Dog Drawing critique

Molly emailed to ask…

I sent you a few of my pet portraits a few years ago and you were kind enough to give me a free critique. I purchased your book and have studied it, but still am struggling with my drawings. I was wondering if you would have the time to give me a quick critique on my more recent drawings so I can see how I have improved.

I would like to attend your workshop in Yellowstone, hopefully it will work out for me to attend this year.

Molly's livestock drawing

You sent me five images, Molly, but I’m going to concentrate on just one, because I think they all contain the same approach.

Molly's Rottweiler drawing

You’ve developed a good eye, Molly, and you show a good understanding of what you are attempting to draw. The Rottweiler’s nose, for example, is perfectly shaped – and you’ve certainly captured the character of this lovely dog!

However (you could see that coming, couldn’t you 🙂 ), I think you’re too focussed on the reference, and drawing without really being aware of the three-dimensional shape that you’re depicting. You are very accurate with the growth direction of the hair but reacting, I think, to the tones you see before you without asking yourself what they represent. You’re drawing the two-dimensional content very well, but losing sight of the three-dimensionality – and the finer detail that adds that sense of reality.

Eye with tonal range altered

Decide on a lighting direction before you begin. It doesn’t have to be the same one as seen in your reference – in fact, it will benefit you if it is different, because when you are forced to impose your own lighting, you HAVE to understand each element in three-dimensions. It’s this lack of three-dimensional lighting that is making your drawings appear to be flat – as is your shyness in using bold blacks.

For example, you’ve used good solid blacks for the pupils, but then not used them in the shadow beneath the top eyelid. As a result the eyeball and lid appear to be on the same plane. Think about where the structure you’re drawing recedes or protrudes and then light it accordingly. With a little practice you can then begin to manipulate elements of your drawing to bring out or emphasise the three-dimensional nature. I would, for example, be planning to introduce deep shade between the ear and head so the difference in planes was obvious. And I’d darken the neck beneath the chin too for the same reason.

The ear forced to stand away from the head

The ear now stands proud of the face and adds a definite three-dimensional sense for the viewer. Never be afraid of going dark – you can always later reduce the intensity of the tone with Blu-Tack or similar.

Now you are much more comfortable with your pencils begin to look deeper into the reference. Understand the exact make-up in greater detail and then build that into your work. The Rottie’s nose, for instance, looks good but in reality it has a leathery texture of pits and islands. You have a good idea of its construction – now slow down, focus more on that single element and add the texture. Treat it as a drawing in its own right so you’re not tempted to move on to other areas too quickly.

You’re definitely heading in the right direction! I do hope you can make it to the Yellowstone workshop in June. There’s so much I can show you more easily – and I can look over your shoulder too 🙂

Drawing Trees

Having read my book “Drawing from Line to Life”, Rob emailed me to ask…

I admire your attention to detail without the sacrifice of the ‘drawing’ appeal in your pictures. I was wondering, when drawing trees you mention drawing the internal structure. Are you advocating that when setting out to draw a tree you would draw the internal structure first, then map out the main masses of foliage on the limbs, then go back and erase the bough structure from within the mapped-out areas of foliage masses?

I don’t have any hard and fast rules for myself – I just wing it and do whatever best suggests itself.

Typical guideline drawing

However, one thing is certain – I need to have a three-dimensional idea of what I am about to draw. Establishing the trunk and major boughs gives me an armature to work around. On that skeleton I can then map out (however roughly) the major masses of foliage. If you keep your guidelines light, you probably won’t need to erase them.

You can start with the edges or the centre, but do bear in mind that the central ones will overlap those at the side of the tree. All this helps to reinforce the three-dimensional nature of the structure in your mind but relieves you of the need to work out form and lighting of each element. That said, I often lightly hatch the basic shading required to remind myself later of what I was visualising at the time.

I’m assuming (I hope correctly) that you are referring to midground and background trees. Foreground trees require more planning and tighter detail. Look closely at tress and ask yourself why you know it’s a tree even though, in all probability, you cannot discern actual leaves. Maybe it’s the dappled pattern of light? Perhaps the shadows that describe the three-dimensional nature of each leaf mass? Or, more probably, a combination of the two – and more.

Completed tree from guideline drawing

Next decide on the lighting direction and then begin drawing. I prefer to begin with those areas of branch that show through the foliage. as little light enters deep into the tree, and they are seen against a bright sky, they are relatively dark. Establishing one first, in the area that are going to work in, gives you the deepest tone and the white of your paper, of course, supplies the lightest. Now all your intermediate tones will fall into place as you work.

I tend not to shade but to just work in random patterns of lines and scribble; working light with more visible hie remaining in the brightest areas, and overworking the darker areas with more pressure. There’s little conscious thought involved – just watch the tree grow before your eyes.

Stages of spontaneously drawing a midground tree

As each element is three-dimensional, it must obey the laws of light and form – each casting its shadow on the mass below, and having a highlighted top and more shaded bottom.

Take a look at an earlier article of mine (“drawing-trees-and-bushes”), don’t plan too much, keep it free and spontaneous, and you’ll find yourself drawing realistic, organic trees in no time!

Choosing a Graphics Projector

Shanti, who attended one of my workshops last year, has emailed to ask:

“I have been reading your book like a fiend and wanted to ask a question about projectors for tracing. It must be a huge time saver and I was interested in knowing what you might recommend.”

A Graphics Projector is definitely a great time saver – but to be used with caution, as I shall explain.

The best, in my opinion, is the Artograph DB300 (which I use) or the more powerful DB400. Unfortunately, neither are still in production but if you find one on eBay or a similar site, seriously consider purchasing it. It’s a huge and heavy beast, so you need permanent space for it, and a strong table or worktop to clamp it on to. The nearest equivalent that I know of, although not as solid as the DB300, is the Kopykake Kobra 5000. This has a similar sized copyboard to the DB300’s impressive 10″× 8″, but I’m told it can be a little inaccurate towards the outer edges of the image. That’s a common fault, as I shall also explain.

Artograph DB300 and Kopykake Kobra 5000

Incidentally, for mural or large-scale works, the DB300 can be lifted off its pedestal and replaced on its side to project horizontally.

Some Graphics Projectors have front-silvered mirrors and others are more conventionally rear-silvered. Which do I choose?
Always choose a front-silvered mirror. A rear-silvered one presents two surfaces for the image to reflect from – the front of the glass and, slightly behind it, the actual silvered surface. This can result in ghost images appearing.

My Graphics Projector displays distortion towards the outer edges of the projected image.
This is a common problem and easy to check. Draw out a grid of squares, load it onto the copyholder and view the result. Any distortion will immediately become apparent. Knowing that distortion is present is useful, but knowing WHERE that distortion occurs is invaluable. In most cases you should find the central section to be sufficiently distortion-free for most uses.

I overcome that problem by projecting multiple images to build up a complete composition. I’ll project an overall sketch of my proposed composition, resize it as required, and then outline only the background onto my final drawing paper, bearing in mind that it might not be totally accurate. At the same time I’ll mark the positions (placeholders) of the important elements – those that have to be accurate. Each of those elements will have been worked on as separate line drawings, and each is individually projected, placed in its placeholder and traced off. As these smaller line drawing occupy only the central area, they are free of distortion.

That might sound like extra work but, by isolating them, I learn much more about each of those elements while I finalise their appearances.

When I begin drawing, I find I only have a half-formed idea of how to tackle each element.
This can be a common problem when you simply trace directly from reference material. You have (and require) no understanding of the subject when you merely trace outlines and features. The solution is to use at least two steps.

Step #1: Project and trace the reference, so you remove all lighting, three-dimensional form, and texture. Boiled down to a simple line drawing, you can now easily alter it to suit your requirements, build in emotion, fix potential visual problems and even (if required) work out an entirely new lighting source direction. During this stage you will discover potential problems, work out what parts actually look like, and make the majority of the errors that might otherwise ruin your drawing.

Step #2: Project and trace your Stage 1 line drawing. Resize it to fit the placeholder or paper (if it is a stand-alone subject). What you are now projecting is YOUR drawing and not just a mechanical tracing of a reference.

Finally, a Graphics Projector can perform more tasks than you might consider possible. I now use a computer to perform many of those tasks, but previously I would, for example, use my DB300 to project one photograph of a dog onto another, using a piece of card to blank out unwanted areas so I could see the effect of one head attached to another body. Or I can superimpose the original photograph onto my line drawing and, waving a piece card from side to side through the projected light, easily check for substantial inaccuracies – any deviations between the two flash on and off. With some imagination, the uses are endless.