Julian (JulianCourtDrawing.com/) emailed me to ask:
“I’ve been putting the title to my drawings quite small, just below my drawing’s bottom left. Simply handwritten neatly in pencil. The chap who’s mounting my drawings says I should do the same for prints. In fact, he winced when he saw one of my drawings with quite a large title at the bottom. I must admit it does rather distract from the drawing. What is your opinion on where a title should go for prints? If I recall, the title on your limited editions was quite prominent.”

I used to write my titles in pencil. That’s OK if you’re just signing one or two prints. But it’s a pain if you’ve sold a bunch to a dealer, or maybe a rush of sales from a mailing. Even just writing on an imaginary straight line is a problem, and a title that’s askew simply looks bad. So, I have my titles printed on my prints.

If I’m printing by giclée in-house, I’ll use a mid-grey, not black. Black grabs attention away from the art. In the days of offset-litho printing, that wasn’t a problem, because litho can only achieve an 80% black.

I think I have the font sizes about right – clearly legible, but not overly large. This is the base of an 11″ x 8″ (28 x 20cm) print:

For balance, I’d number it at the right-hand end, and sign it to the right of the title.

I have a signature problem. Having spent two or three months trying to create a sense of reality, I don’t want to destroy it with a signature. I feel that signing within the image just degrades the reality to zero. So, I always sign my drawings underneath the image and never on it.

That forces the framer to leave a wider bottom margin. It has to be matted away from the edge of the drawing to accommodate the signature. With a 1/2″ (1.2cm) margin all round and a 1″ (2.5cm) bottom margin, it looks OK.

Do make your signature legible. When I was at school, I altered my handwriting to italic – one letter at a time. 🙂 Then I designed my signature:

My signature is my trademark, so I prefer to use it as a promotional tool and make it relatively LARGE – sufficient to be recognised at a distance.

If you sign the artwork itself, where should you place it? I don’t know, because I don’t do that. Sometimes you can find a good place for it on a spot that’s “too blank”, sometimes you just have to put it somewhere that it doesn’t interfere with anything. I guess it depends heavily on how it looks in the actual drawing. Not only must it not interfere with the image, it must also not throw it off balance. Many artists prefer to sign their name very small along a branch or similar position, so as not to interfere visually with the drawing.

You can, of course, use the signature in a positive way to add balance. Personally, I’d agonise for days about positioning my signatures on my head studies (which are not necessarily where they appear in my website’s gallery. I moved most of them to cut the image size down).

Titles are often the last thing I get round to. I find inspiration usually comes during the drawing process. And If I can’t think of a title that describes the action, I revert to using a location.

“Early morn at Witton Marsh” sets both the time of day and suggests an actual location.

“Ready and waiting” describes the scene.

“Gunnerside Ghyll” sets just the location – it implies this is a real place. In this case, it was based on photos from High Cluegh in Ripon. “Gunnerside” is an actual place, and “Ghyll” is Cumbrian for “stream”. Yorkshire “Gill”, or our local “Beck”, would have been a better choice, as my US dealers didn’t know how to pronounce Ghyll correctly (it’s GILL, as in the gills of a fish)

I’ve made other errors too. With only an hour remaining before printing had to begin of one print, I still didn’t have a title. Someone on the Artpapa forum suggested “Vanished!”, so I went with that. But it refers to only an incidental element in the drawing and is probably meaningless to most people.

“Vanished!” A location would have been a much better choice. “Morning mist at Mellings Mere” for example.

The vanished element (look in the weeds).

Sometimes the title will exist before the work, or you’ll have one come to mind as you’re composing the drawing. “The Barn Patrol” was one, and that sets up a friendly connection and describes exactly what’s going on.

Sometimes the title will exist before the work, or you’ll have one come to mind as you’re composing the drawing.

“The Barn Patrol” was one, and that sets up a friendly connection and describes exactly what’s going on.


What a wonderful weekend we had here in my studio… running the Drawing Animals workshop for the first time. To find out when I’m running it again (UK/USA/CANADA) read on…

Really lovely company and weather too, and lunch in the garden on both days. All the cake’s gone, but I’ve still got cookies for supper! 🙂

June 2018 DRAWING ANIMALS workshop

I’ll be running this workshop in my studio again in October (20-21) and, as a 3-day workshop, in:

OTTAWA, ON – August 17-19
Limited places now available


CLEARWATER, FL – August 24-26
Only ONE seat remaining!

Join Jenny and me and let me pass on all I know to you.

(Many thanks to High-tech Sundar for the photo above)

Do I need to draw from life?

I sometimes answer drawing-related questions on Quora. This is my latest post in answer to the query “DO I NEED TO DRAW FROM LIFE IN ORDER TO GET BETTER AT DRAWING?”

I’ll assume by “draw” you mean the use of graphite pencil, and that the drawing includes both line and three-dimensional shading. A realistic, or semi-realistic, end result being your goal.

Because the pencil is a relatively narrow, pointed stylus, we tend to be detail-orientated artists. We don’t have the facility to lay down broad areas with a quick gesture, so spontaneous “suggestion” is rare. Instead, we concentrate on the finer details.

To do that you need to know what the details are. You cannot successfully draw something you don’t understand. That understanding, and the knowledge of the detail, comes from observation. You store individual elements in your brain and subconsciously retrieve them as you work. Drawing from life is an excellent way to load data into your brain, because it forces you to focus on the make-up of your subject. And the more data you store, the easier drawing becomes.

You can gain similar information from photos too, or just by looking at something in real life. But the act of drawing reinforces the memory of its parts.

You can test your ability to recall quite easily. And this exercise is a good one to run through before you draw anything. Use words, not drawing – describe the object to yourself. Take a leaf: you know its shape but is it flat? Or does its surface consist of rounded and raised islands? Are the intervening veins lighter or darker than the body? Do the veins sink in to the upper surface or stand proud of it? How does the underneath surface differ from the top? Drawing from life helps to answer those questions, and commits the results to memory. The next time you draw a leaf, you’ll have all the information you need to draw it confidently and realistically.

Sometimes when I’m drawing foliage I find my store becomes depleted. No problem. I grab a sketchbook, walk to the nearest leafy lane (which I fortunately live on) and sketch individual leaves. Now, armed with an array of different shapes and forms, I can inject a greater sense of reality into my drawing.

Photos are good sources of detail, but they won’t supply much three-dimensional information.

Pure observation will help to analyse textures, form, and detail, but the memories might fade in time.

Drawing from life – even simple line drawings – will explore all aspects of the subject. You’ll remember your drawings, and their constituent parts, far more clearly and permanently. And, if you reach out and touch the subject, run your fingers through its hair, feel its glossy smoothness beneath your fingertips, scrape you nails over its rusty surface… you’ll remember all that too. It’s all “brain food” to feed into your future drawings.

This is a little 2″ x 3″ (2.5 x 7.5cm) drawing drawn from my imagination, but I was drawing what I knew and understood – recalling information supplied by various earlier life studies.


Or here in “The Warreners”:

The Warreners

I worked from photos of the dogs, although I had stroked and got to know each one. The rest is imaginary, but that was only possible because of earlier drawing from life – I know how grass springs from the ground; how heather forms into slim, angular branches; how sandstone is formed, and limestone rocks are altered by water action.

The human brain loves images. Draw what you see – convert your vision to an image – and you’ll remember everything about it for years to come.

Adjusting Values For Increased Three-dimensionality

Having offered some advice to Jay on an earlier project he emailed me again with his latest drawing – “Mojave Terrapin”. In Jay’s own words:

Our discussion centered around modifications to values as a drawing progresses. I had significantly enhanced the shadows over the photo reference I had for this image. I worked to enhance the darkness of shadows from the branches of the bush the Terrapin was under as well as darken the shadows under the turtle. I am a little disappointed that I didn’t even go darker.


I’m disappointed too, Jay. My first reaction was that my eye goes straight to the black hole at the right. My eye going there first is not too bad because I’m quickly taken to the Terrapin, but the lighter values used for the Terrapin do make it look rather flat. I don’t think the lighting is helping that either.

Judging from the shadows across the Terrapin the light appears to be very even across the shell – but I think you can use artistic license to lie about that convincingly.

May I suggest you progressively darken the left-hand side of the shell? That would increase it’s three-dimensionality. You could also echo the value of that black hole at the back of the head, where it disappears into the shell. It’s another “hole” so it should look natural. And all that might then allow you to further darken the shadow cast by the shell. There appears to be a lot of white in this drawing that needn’t be there.

Having done that you might then have to darken the ground, but I think it can withstand that – and it would help to separate the ground plane from the vertical one behind.

I’ve had a very quick attempt at adjusting your image – darkening the places I mentioned with Photoshop to show you what I mean:

Altered image

Jay replied this morning:

Thank you for your insight. You confirmed and certainly went beyond what I was thinking. Your feedback is invaluable to me.

In my head I had finished the drawing. So I’ve been working at getting over being done with this drawing. One of my realizations is that I have fallen into a habit of not exploiting value for the best result. The terrapin is an example of creating an overall pattern that is too light even when I was trying to be more extreme in using dark to create contrast and emphasis. It is a wakeup call to increase my extremes and watch more closely the overall effect on the drawing. I think a part of cause of this pattern is that I’m not viewing my work at a distance enough. With my nose to the paper I’m working up close and fail to see the effect from a distance unless I put the work across the room for a good look at the whole thing.

I completely understand that. On completion your head will be so full of the individual details that it’s almost impossible to see the drawing as a single entity. My solution to that is to put the drawing away for a few days – or until I can’t exactly remember everything about it. Then I go through a strange ritual. I take out the drawing (face down) and fix two pieces of Blu-Tack to the top corners. Then, without looking at the drawing, I stick it to the wall of my studio and walk away from it. When I turn round I’m too far away to see detail and I get to experience the drawing in the same way everyone else will.

Sometimes I’ll notice a tonal imbalance, or perhaps an element that is distractingly prominent. Then I’ll find a way to fix it with the minimum of work – not because I’m lazy, but if I make changes that are too drastic I’ll quite probably unsettle something else.

Finally, I’ll decide that the drawing is as good as it can be, given my current abilities. I know it can be better, but going beyond my abilities at that late stage will create more problems than it can solve.

You can enjoy more of Jay’s work at JSullivanArt.com

The Pencil Artist’s view of Negative Space

Jay emailed me to say that at recent art show:

One artist commented that drawing is vastly different than painting. If I was being judged by brush wielders they might see my work as incomplete. Pencil artists see white or negative space differently. These differences in perception influence lighting. Trying to apply painting criteria to drawing breaks down over issues of negative space.

I totally agree. You can perhaps best compare drawing to watercolour painting, since both have only the white of the paper available. In my workshops and online I try my hardest to get the artists to see the negative space positively. Two pencil strokes can leave a very usable white shape between them, and we pencil artists need to be constantly aware of the white spaces we are creating. I often find those spaces suggest something that I wouldn’t perhaps have consciously thought of, yet the space works well – especially when refined to become a specific positive element.

Jay continued:

I remember your lesson about negative space, focused on drawing grass. I’m trying to work through how to apply this lesson to contrasts between different foreground/background values like the shell of a terrapin and a stick he is under from a bush nearby. Shadows help with separation. At the same time, exaggerating the value differences between the stick and the light grey of the shell creates an artificial contrast making for greater separation of objects.

Your thinking is 100% accurate. Never be afraid of exaggeration. I do it all the time. False atmospheric perspective, for example, that exaggerates depth. I see drawing as a collection of visual clues that we supply to our viewers. If a little subtle exaggeration is required to add clarity to the clues, then I’ll apply it. We don’t have colour – we can’t add blue to create recession – so I use diminishing detail, softening edges, and lighter values that are often lighter than would naturally occur. Ultimately, all that matters is that the drawing is “read” correctly.

Here are two examples within one drawing “Early Morn at Witton Marsh”.

Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley
Early Morn at Witton Marsh

The atmospheric perspective has been stretched to create more recession, and the two birds are deliberately placed to enhance the gap between background and midground – contrasting their relative sharpness against the soft, misty trees and sky.

Detail from Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley
Detail from Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley

Lower down, the central dog is larger than it should be. It was sized for balance and presence rather than natural accuracy. To overcome that, the fence behind it has a false perspective – it recedes more quickly than it should. But it provides scale alongside the dog and then seamlessly connects that to the scale of the brush and trees behind it.

Detail from Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley
Detail from Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley

And to return to Jay’s original point, all the hair depends entirely on negative drawing – all white hair is purely negative space. The adjacent drawing defines the edge

Early Morn at Witton Marsh by Mike Sibley
detail – “Early Morn at Witton Marsh” by Mike Sibley

You can read the story behind this drawing at

Thanks for your question, Jay.