Manifesto of Positionism (5 April 2017)

I was wondering how to express my frustration with art, when I watched a YouTube clip of the scientist Richard Dawkins talking about some verses in religious books. He said they sound like explanations, they appeal to the emotions, but really they don’t explain anything at all.[1] And I thought, ‘That perfectly describes what art interpretations tend to be like.’ Unlike scientists, who generally seem to record how science is done – so that other people can understand it, re-create it and refine it – artists usually keep trade secrets, which create voids that end up being filled by art interpreters, whose main focus is on emotions, not practical methods.

It means, instead of creating a record of how art is done, artists and art interpreters create a notion that art’s inexplicable. Artists have to back-engineer and reinvent. I suppose, since the rise of independent artists and the fall of the atelier tradition – a system of passing skills and knowledge from generation to generation – a great deal of know-how has been lost, and frustration among artists has consequently grown. I think a sense of this was conveyed by Stuckism in the 2000s, and by Michael Landy’s Art Bin, which many artists threw their work into in 2010.

Trade secrets can only be kept through deception, such as not mentioning technological aids or downplaying the relevance of them. I recently heard a curator on the radio say, ‘People aren’t interested in knowing artists’ practical methods or technological aids.’ But I think one of the most interesting art-related works I’ve seen is David Hockney and Charles Falco’s 2000 theory,[2][3] which is about exactly those things.

It states that, from as early as c. 1430, the Old Masters made accurate paintings by tracing images projected from concave mirrors or refractive lenses; in the course of time, various tracing devices were developed, such as the portable camera obscura and the camera lucida, which artists used until photography became practical in about 1840.

Some people vehemently rejected Hockney and Falco’s theory, believing the Old Masters were just exceptionally good at representing things accurately. But in October 2001 the British journalist Andrew Marr wrote, ‘it has leapt from hunch, through theory, to accepted fact, in a remarkably short time’.[4]

Nevertheless, since then, television programmes, books, guides and exhibitions, by art historians and curators, still haven’t been calling attention to the technological devices used by artists, even when reviewing work by artists mentioned in Hockney and Falco’s theory, or when it seems very likely that a particular technological aid shaped an artwork or caused an art movement.

For instance, most guides to the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists (e.g. online guides by Tate, the Met or the National Gallery)[5–13] don’t speculate on whether those artists traced photographic projections, even though we know the Realist and Pre-Raphaelite movements emerged soon after the invention of photography, and we know, because of Hockney and Falco’s work, that this was after a centuries-old tradition of tracing projections.

A painter in the immediately prior Romantic period (such as Friedrich, Turner, Constable or Delacroix) could use a portable camera obscura to trace an outdoor scene on to a sheet of glass, and then use a magic lantern to project the glass sketch on to a canvas to trace it at a larger scale;[14] and a montage could be created by projecting more than one glass sketch on to the same canvas.

So it seems likely that the Realists and Pre-Raphaelites continued that practice, but used photography instead of the camera obscura: in the 1840s I think they would first trace a photograph on to a sheet of glass and then project and trace the tracing on to a canvas; from at least 1851, after the invention of photographic lantern slides, I think they traced photographic-lantern-slide projections instead.

I think the Impressionists, who emerged in the 1860s, did that too.

I think that’s why, in general, the three groups’ paintings depict every detail of fleeting moments, in perfect perspective, with accurate proportions and photographic tonal values.

Photography enabled people to capture transient subjects such as people working, socializing, ballet dancing, boating or bathing; bright settings enabled short exposure times, and if necessary artists could use portable darkrooms.

Unlike the Old Masters’ devices, however, which projected moving, colour images, photographic lantern slides were black and white, so people had to add transparent colour to them by hand.

I think the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists did either that, before projecting and tracing them, or just added colour to their canvases over black and white projections. I think that’s partly why Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist paintings are generally more colourful than life, and why the range of colours in some Realist paintings, such as The Stone Breakers (1850) by Gustave Courbet, is very limited.

Although we know the Impressionists sometimes painted in the open air, I don’t think we should let that distract us completely. We also know they were part of a social network (in which trade secrets were likely shared) which included the Realists and photographers such as Nadar, who was probably one of the first to use photographic lantern slides, whose ‘Lanterne Magique’ caricatures (1852)[15] allude to the practice of painting on lantern slides, and in whose studio the first Impressionist Salon – which included paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and Degas – was held in 1874.[16]

I think we should try to determine for certain whether the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and also Neo-Impressionists traced photographic projections – and incorporated various photographic effects in the process – because I think this not only explains characteristics of their work but is also an important part of the context in which we should look at the work of artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh (Post-Impressionism), Matisse (Fauvism) and Picasso (Cubism).

It seems the main step they took was to put aside the technological devices that constrained proportions, perspective, tonal values and, in respect of the Old Masters’ devices, colour, after being influenced, to varying degrees (Cézanne probably the least), by discoveries of art from the non-Western world and prehistory, which was made without such devices (and which we can also better appreciate if we acknowledge the extent of the use of technological aids in Western art).

Another practical method that’s seldom mentioned by curators or art historians is lifecasting, even though sculptors have used it for thousands of years.

The find of the bust of Queen Nefertiti and many plaster casts of faces in the workshop of the fourteenth-century BC sculptor Thutmose, at Amarna in Egypt, shows that since at least 1340 BC the faces of some sculptures have been derived from life or death masks.

‘Mask from Amarna: Portrait of a Man’ (c. 1340 BC), for example, which is held by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, reveals Thutmose’s technique. The museum’s website says:

‘First a form was taken directly from the sitter’s face and a gypsum copy was made from the mould. The copy was then finished by the sculptor in various details, especially the eyes since these had to be closed when the mask was taken from the face.’[17]

Some much older Egyptian statues’ faces are more realistic than their bodies, which suggests the Egyptians may have derived sculptures’ faces from life or death masks long before 1340 BC.

Nevertheless, art historians don’t normally associate ancient Egyptian sculpture with lifecasting, and, although it’s widely accepted that ancient Greek sculptors adopted some Egyptian techniques,[18] art historians don’t normally associate ancient Greek sculpture with lifecasting either.

The sculptor Nigel Konstam made that link in 2002:[19][20] he suggested Greek sculptors used lifecasting from around 500 BC.

First they would cover a living model – say an athlete or a warrior – in plaster to make a multi-part mould. Next they would cast a wax model from the mould. Then they would improve and stylize the wax model. And finally they would cast the finished model in bronze.

Konstam studied the Riace bronzes, which are life-size fifth-century BC Greek figures. He explained, for example, that the undersides of their toes are realistically formed, and squashed as if under the weight of a model’s body, even though they were never meant to be seen. And he found that other surviving Greek bronzes have feet like this.

In 2010 he blogged that few art historians had yet acknowledged his theory,[21] and this still seems to be the case. He also pointed out that Pliny’s account, in Natural History (c. AD 77–79), substantiates his theory:

‘The first man to mould a likeness in plaster from the face itself, and to institute the method of making corrections upon a casting produced by pouring wax into this plaster mould was Lysistratus of Sicyon, brother of Lysippus […]. He [Lysistratos] introduced the practice of making likenesses […]. He also invented the technique of taking casts from statues […].’ (Tr. A. Stewart)[22]

Lysistratos and Lysippos of Sikyon were fourth-century BC sculptors.

In Natural History, Pliny doesn’t say that Lysistratos, or any other sculptor, used lifecasting to make whole figures. But if Lysistratos took moulds of people’s faces – which is still relatively difficult to do because of the sensitivity of eyes, the nature of hair and the need to breathe – and statues’ bodies, then surely he took moulds of people’s bodies; and surely other sculptors, including his brother Lysippos, did too.

The rapid change in Greek sculpture – in both realism and variety (of forms and poses) – that occurred in the early fifth century BC suggests Lysistratos wasn’t really the first Greek sculptor to do this;[21] the sinews and veins in some of the earliest Classical figures do not suggest Classical sculpture gradually became more realistic (see Stewart[23] on Pythagoras, and Konstam[19] on the Riace bronzes).

Pliny’s probable source, Xenokrates (a follower of Lysippos, though not a direct pupil),[23] probably guarded the secrets of the school of Lysippos, and wouldn’t necessarily have known whether the lifecasting method had been inherited from fifth-century sculptors.

I think we can safely assume Greek sculptors kept trade secrets, because Greek society was very competitive. But they surely sometimes shared or discovered them, and we can roughly trace a network through which the lifecasting secret may have passed to Lysistratos and others.

According to Andrew Stewart’s One Hundred Greek Sculptors: Their Careers and Extant Works, Ageladas (Hageladas) of Argos flourished c. 500 BC and was, through his sons and pupils, ‘clearly the founder of the Argive school of bronze working, which reached its acme with Polykleitos and continued to flourish, in association with Sikyon, through the fourth century [BC]’.[23]

The ancients believed Ageladas taught Pheidias and Myron (as well as Polykleitos); an article by R. Ross Holloway[24] suggests that Ageladas was the ‘Olympia Master’ (the sculptor responsible for the sculptures on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia) and that it was at Olympia, during the creation of the metopes and the pedimental figures for the Temple of Zeus, that Pheidias and Myron worked under him.

On the subject of Roman portrait sculpture, I think it’s accepted that some busts were derived from life or death masks,[18] but I think the extent of the Romans’ use of lifecasting has generally been understated.

Our record of the appearance of historical figures is probably much more accurate than we’ve been led to believe. Rather than looking at pure artists’ impressions, in many instances we’re probably looking, essentially, at imprints taken directly from people’s faces and bodies.

The method of casting whole figures, by the way, is given in The Craftsman’s Handbook by the Florentine artist Cennino Cennini, which was written around, and not later than, AD 1437.[25]

It states: ‘I will inform you that you may mould and cast a man in one piece, just as in ancient times.’ It has a final section devoted to methods of casting, including subsections titled ‘How to take a life mask’, ‘How to cast whole figures’ and ‘How to make a cast of your own person’, and it says ‘likewise you may cast […] any sort of animal’.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born later, in 1475, in Florentine territory. He probably came to know the methods described by Cennini, and he probably read Pliny’s Natural History, so he probably explored lifecasting. I think it’s more likely he used lifecasting than freed his sculptures from stone using his imagination. He had access to cadavers, ancient statues and living models, any of which he could have taken moulds of if he wanted to.

He probably also drew lifecasts:

‘I will tell you about something else which is very useful and gets you great reputation in drawing, for copying and imitating things from nature: and it is called casting.’ (Cennino Cennini)[25]

Pietro Antonio Bernabei and Massimo Gulisano studied Michelangelo’s David in 2004 and found it is anatomically accurate and, contrary to popular belief, not out of proportion.[26][27]

The David’s hair and eyes are less realistic than the rest of its body; Michelangelo may have intentionally imitated the hairstyle of an ancient statue and deliberately made the eyes expressive, but hair and eyes do happen to be the parts of the body that are not suited to lifecasting.

I think we should stop presupposing Renaissance artists were just geniuses, because, as soon as we presuppose that, it stops us from truly acknowledging both their hard work and their influences – such as rediscovered ancient statues or practical information found in ancient texts. It stops us from discovering the practical methods and technological aids they used. And it implies that we don’t all have the same creative potential.

‘There are no “creative people” … Creativity is [just] “taking known elements and putting them together in unique ways”.’ (Jacque Fresco)

Jacque Fresco’s definition of creativity is the best I’ve heard, but I still want to break it down: on the one hand, you can take two or more known things and put them together (that’s amalgamation); on the other hand, you can take one known thing and mentally break it down into new conceptual parts (that’s analysis).

In other words, amalgamation and analysis are the two main ways of being creative. With one you can make ever more complicated things out of ever more complicated building blocks. With the other you can create new concepts that make already complex things simpler, and therefore easier to understand.

Anyway, Michelangelo’s David is neither bronze nor life-size, just as some ancient Greek and Roman sculptures are neither bronze nor life-size. But sculptors’ ‘pointing’ methods explain that. Sculptors have traditionally had assistants who’ve used pointing methods to reproduce sculptures in different scales and materials.[18] So no matter what its size and no matter what it’s made of, a sculpture can be based on lifecasting.

Michelangelo had many assistants and so did Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who made the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

It’s no secret that Borglum’s assistants used a pointing technique to transfer the shape of his large plaster models on to Mount Rushmore. He supposedly made his preliminary clay models without such aid: photographs show him applying finishing touches to them.[28]

But despite the impression given by the photographs, he may have used a pointing device to derive even his preliminary models from lifecasts (or busts that were themselves derived from lifecasts); each of the presidents portrayed on Mount Rushmore had either a life mask or a death mask taken. In any case, I think he derived many of his other sculptures from lifecasts. It seems likely that he used essentially the same methods as his friend and mentor Auguste Rodin.[29]

Rodin’s The Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose (1863–64) looks like a life mask. According to the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, it’s shaped like a mask because the back of the head fell off, and the eyes are blank because in this respect Rodin followed the Greek convention.[30]

Later he made a realistic life-size bronze figure, The Age of Bronze (1876), and critics accused him of ‘making it by putting clay over a live body’. He then made another figure, Saint John the Baptist Preaching (c. 1880), which was larger than life-size.[30] And later he said:

‘I had been accused of using casts from nature in the execution of my work, and I made the “St. John” to refute this, but it only partially succeeded. To prove completely that I could model from life as well as other sculptors, I determined, simple as I was, to make the sculpture on the door of figures smaller than life.’[31]

But his assistants used a mechanical pointing device, called a Collas machine, to make larger or smaller copies of his work.[32] So the smallness of the figures in The Gates of Hell (the ‘door of figures’ that he mentioned) doesn’t prove that none of the figures were derived from lifecasts; and of course it doesn’t prove he made all his other sculptures without the aid of lifecasting.

According to the Cantor Foundation, he modelled his pieces first, then had his assistants use the Collas machine to make replicas in the sizes collectors wanted.[32][33] But I think he sometimes first made a lifecast, then reworked the lifecast, and then scaled the reworked model up or down with the Collas machine.

I think people’s reactions to his early work made him feel that he should conceal any use of lifecasting, which I think he did by increasingly manipulating, adding to or dislocating lifecast parts, which is what I think caused his famous style. Later, I think he used lifecasting if he wanted realism, and modelled without it if he wanted to be expressive; generally, I think his work is a composite of the two.

Lifecasting is one of many secret methods and technologies used by artists. Technology was probably even behind one of the most extreme examples of abstraction in the history of art, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), which, along with other Suprematist paintings, was probably inspired by abstractions of reality caused by aerial photography.[34]

Aerial photographs had been taken from planes by then, but photographers, such as Nadar, had also taken them from balloons in the 1800s.

I hope I’ve convinced you that scrutiny of artists’ practical methods, secret knowledge and technological aids can lead to better explanations of art, and art movements, than interpretations that focus wholly on meaning and sentiment.

These days I think most artists are still secretive about technological aids such as tracing devices (e.g. light tables, projectors and touchscreen drawing tablets) and image-editing software (e.g. Photoshop).

But things are changing. More and more artists are sharing knowledge and methods in videos, webpages and workshops.

Still, it can be difficult to convey certain knowledge, such as knowledge of complex forms and articulations.

‘Positionism’ is a way of both conveying that sort of structural knowledge and handling the difficulty of representing complex structures.

It involves researching and analysing a structure – the human body is the structure that’s the subject of this book – while judging and recording the positions of its significant points (using a three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system).

The judgements are based on study of all available information about the structure, and analysis and measurement of many examples of it. The resulting record of positions, which can be visualized as a wireframe design, is therefore an amalgam, unlike, say, a drawing of a particular person, or a 3D scan of someone, or a painting based on a single photograph, or a sculpture derived from a lifecast.

Every stage of the preliminary work can produce art. And once a wireframe design has been generated, it can be used to make more art.

The record of positions can then be shared, and the design can be used and refined by other people.


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[4] Marr A. What the eye didn’t see…. The Observer. Sunday 7 October 2001.

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[20] Konstam N, Hoffmann H. Casting the Riace bronzes (2): a sculptor’s discovery. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 2004; 23(4): 397–402. Available from:

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[22] Translation in Stewart A, One hundred Greek sculptors, their careers and extant works. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1990. Perseus Digital Library.,00024 [Last accessed 21 October 2016].

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[34] Dorrian M, Pousin F. Seeing from above: the aerial view in visual culture. London: I. B. Tauris; 2013.