Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Drawing by Harold Speed. Images here are from The Art Renewal Center

"Dither" is not to be confused with "hither", the opposite of "yon", which sounds like "yawn" but is much farther away from you.

"Dither" also sounds like "Zither". I actually own a zither, inherited through my husband's side of the family, although nobody I know really knows how to play it. The zither is the musical instrument used in the famous theme from the movie "The Third Man".

Back to the point. "Dither" is a term used by the revered artist and writer Harold Speed. He was an intelligent man, a very good artist  and a thoughtful, articulate writer who lived late 19th c. to early 20th c.. He wrote two books that are still widely read by artists today, Oil Painting Techniques and Materials    and The Practice and Science of Drawing. That last link goes to the public domain version of the book (free to download).

As Speed explains it, "dither" is "the play between vital parts to allow for movement", such as pistons fitting into cylinders. Speed says that the "play of life" should surround drawings and give them a vital charm. It's this lack of dither, this "play", that makes machine-made articles of things so lifeless. In Speed's view, a photograph can thus always be less full of life than a drawing or painting hand made by an artist. The test of a good drawing, says Speed, is not necessarily accuracy, it's whether the picture has life and conveys genuine feeling.

Now, photography has come a long way since Speed's time and it's not just the cold recorder of what the camera sees. There's all manner of ways to manipulate photographs, especially in Photoshop, and fine artists avail themselves of this tool all the time. Speed's point was that drawings which do not contain evidence of the hand of the artist tend to be "dead" drawings.

"Pictures are blamed for being conventional when it is lack of vitality that is the trouble. If the convention adopted has not been vitalised by the emotion that is the reason of the painting, it will, of course, be a lifeless affair. But however abstract and unnaturalistic the manner adopted, if it has been truly felt by the artist as the right means of expressing his emotional idea, it will have life and should not be called conventional in the commonly accepted offensive use of the term." Speed, The Practice and Science of Drawing, p. 75.

I'll probably come back to Speed later on in this blog, I read his work often and learn something new each time.

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