One of the directions often given by Mr. Gammell was that the student should “See the big shapes. See them truthfully and then move on.” This is vitally important advice because if your big shapes are not correct, any additions will also be in error.
What are Big Shapes?
In a cast drawing, like most subjects, there are a few levels of big shapes. It begins with the arabesque, or contour.
Have you accurately represented the outline of the cast? How about its opposite – the shape of the background where it and the cast meet? That is known as the negative shape or ground.
Next we move onto the shape of the cast shadow, which is the shadow that is cast on the background by the subject. Have you accurately represented it? How about its negative shape? Furthermore, how does the shape of the cast shadow relate to the arabesque?
Then comes the bedbug line (shadow line) and the big light and shadow shapes it separates. Are they accurately relative to each other as well as to the whole of the cast?
And on it goes.
How to See the Big Shapes
Seeing the big shapes is, in a word, simple. Of course, our brains resist doing so if not trained for it because the simple act of focusing forces details into our perception.
Some advise squinting, which helps by diminishing your perception of small changes in value. The result is a visual field that is simplified.
An additional help is to look away. To do so, visually focus on a spot just above your subject. As you do, focus your attention on the subject without directly looking at it. Then do the same on your drawing.
You might also blur your focus a bit.
The second phrase in the ‘see the big shapes’ statement is see them truthfully. But when it comes to seeing, what is truth?
As a student, truth is always objective visual accuracy; there is no personal opinion involved. Objective truth is what you’re ‘learning to see’ when learning to see. That’s what a trained teacher helps you do by, in a sense, giving you their trained eye.
Part of the process of seeing truthfully is consciously rejecting what you know of your subject. Yes, you might intellectually know what an eye looks like. But your learned version of what an eye looks like is definitely not what you see in front of you.
The final part of the statement is to move on. If I had to rank the three parts, I would say that this is the most important.
There are a few reasons. First, when learning to see, the start is more important than the finish. So in that sense ‘move on’ means to begin another drawing. See the articles The Art of Starts and 80/20 Cast Drawing for a longer discussion.
Another reason is of a different sort. Once you’ve truthfully seen a big shape, if you don’t move onto others you risk falling into the trap of piecemeal seeing. Pursuing finish piece-by-piece is a sure way to blind yourself to the big-look.
Finally, it’s almost impossible to truthfully see any big shape without constant reference to its surroundings. Accurately seeing shape, like value, edge, and color, is relative. So, although you might think that you’ve accurately seen a shape in isolation, odds are you have not.
The next time you begin a drawing, first see the big shapes. See them truthfully and then move on.