersall 2022

I think one of the worst things an artist can hear is that their work looks just like a photograph. If you think about it, what this is saying is that you are maybe, almost, just about as good at representing “reality” as the little box in your pocket whose primary purpose is… probably to phone people? Or maybe now to scroll through websites? Or to collect data on you? The point I’m making is that few artists can capture reality as well as even a cheap bit of tech you will dispose of in a few years. So what’s the point in being “accurate” or “realistic”? You can appreciate the skill of the artist, but doesn’t looking at a realistic drawing or painting usually leave you cold? It certainly does me. I like to see a bit of the artist’s emotions, worldview, quirks, and thought process in a piece of art, and it’s hard to get this from a realistic work. Most of the thought process you can see in realism and hyper-realism revolves around how this colour was matched, this texture, and so on – it seems primarily like a technical exercise. Sure, Andy Warhol used realism to make an interesting point about consumerism and the nature of art with his Brillo boxes (a concept Hirst has recently copied with his “fact” sculptures and paintings), but what more can it offer us now? A friend of mine once compared realism to the shred metal/ neoclassical style of guitar playing that emerged in the 1980, which seems apt: Technically brilliant, and for the first ten seconds or so, you are thinking, “wow, this is some seriously complex playing!” Ten seconds later, you’re bored to tears and yearning for a good melody or chorus.

So, do we just forget about any sort of representation, throw ourselves into pure abstraction? Not quite – we still need to interpret the world, and sometimes realism can be an important tool. It’s a question of how and why we use it. In the world of robotics, there’s this concept called the “uncanny valley”. This is where robots become too human-like to be mere robots, but not human enough so that we no longer see their robotic essence. The effect of very human-like robots with an underlying nature of processors and algorithms is profoundly unsettling. It was brilliantly captured, for example, in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back. So this idea of being realistic, but not quite realistic enough is something that interests me. It’s an effect like this I was trying to capture in this illustration I’ve made for the Pied Piper story, as part of my artist’s portfolio. This is how I imagined the disappearance of the children at the end of the story, and it brings in a small dose of realism in the drawing of the girls to enhance the unsettling effect of the image. Nobody is going to mistake the drawing here for a photograph, not least because realistic pencil drawing isn’t something I practice often, but hopefully, it is “real” enough for the viewer to believe that the creepy, not-quite-human children are being pulled into a musical abyss.

At the same time, realism is applied in the service of the piece, rather than being the end-in-itself, which I think makes it more interesting. The fiery ink and watercolour washes are in no way realistic, and the old musical notation collage certainly isn’t! I particularly enjoyed the creepy fragments of found text in this, floating randomly across the image like a half-forgotten nightmare (“he wears a blue bonnet, he wears a blue blue bonnet” / “He’ll cut and shuffle slightly”/ “’tis true were he not mine”). A little nod towards realistic/ figurative drawing, against all this chaotic weirdness, is hopefully something that makes for a more compelling, strange image. What do you think? Should we abandon realistic drawing and stick to more instinctive responses to our subjects? Or does it still have a place?

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