As you may know, I’ve been teaching drawing at Drawspace.com for a few years, and one of my students has just asked:
“Mike, I think I would benefit from more practice of drawing things outside the realms of the course for further practice of actually looking at things. Have you got any ideas, please, as to what I could practice to try to improve my understanding?”
That’s an excellent idea! I firmly believe that you cannot successfully draw what you do not understand, so all opportunities to sketch from life, or even from photographs, are always worthwhile.
We graphite artists only have a pointed stylus to work with – no 1″ wide brushes for broad sweeps of colour – so we tend to be detail-orientated. In order for that to work well, we need a mental store of images we can draw on. Fortunately the more you draw, the more you cannot help looking closely at everything around you, and so your store grows ever larger. And we don’t have colour at our disposal – we only have texture and contrast to work with – so again we tend to study the detail in everything. As a by-product, we begin to see the world in a wonderful way that escapes almost everyone else.
When the average person sees a brown horse in a green field, they scan quickly across it and notice “horse” and “field”. But, as we don’t have colour and brown and green are tonally similar, we begin to try to work how we could make one stand out from the other. And we pick up information about the details of both at the same time, including the way, for example, we could use the light shining on its back to separate it from the darker grass behind.
Go and get a coffee…. this could be a long read 🙂
As I was saying… the more we draw, the more we store, appreciate and understand. So draw whatever you can, whenever you can.
Begin with things that are both simple and of interest to you. If you like plants, draw a leaf or two, but not the whole plant. You’ll learn more from one leaf than you will by repeating it over and over as you reproduce the plant, because you’ll be looking at a broad overview instead of concentrating on the understanding of one small part. If you like dogs, draw its collar – preferably not on the dog. And while you’re drawing it, look at the way the light helps us to understand its three-dimensional form.
I suspect you can draw a good resemblance of something but have problems making it look three-dimensional? That’s very common. The answers are there right in front of you once you tune yourself into looking at it in the way an artist does. Photos are excellent “frozen moments in time” in that respect too. Let’s take that collar as an example. Place it on a table and draw it, concentrating on its outline. Now you have a line drawing, hopefully fairly accurate, but line does not exist in Nature so we have to describe its edges in ways that Nature uses.
Begin to shade it and use that to describe its three-dimensional form – one small area at time, so you have time to work out and understand what that little area requires. You can see the collar and understand its shape, and see that it is not a part of the table, yet it has no line around it. The reason you can see it is due to light and shade. The way it catches the light, the areas that are hidden from the light, and the way it casts its own shadow on the table. Use those changes in tonal value to describe the edges instead of line – because that’s how we see them. And if you need to exaggerate to make it clear, do that. We’re artists, not photographers; we don’t copy, we interpret – we bend the world to suit our aims 😉
If you do that, you’ll quickly begin to understand how to construct three-dimensional believable objects in your drawing. And you’ll be storing all that knowledge so you can draw on it the next time you encounter a similar situation.
Just draw. If it interest you, that helps, but it doesn’t matter if it’s your coffee cup, the neighbour’s washing on the line, leaves from your garden, your phone, a crumpled sheet of paper… anything and everything is suitable. But, for now, steer clear of the cat on the mat… or anything else that is complex or heavily textured.
If you have a small camera, or a camera in your phone, carry it around with you and photograph whatever interests or pleases you. You can study it at length later, and that too will add to your store of mental images and textures. What you photograph is up to you, but I have packets full of photos of lovely old bricks and rocks, trees and weeds, old boats and tractors, rock pools and seaweed, tree bark, old weathered wood, and many many more.