Zoe Bray on “Anthropology with a Paintbrush”
VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions
Zoe Bray’s “Anthropology with a Paintbrush: Naturalist-Realist Painting as ‘Thick Description‘” (VAR 31-2, Fall 2015) advances the practice of naturalist-realist portrait-painting as an under-explored method and medium of visual anthropology where slow-paced observations and interaction provide opportunities for making “thick descriptions” on canvas.
Suggested study exercises and questions
- Exercise: Take a drawing tool (charcoal, pencil, crayon, or paintbrush..) and paper, and spend about 20 minutes drawing an object of your choice in front of you (this could be simply a cup or a book. Ideally place it in natural light, rather than under artificial lighting. Sit or stand a meter or so away from it – i.e. Not too close and not too far away. Take breaks from time to time). Reflect on this process of visually studying an object.
How has drawing helped you to understand this object? Did taking breaks help you to see better? What effect did standing closer or further away from the object have?
- Repeat the exercise, this time spending a little more time, and drawing another person who is willing to sit for you. It can be a friend or a fellow-student you do not know so well.
What happened during the drawing session? Did you chat? What did you pay attention to? How do you feel drawing helped you to see the person? What new knowledge about the person do you feel you got from drawing her or him? Do you feel you know the person better in some way or other?
- Hold a mirror to the side of your face and look into it with the eye closest to it. In the mirror’s reflection you can look at your drawing in reverse.
What can you see in your drawing that you didn’t see before? What do you think of your drawn interpretation of the model? How do you think it could be improved?
- Look at videos of different artists drawing or painting other individuals live (or better still: observe artists in action!) Two videos of the author Zoe Bray portrait-painting live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtI0ia13QgI —and— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_ZnO2Njnz8 .
Think about how the artists see what they see, and what they choose to depict. What do you think they are looking out for? How do you think they are transferring this knowledge onto the paper/canvas? What can you speculate about these artists’ particular individual sensibility, and the role that technical skill plays in their way of depicting?
- Sit for someone else.
Think about how the person drawing you is looking at you. How does it feel to be represented? What do you think about the drawing done of you? What do you think the artist/student has ‘captured’ of you? Why? Does having sat for someone else help you in your own drawing? How?