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There is an object called

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There is an object called ‘circle’

There is an object called ‘circle’,” a line from Plato’s “Seventh Letter” has been translated. “Its name is the word I have just uttered. Next comes its definition, compounded of nouns and verbs; . . . Third, there is the representation, which can be drawn and rubbed out or turned on a lathe and later destroyed; none of these things can happen to the real circle, to which all these three refer, because it is something quite different from them. Fourth, there is knowledge and understanding and true belief about these things; these must be classed together, because they reside not in sounds or in physical shapes but in souls; clearly then they must be distinguished both from the real circle itself and from the three instruments first mentioned.”

          Unless one somehow grasps these first four aspects of circles, Plato wrote, one will never attain knowledge of the ideal: of the essence of circledom (and, presumably, of the essence of essences). “It is only when all these things, names and definitions, visual and other sensations, are rubbed together and subjected to tests in which questions and answers are exchanged in good faith and without malice that finally, when human capacity is stretched to its limit, a spark of understanding and intelligence flashes out and illuminates the subject at issue.”

ne evening, for the first time in my life I took a drawing class, joining an ongoing group of amateur artists who worked in my organization. All of them were much more experienced than I. Among other things, for them drawing was a stage on the way to creating paintings in the style of European masters of previous centuries.

          The teacher had set up several tableaux. The one I found myself confronting consisted of a vase, two pears, an apple, an old bottle, a curtain with folds and a tablecloth. I had an idea that I should try to “grok” the essence of the display or focus on what was intriguing or beautiful about it. I tried to convey the eloquence of several curves in the vase and in the shadows and in a shadowy ellipse on one of the pears. I also tried a schematic approach: making a grid and rendering the objects as straight-sided polyhedrons. As my ability to express through drawing what I was seeing and feeling was extremely limited, my intentions were grandiose. I might have done better to try to learn first how to trace the contour of a pear.

         In any case the instructor, a Northern European, found none of my approaches of interest. He wanted me to concentrate on light values. Although he talked about seeing — about seeing the light values, for instance — and I have no doubt that his eye was much more perceptive than mine, he also had a preconceived idea of how to render the objects and the light values, an idea that stemmed from his knowledge of the iconography of  still lifes in Western art. Thus he wanted me to draw not the pears that I, untrained and nearsighted was seeing (or imagined I was seeing?), but a more standardized or ideal form of pear that could be easily read by someone looking at my drawing. There was a strong light coming from one side, and he had an idea about how that needed to be portrayed. He had quite a talent for doing a little work on my drawings and getting them to display both the qualities he valued and some elegance.