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1:29pm on Saturday, 2nd February, 2013:

Good at Art


I'm hopeless at drawing, but some people are so good their efforts are photorealistic. That's fair enough, I can probably program better than they can; each to their own.

If there are people who have this skill, though, why were paintings of faces in works of art centuries ago so universally bad? The faces in Egyptian and Roman art look pretty rudimentary; the faces in medieval art aren't much better. Only with the renaissance did we finally get artists who could render faces that looked realistic; even then, few could be said to be photorealistic. Is being able to do this kind of photorealistic work something that it takes years of technique to learn? Or is it something that some people can just do?

Based on my understanding of my own lack of ability to draw, I'd guess there has to be some latent talent there. If you have the talent, years of practice (which could perhaps be reduced with instruction from other people who have the talent) could enable you to produce this impressive kind of work. That was as true back in history as it is now, though. So why were the artists of yore so rubbish?

I mean, take a look at this altarpiece, done by Giotto di Bondone in around 1310:

Those faces are not great. They're about as good as some of the better kids in my year at school could do. There were other kids in other years who were much, much better. Yes, I know it's possible that Giotto could draw photorealistically but chose not to, but no artist from back then produced faces that looked anywhere near as good as the drawings some people today are doing without technical help (no camera obscura, no backlit projection, no computers necessary). What's going on here? Was it that by the time people mastered their craft, their eyesight had gone and glasses hadn't been invented?

I think the answer is much simpler. Most people had no access to the materials necessary to draw or paint. Few people could even handle a pen to write, let alone to paint. Paper was expensive, even if charcoal wasn't. You had to paint during the day because artificial light wasn't good enough to paint in the dark, which meant you couldn't put in the hours if you had a day job in the fields. Basically, the opportunity to create art was restricted to just a few people: those wealthy enough to have leisure time. or those with time on their hands for other reasons (monks in monasteries, for example). This meant that the pool of people who could even attempt to paint was very small.

If I went out into the street now and picked a hundred people at random, the chances are not great that any of them could equal Giotto's effort. If I picked a hundred thousand people, I'd expect to find several who could easily exceed it. Back in history, artists were coming from a pool of hundreds, not of hundreds of thousands: it's unsurprising that the best among them in relative terms weren't as skilled as some of today's artists in absolute terms.

People in ancient times did work with clay and stone, so sculpture was more open to the common man (if not woman) in a way that painting wasn't. If you had a talent, people might see it and encourage it. Some busts from back then look very good even by today's standards. If there are hundreds of thousands of people working in a medium, the best among them are probably going to be better than the best from among a few hundred.

When I started out doing computer games, computers were huge and expensive. Not many people had access to them. The people creating games for them worldwide numbered in the hundreds. The best of us were good relative to the rest, but the pool from which we were drawn was small. Now, computers are everywhere and there are hundreds of thousands of people making games for them. Some of those people are way, way ahead of we pioneers in terms of design skill — they must be, the numbers are on their side. Why is it, then, that we're not seeing better games? Most modern games have great production values (like the gold leaf in Giotto's alterpiece) but their gameplay is only so-so.

I think there are several reasons (accessibility, publicity, bad teaching), but mainly it's because games are so expensive to make that in practice the pool of people designing them is still in the hundreds. If you make an inexpensive, brilliant game, it's lost among a million others in an app store. No-one will try it because they don't have time to explore (with paintings, you can get a first impression just by looking; with games, picking up the gameplay without playing is much harder).

We have the hundred thousand designers, we just don't have a way of identifying the ones who are the best.


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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).