Perfect Circles

The other day, I sat by a pond. A soft rain patterned its surface with circles, radiating and vanishing in a green glassiness. So easily drawn by a mere raindrop, a perfect circle seems like the simplest of forms—and yet not a soul has ever drawn a simple, perfect circle freehand.

If we can build great pyramids without pulleys, wheels or iron tools, swim the English Channel or run four minute miles, why can't we draw perfect circles? It turns out we're not built to draw perfect circles--even the most naturally gifted artists. 

But fables have abounded about virtuoso artists creating perfect circles without a stencil or compass. Take Apelles, a renowned ancient Greek painter who visited an island and the empty studio of a fellow artist. Apelles drew a perfect circle on the studio wall in lieu of a written note, confident that the circle would prove a virtual signature for his great name.

The Renaissance artist Giorgio Vasari related a similar story about an earlier artist, Giotto.

The Pope hoped to hire a fresco artist and sent to Giotto a messenger, who asked for a competitive sample drawing. With just paper and a pen, Giotto flicked his wrist and drew a perfect circle. Vasari writes: "The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill-pleased...However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses; the Pope…saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time."

Later artists have picked up on these apocryphal stories, including Rembrandt. His self-portrait from 1661 shows the painter before his canvas. Rembrandt seems aged and wary, but the outlines of two circles on the canvas suggest the Apelles fable. With typical subtlety, Rembrandt postures like the legendary painter Apelles.

The contemporary British painter Tom Phillips has also found inspiration in fable, emulating Giotto's circle in his painting, "Fifty attempts to draw a freehand circle." Today, even some non-artists are trying to master a feat assuredly never accomplished by the great ones. Alexander Overwijk, a Canadian math teacher, professes to compete in the World Freehand Circle Drawing Championships in Las Vegas. Recorded on film, his skill seems effortless, even too good to be true, almost like rainfall on water.

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