Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tracing is Period & Good!

Pardon folks, but I'm a little fired up over something, and need to rant about it.

I often see new scribes who have been told or feel they must create original art, or that tracing from period sources is frowned upon or not allowed. Excuse me? There are so many things wrong with this idea that I'm having a hard time figuring out where to start... Oh... I know! Let's start with the fact that:

Tracing is a period technique!

Cennino Cennini provides methods for tracing and talks about why it is desired in his 15th century treatise, Il Libro dell'Arte.

"Chapter 27 - How you should contrive to copy and draw after as few masters as possible.  
... strive and delight always to copy the best things that you can find, made by the hand of great masters. And if you are in a place where there have been many good masters, so much the better for you. But I give you this advice: be careful always to pick out the best and the one that has the best reputation. And if, day in and day out, you follow one like that it will be odd if nothing of his style and manner rubs off on you."
-Broecke, Lara. (2015) Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell'Arte: A new English translation and commentary with Italian transcription. London England: Archetype Publications. p. 47

As he points out, copying a particular style is a great way to learn it. This is particularly true for those of us copying medieval document styles, as we spend our days immersed in a modern aesthetic. Our sense of how elements on a page should look is based on our world of websites, laser printed documents, magazines, and printed books. The layout and shape of the elements on a medieval page is different from what we are used to. Copying directly from a period source is a fast track to getting the design correct, and it will teach you correct proportions as you go.

Cennini does continue on with some warnings:

"However, if you decide to copy this master today and that tomorrow you will get the style of neither the one nor the other, and you will not be able to avoid getting into a muddle because you have every style tugging at your sympathies: no you want to do it in the style of this artist, tomorrow in the style of some other, and as a result you will not get any of them properly. If you follow the path of one, by continuous practice your mind would be completely flabby not to get some fodder from it. You will then find, if nature has endowed you with a modicum of imagination, that you will end up taking on a style all of your own and it cannot but be good because, if your mind is used to picking only flowers, your hand would not know how to grasp a thorn." (Broeke, 2015, p. 47)

To me, this only reinforces why tracing is a valuable technique. As SCAdian scribes we often pick a new exemplar for each scroll, often with very differing styles. By tracing elements from our exemplars, we are making sure we do them justice.

Not Everyone is a Master Artist...

This was just as true hundreds of years ago as it is today. Not every artist has the skill to mimic a particular style by eye. I'm the first to admit that I'm not very good at it. This is why I trace a lot of the elements in my own Illumination. Being able to reproduce something by eye is an advanced skill. It can take years of practice. We should all recognize this and understand that tracing can help those without this skill achieve better results, which benefits us all.

This is a Hobby!

Finally, this is a hobby we do for fun and to provide a service! We spend hours creating works of art that we give away to recognize others for their hard work and accomplishments! Ask yourself this: is it preferred that these scrolls look better and are more period correct when done, despite using a "trick" like tracing? Or is it preferred that they look worse while we force a scribe to struggle with a technique they need a lot of practice with? If you were presented with two scrolls, and one looked like it came right out of a medieval book, and the other looked like the scribe struggled with it, which would you prefer to hang on your wall? (Yes, there are always exceptions, but in general?)

Even in period, production scribes (those whose job it was to churn out page after page as they copied books for students, monastic libraries, etc.) traced designs that were provided to them by their masters.

"Not enough is known about how this copying was done, and nothing about why it was done. One would have imagined that a competent miniaturist would have been capable of designing freehand. Yet there is good evidence that compositions of miniatures could be literally traced from one copy to another using transparent carta lustra or carta lucida, or could be duplicated by 'pouncing' in which outlines of the original were pricked with rows of holes and placed over the new page and dabbed with bags of colour, such as charcoal dust, to produce a dotted outline. This would provide a sketchy outline, like the metalpoint drawings described above, ready to be strengthened in ink in preparation for colouring." 
de Hamel, Christopher. Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators. (1992) Toronto, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. pp 51, 57.

I maintain that the creation of award scrolls is quite similar in nature to working in an illuminators' shop, and highly advocate using tracing as a technique to improve the quality and speed of production.

On the other hand... 

I'm going to contradict myself and agree that there are times tracing might not be the right approach.

The SCA is about learning. Those who spend years as a scribe will find their skill improves over time. Once they have learned a medieval aesthetic through tracing, they may reach a point where they can create original artwork by eye that could be mistaken for period. It's a laudable goal for any SCA artist to strive to master a medieval skill to the point of being able to forego "shortcuts". Even then, be mindful of when a medieval artist would have used some tool, technique or trick to make their job easier, and don't be afraid to do the same.

Some of our art is made to prove our skill and push ourselves. Not all of our scribal art is made as a service. Some of it is made to enter in competitions, some of it is made to test a new technique or material, some might even be to test a hypothesis about how something was really done in period. Taking off the "training wheels" in these situations makes sense. Pushing ourselves as artists is natural and good.

To Conclude...

If you are a new scribe, be aware of your own limitations. I recommend using whatever techniques, modern tools and shortcuts you need to allow you to make medieval-looking art. Do learn how it would have been done in period. Do push yourself to improve. Don't be afraid to break out the light box and a printout so you can copy from a period piece. If anyone tells you you shouldn't trace when making your scribal art, feel free to tell them Alexandre said it was okay. I'm willing to take the heat for you.

If you are an experienced scribe who has been on the "no tracing" bandwagon, I am curious as to your reasons why? I have a very hard time understanding how a period technique like this that can help new scribes get going faster and make better art is frowned upon. We should be supporting and encouraging new scribes. Making it harder for them to make good looking art is not going to help.