What is truth?

I confess to being more than a little bit of a geek when I come across an interesting vintage bike “in the wild.” Quite often I’ll whip out my iPhone and snap a photograph so that I can examine the details later on at my leisure. Less frequently, I have the freedom and liberty to make a sketch. While a sharply focused photograph can be a valuable documentation of an unusual discovery, I find I enjoy the sketch all the more. For one thing, it’s something I’ve created by hand – and the act of doing so very much appeals to me and my aesthetic sense. For another, sketching affords me the luxury of including or ignoring as much detail as I wish. Photos include everything that appears within the frame. In my previous life I made photographs professionally, and I can assure you that a lot of effort went into set creation and organization. But out on the street, one is pretty much stuck with whatever one sees: light poles, trash, cars, people – the sort of distractions one can effortlessly eliminate in a sketch.

I also don’t feel constricted by pure documentation when I make a sketch. The mixte frame above was interesting enough that in a few short minutes I very roughly sketched it out in pencil, then continued on my merry way walking about the city of Dijon. Along the way I encountered several other vintage bikes; those that caught my eye were, perhaps, noted. Later on when I decided to tighten up the rough sketch I realized I hadn’t bothered to make field notes: with no idea what color the original bike had been, I decided to go with the colors I recalled from a completely different bike, a vintage Thiely randonneur. As I tell my students, it’s not about making your art true – it’s about discovering a greater truth. I’m quite content with this approach.

The elderly man riding the city bike (top image) never happened. The bike was leaning on a kick stand out in the street, and the opportunity to sketch a stationary object was a nice change from the quick, gestural studies I’d been making of people moving along the crowded sidewalk. Later, I added the man from an observational study I’d made of a fellow wandering around a market. The painting is a sort of collage of sketches, and I think is more reflective of what I had hoped to see than what I actually observed.

I often use this space to share what I refer to as “bike sketches,” those quickly and often very spontaneously inked studies of the places I happen to find myself visiting by bicycle. Like this study of the Broadway Bridge spanning the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, these are normally more gestural than anything else. Only infrequently does a bicycle actually appear in these scribbles: the bike tends to be the vehicle that makes possible that view I’m attempting to capture. And thus, I call them “bike sketches.” I think it’s notable the difference between the more graphic nature of a bike sketch and the subtle and more sedate watercolor sketches at the top of this page. For me as an artist, they are both equally valid means of expression, and equally valid means of communicating something I find important either via a bicycle, or in relation to bicycles in general. I’m not interested in riding my bike fast, and not especially interested in the latest, greatest technological innovations either. I prefer a slower paced, more thoughtful essence, I suppose. It’s significant that two seemingly different behaviors – cycling and drawing – are yet remarkably similar in the way they mirror that attraction.

And there, it seems to me, lies an interesting truth with much more to be further explored.

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9 thoughts on “What is truth?

  1. Tom Howard says:

    I love those images. The mixte is quite beautiful, even though I can’t read the head badge. And that looks like a real cyclist to me.

  2. Really enjoyed this post. I loved the art work, of course. But even though I’m no artist, I understand your narrative, and I use similar thought processes for my words and photos in my blog posts. There is raw truth…and the story I want to tell. To borrow a phrase, I’m a lot more interesting on the internet.

  3. Pablo Picasso
    “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

    • That quote is one of the things I read in art school; in the conceit and arrogance of my youth I thought I understood his meaning to absolute perfection. With maturity, it became clear that I did not grasp what he was getting at, that my grasp fell short of the mark. It is only now that this quote – which has always been a personal favorite of mine – is more reflective of my perceptions about the world.

      • I don’t know. there’s always layers, one truth doesn’t contradict another, more mature one. to me it means just be comfortable with what you’re trying to do. realise/admit it’s false, but it’s a window onto something real. trough a lie to the truth. per mendacium ad verum. but they’re just bikes.

  4. Paul Glassen says:

    Doubtless you have noticed as have I that many artists cannot draw an accurate bicycle frame, nor even a plausibly workable one. Do you have any idea why that might be? It strikes me as strange that no ‘editor’ points out to them the flaw in their image of a cycle. Of course, it probably only bothers a few of us, those with a too literal mind.

  5. “Doubtless you have noticed as have I that many artists cannot draw an accurate bicycle frame, nor even a plausibly workable one.” I think this is very much the case. Artists, like anyone else, are more accurately descriptive of a thing, whether that be a building, a person, a tree…or a bicycle – when they know or understand it with great depth. It does make me cringe to see a drawing of a bike that in no way represents mechanical reality or even a convincing caricature or parody. I find this to also be the case with buildings in which perspective is not understood, or – especially! – in representations of people where the artist doesn’t appear to understand that faces are round and dimensional rather than flat ovals with almond shapes for eyes placed in their “accurate” size and position. Granted, this is not particularly easy, or even intuitive, to do – but making a representational drawing believable is part of the challenge after all. I always liked what Sargent said about portraits, that they are “a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” I think it’s fair to say that Sargent’s statement could be extended to generalize drawing just about anything. 🙂

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