How important is drawing? Do I need to learn to draw or can I just skip that and get straight to painting?
Occasionally I come across a student whose face drops when I mention the discipline of drawing practice. Somewhere along the line they have picked up the belief that drawing skills elude them and are nursing a hope that it’s not that important to being able to paint, which is what they really want to do anyway. After all there are plenty of techniques out there to lean on if your drawing skills are lacking – grids, tracing, projecting, carbon transfer paper…although admittedly these things are not so easy to use in the field.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had a love for drawing stretching back to my childhood, as far as I can remember. For me drawing was the most natural of ways to try and make sense of the world. I seem to have a primordial appetite for visually recognising shapes.
As far as I’m concerned, being able to draw accurately from life, far from being restrictive, is actually a pathway to freedom. Drawing underpins everything in the context of figurative painting. It doesn’t matter how good one is at mixing colour or applying the paint, if the drawing has failed the painting has failed.
Artists sometimes remark that although they are generally happy with one genre they can’t paint ‘..….’, fill in the blank here with ‘boats’, ‘figures’ or ‘horses’. Students often show a struggle with perspective. The fundamental problem here is lack of drawing practise. When you can competently draw from life, no subject matter will ever feel out of bounds to you.
Why draw particularly from life? How is it different to drawing from paintings or photos? When we draw from life we are bombarded with information about the world before us which we see in three dimensions, and using basic materials we are having to translate and simplify that information onto a flat surface, in a convincing manner. The skills involved are a long way away from copying something that is already two dimensional such as a photograph.
That’s not to say I don’t think it’s worthwhile to ever sketch from the static image as any drawing practise is better than none, but it hasn’t taken you through that all important process of interpretation.
I would say be aware that it’s the process of drawing from life regularly that’s going to have the fastest and most profound impact on your painting skills, so make every effort to get into a daily habit of even just ten minutes. If you fall out of the habit, as I do from time to time, make every effort to get back into it as soon as you can.
The drawings in your sketchbook don’t have to relate closely to your painting work. This year my sketchbooks are full of faces and figures.
I mainly paint marine landscapes. Drawing for it’s own sake is hugely important to me, and when I am in a regular drawing practise I can feel the benefits within my paintings. I feel sharper, more visually ‘tuned in’ and also more open and inspired. The paint flows from my brush more smoothly. Tiny choirs of winged angels hover above my easel singing softly. Ok, so the last sentence wasn’t quite true but you get the idea.
There are as many different methods of drawing and drawing materials as there are artists, and also lots of books on the subject if you need an injection of ideas to get you started. Experiment with different materials and different papers and all kinds of pens from fine points to chunky marker pens.
Permanent pens as well as water soluble pens, even watercolour marker pens and acrylic paint pens. Conte sticks, crumbly soft pastels and smudgy charcoal. Pencils and charcoal pencils and pastel pencils and wax crayons. Vibrant little pots of ink shining like jewels used with brush and dip pens and quills and cartridge pens. Scratchy little sticks dipped in sepia or black ink.
Watercolours, gouache and watercolour pencils. The options are endless. Change mediums to keep yourself interested and your drawings fresh.
If you want your paintings to look more painterly and less ‘frozen’, I think it’s best when you draw to work in values rather than line, focusing your efforts on drawing the tonal relationships between things. Drawing forces you to reveal the essence of the subject, it’s what we need to know in order to paint it. Drawing teaches us to see.
If you have only time for a quick sketch or if you are working from a moving subject try a gesture sketch. In this type of drawing you are seeking to capture the very essence of your subject with the very minimum of fuss. For example, how would you capture the essence of a stretching cat in just a line or two? It requires a lot of practise. You will learn that it wouldn’t serve you well to start with a careful outline of the cat’s ear, but rather a sweeping line to represent the curve of the spine would be a better place to begin.
I suggest that you don’t use an eraser to rub out ‘mistakes’. Think of your pencil marks as showing a journey that you have been on, evidence of where your eye has travelled and the decisions you have made along the way. If you decide a mark is in the wrong place, just draw a new one alongside but a little firmer. In my opinion one honest sketch which shows evidence of a struggle and ‘working things out’ is worth twenty perfectly executed and polished drawings. I like to see evidence of your thought process in your drawings.
I also use drawing as a way of gathering information for paintings and as compositional and planning aids. If you are planning to paint from the sketch at a later date you will need to make sure you’ve made a complete statement – particularly that you know what is happening in all areas of what will become the painting. A common mistake is to focus on objects of interest and then to find later that you have no information about what was going on in the background of the scene. I would advise that a fully tonal drawing provides the knowledge you need to paint from in the studio. Written notes on colour and anything that will jog your memory about the place such as sounds, weather, overheard conversations are all of benefit when it comes to painting from the reference drawing in the studio.
Drawing is the artists way of learning from the world around us, it is a conversation between you and nature with the only intermediary being the tool you use to draw with. It’s also about personal growth, and there’s something immensely satisfying about working privately in your sketchbook for your own interest and improvement in these fast paced times where photos are snapped and shared worldwide in a matter of seconds. I use drawing as meditation, a chance to check in with my deeper self. Do you incorporate drawing into your working practise? I would love to hear what drawing means to you.
Some book suggestions –
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