Years ago when I was attending school, I had an English professor who taught me an important lesson about art and life. At the beginning of the term a student asked him about the importance of spelling and grammar. His reply was that while he felt those things were important, he didn't really care if there were a few mechanical mistakes in the work we turned in for our assignments in the class. He was more interested in whether we had anything to say. In other words, he wanted us to do what I call meaningful writing: He wanted our work to mean something. His feeling was that he would rather see a meaningful paper with a few mechanical errors than a well-crafted paper of meaningless prose.
That day the professor opened up a new dimension in my thoughts about writing. In many of my previous English classes, I was so stressed over getting the spelling right or trying to decipher the mysteries of English grammar that I never felt truly free to express myself. It made me think about my art and how I would often get caught up in the mechanics and forget having a purpose for my pictures. The result was that while I did okay with proportions and shading, my work lacked inspiration.
Every drawing can and should have a purpose. The purpose might be as simple as seeing an interesting pose and drawing it. Or the purpose might be that the artist has a specific agenda, message, or feeling that is expressed in the art.
In commercial art the purposes are almost always well-defined. The purpose is part of the assignment the artist is given. Sell this car. Convey this thought. Draw this building. Express this feeling. Draw attention to this product. All of these things are challenges for the commercial artist, and many of them are accomplished by the use of figure drawing. The architect uses people in his pictures to represent scale. The illustrator might use people in her pictures to depict a story or sell an idea. The designer might show a person using his product. The animator might have people as the characters in her show.
In fine art the need for a purpose is still there, but the artist generally determines what that purpose is rather than receiving it as an assignment. The purpose might be to capture a feeling, such as serenity or excitement. It might be to depict the lighting of a scene to bring out the colors, or it might be to express a personality in a portrait.
There really is no limit on the types of purposes for a drawing. One of the intrinsic values of art is that almost anything can be expressed through visual media. Often beginning artists will limit the scope of their expression by drawing or painting exactly what they see and never going beyond that to see what they express in their work. It is like living a life without direction: You never really get anywhere. The beauty of art is the exploration of forms, shapes, colors, and values.
So how do you develop purpose for a picture? The simple truth is that most pictures have a purpose, even if the picture is just a doodle while waiting for the train. The purpose of the doodle might have only been to explore some thoughts while relaxing. If, on the other hand, the doodles were small designs related to a product the artist was thinking about or they were pictures of a place the artist wanted to visit, the purpose of the doodle could be more than simple relaxation.
Take a minute and think about the purpose of a picture of a favorite pet. The purpose of the picture might be to show others what your pet looks like. However, there could be more to that purpose. Maybe you not only want to show what your pet looks like, but you also want to show your pet's personality. Maybe your pet is playful and active. Instead of drawing your pet resting, it might be more meaningful to draw your pet at play, as in the drawing in Figure 6.1.
A deeper meaning for a picture of your pet might be to somehow express your feelings about the pet. Maybe you have a deep emotional attachment to your pet and you want your picture to capture that attachment. What could you draw that would express your feelings though your art?
Can you see how having a purpose for a picture moves the drawing from a simple picture to a work of art? Many of the most famous pictures in the grandest museums are there not because the artist was a skilled painter, but rather because the art had meaning.
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