by Norm Nason
(Also published in the magazine, The Scream)
© 2003 Norm Nason. All rights reserved. No portion of this essay may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.
Throughout human history men and women have drawn. Their reasons have been as legion as their numbers, but common to all has been the desire to create: the satisfaction that comes from making an original, an artifact that did not exist before, executed with knowledge and skill. For some, drawing is a pleasurable pastime; for others, a means of earning a living. But for the truly smitten, drawing is nothing less than a passion, a lifelong commitment, an expression of love. At its best, drawing is a transforming experience in which one feels like a conduit, a pipeline between the subject and its translation on paper. The best art happens when we simply open ourselves to this creative flow, get out of our own way and allow it to happen.
In the beginning, early humans probably first drew with sticks in the sand. By 32,000 B.C. fire use was well established and charcoal twigs were employed to scratch iconic images onto the walls of caves. These drawings preceeded the invention of the written word and were our first permanent means of recording past events. They were primarily ceremonial renderings, depicting the hunt and its significance in sustaining the life of the clan. These drawings (and later paintings) became increasingly important in ritualistic gatherings, forging a link between art and spiritual sustenance that arguably reached its pinnacle in the High Renaissance. It is fascinating to realize that charcoal—possibly our first drawing medium—is still in use today. Since our humble beginnings drawing has been inextricably mingled with the human psyche and seems destined to be with us always. It has been a vehicle for introspection and self-expression; it has helped us communicate with one another and articulate our growth as a species. Perhaps in some plain and simple manner, drawing is part of what defines us as human beings.
The best artists are keen observers of nature. But more than this, they are superb communicators. Their aesthetic sensibility acts as a bridge between the inner workings of their minds and society at large. The job of artists is not merely to reproduce what is seen (as a camera would), but to interpret their observations, leaving something of themselves within everything they create. If it may be said that a photographer captures the essence of a subject, one may reach an even deeper understanding through drawing.
Unlike photography, drawing requires greater sensitivity from the artist and a higher degree of participation from the viewer who looks upon the finished work. To draw well, we must not merely glance at the subject, we must study. Through drawing, we come to understand. We gain insights into how objects occupy space, how light and shade models form, and how objects are affected by the tug of earth’s gravity. In viewing a work of art we come to know something of not only the subject, but the artist as well. We are touched by his feelings and beliefs, and mode of communicating them.
In drawing the human figure we learn about balance, harmony and interconnectivity. With practice we may come to view not only our human subject but the entire world in a more comprehensive, balanced and objective manner. Largely a process of simplification, of rendering the essential while omitting the unnecessary, drawing is rich in contrasts, truths, and insights. These in turn may influence us far beyond the simple mastery of our craft. We may be surprised to find that while becoming sensitive artists we have quietly become better practitioners of living our lives.
The craft of drawing has traditionally been divided into two camps: linear and tonal. In broad terms, linear drawing is defined by its dominant use of line and includes the drawings of such varied artists as Leonardo Da Vinci, Alphonse Mucha and Egon Schiele. Tonal drawing, on the other hand, is more closely related to painting, where line is subordinate to tone. Here broad strokes are applied as if with a wide brush, providing a unique counterpoint to line work. The great American artist John Singer Sargent drew tonally, as did the Russian Nicolai Fechin, the French Post Impressionist Georges Seurat, and the Spaniard Ramón Casas. For our purposes it is enough to remember that line creates flat contour, while tone exploits three-dimensional space.
In learning to draw tonally, two rules are essential: adhere to sound fundamentals and practice with diligence. Having a firm understanding of the basics is certainly important; yet without practice it forms a wasted body of knowledge. Conversely, although practice and repetition are necessary to develop drawing prowess, repeating the same mistakes over and over again does not an artist make. Strive to thoroughly learn the drawing fundamentals outlined in this essay; they will serve as your foundation for further growth and prevent the recurrence of mistakes. Then, hone your knowledge with assiduous practice. There are no shortcuts. The road to artistic proficiency is paved with millions of discarded drawings and torn canvases, broken casts of bronze, and countless chips of marble.
Draw as if you were conducting an orchestra, harmonizing myriad elements into a cohesive whole. Just as a conductor’s movements are related to the music he directs, you should, to the extent that it is possible, be conscious of the motions your hand makes against the paper. Strive for dynamic, elegant, fluid movements and these attributes will find their way into your illustrations.
The first strokes you apply to the page will set the stage for the rest of your drawing. If you begin timidly there stands a good chance you will end up with a timid drawing. Therefore, begin each illustration forcefully, in an explosion of effort—end with refinement and subtlety. In the initial stages, seek out and describe only the large and the obvious. Don’t think of details until much later. It’s not that details are unimportant; there is simply a sequence that must be followed, a proper ordering of events. It is akin to building a house: you must pour the foundation before hanging the wallpaper. Realize that your drawing is, quite literally, a frozen representation of your state of mind as you perform the task: if you are bored, it will record your boredom; if you are afraid, it will record your fear.
The human figure is one of the most complex, most challenging, most beautiful subjects on earth. The key to drawing it well lies in recognizing that your task is not simply to copy nature. If it were, photographs would have taken the place of illustrations decades ago. An artist creates, certainly, but he must also learn the importance of omission. Beginning students always render too much. Learn what to discard or leave under-developed in your drawings, as well as what to carry to a high level of finish.
Study the great masters of the past and learn to distinguish between good and bad art. Digest the opinions of others, but ultimately, decide this for yourself: whatever your goals, you should first and foremost recognize what pleases you. And since good art is good no matter what the medium, learning more about one type will expand your interest in others. While experimenting with drawing you may be delighted to find yourself equally attracted to painting or sculpture, gardening or photography, creative writing, dance, music, cooking, or other means of expression. Don’t hesitate to pursue these other activities. You may run the risk of spreading yourself too thin, but if your time is managed properly these complementary interests will buttress your drawing skills.
Listen to yourself carefully. Cultivate an awareness of your desires, your shortcomings, your frustrations and aspirations. Listen well, and you will come to know yourself better. Since art is self-expression, this knowledge will provide you with something to say.
I recommend that you purchase an inexpensive photo album and begin filling its pages with art that you appreciate from reproductions collected from various magazines and postcards. The purpose of this is to identify exactly what attracts you so that you may gain a sense of where you are likely to be going. It does not matter if your tastes differ from others. What matters is that you decide what interests you and head in that direction. In time, your tastes may change; this is natural. When it happens, be sure to update your album accordingly; it should evolve as you evolve. As you are able to afford it, supplement your collection with original art created by those you admire rather than reproductions exclusively. Throughout history artists have bought, exchanged, traded and borrowed one-another’s work for the pleasure and influx of new ideas it brought them. The same will be of great benefit to you.
Many adults who attend their first life drawing course are disappointed to discover that their drawings resemble those made in early childhood. Yes, you have matured in many ways. But when it comes to drawing you should not expect that simply because you are older you will draw better than you did when young.
Most individuals don’t hope to become more proficient in engineering, mathematics, business management or dentistry simply because they have aged. They intuitively understand that many years of study and practice are required before mastering these disciplines. And yet, with art, many have contrary expectations.
The truth is that if you haven’t drawn since you were seven years old, once you resume you will continue from where you left off. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Your greater maturity will speed the learning process and you will make up for lost time with surprising rapidity. For now, accept the fact that your artistic abilities have not matured simply because you have. Drawing proficiency is an acquired skill and like any other, it is one requiring practice, patience, and a strong desire to succeed.
The Core of Art
Drawing lies at the core of all art; it lays the artist bare. If one cannot reproduce accurately and economically what is seen, no amount of brilliant color or design will save the composition. Nothing will promote one’s reputation as an artist so much as good draftsmanship. Learn to draw well, and you will have opened the door to all of the visual arts. Artists themselves know who the best draftsmen and draftswomen are: Edgar Degas, Berte Morisot, William Merritt Chase, Joaquin Sorolla, Diego Velázquez, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Mary Cassatt, Anders Zorn, Mariano Fortuny, Ilya Repin, Richard Schmid, Hans Holbien, Sergei Bongart, Alphonse Mucha, Émile Auguste Carolus-Duran, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and countless others throughout history. Study the work of the very best; they have much to offer the student.
The Drawing State of Mind
Focus not so much on making a beautiful drawing, but on learning to draw well. Reach a state of mind where the process of drawing is the ultimate goal and where the finished drawing is only a by-product. Cultivate your drawing skills; have no agenda other than to improve; no motive beyond a desire to grow, to be better this week than you where the last.
Serious students of drawing often have unrealistically high expectations—expectations that in many cases far outpace their abilities. When they are unable to draw as well as they desire to draw, they may become frustrated and discouraged. At this point they do not see that their main obstacle has become their negative mindset—rather than their lack of ability or experience. My advise to those who wish to avoid this pitfall is simply this: focus on learning to draw, nothing more. Think of it as an intellectual excercise, rather than an emotional one. Learn to sidestep emotional responses to your own work so that nothing stands between your model and your drawing. Be clear headed and open to the creative process. Every artist, no matter how experienced, has something yet to learn. Even Buddha had an other step to take. Harboring thoughts of inadequacy does nothing but impede your progress.
Learning from Failure
Failure is a necessary part of learning; one should not strive to avoid it. Were it not for experiencing failure, we would become satisfied with our efforts and would have no reason to progress any further. Realize that you will never be entirely pleased with any drawing you produce. In each attempt you will strive to accomplish something beyond the scope of your abilities. You will fail in your attempt to some degree, but at the same time grow as an artist. Accept the fact that it will always be so; it will keep you humble.
You may already have some drawing experience and this may be helpful to you. But if not seen in the proper perspective, past experience can actually hinder artistic development. Experienced students of art tend to cling to old habits. There is security in this, for to try something new would mean sailing into uncharted waters, becoming vulnerable to failure. This, as I have said, can be painful and discouraging. One would be wise to remember that failure is a necessary part of learning. Repeat this as a mantra. Despite your previous experience or assumptions, make a serious effort to set aside your old habits and give consideration to new methods. Have no preconceptions or prejudices. If you cling too strongly to past practices you run the risk of missing critical information that might otherwise improve your ability to draw.
When learning a new method of drawing (or any new discipline, for that matter), you are taking the difficult path. Your attempts may feel awkward at first, your journey tough and frustrating. Your first drawings done in the new manner will very likely be worse than the ones you did the old way. When this happens, stay the course. Remember that the progressive artist is one who adheres to a methodology in which he willingly tries new things and risks failure. Sargent did this. So did Rembrandt. Not satisfied with mastering portraits, they each proceeded as if they were perpetually in school, striving at every moment to learn something new.
Allow me to tell you a little fable in order to make a critical point:
There once was a young man who sought enlightenment and so studied for many years to be the best monk he could be. Finally, when he felt confident enough, he travelled hundreds of miles and endured many hardships in order to gain an audience with the Great Master, the spiritual leader of his monastic order. High on a rocky mountain peak, the young monk was lead into a great temple and was confronted by a very old man. The Great Master greeted the young monk, saying, “Do you see that large table against the wall? Please be so kind as to slide it near the window for me.”
The young monk thought this was an unusual request, but could see that the old man was too frail to do it himself. So he pressed his palms to the massive table and pushed with all his might. Strain as he might, however, he could not budge it an inch, let alone move it across the room to the window.
“I’m sorry, Master,” he said breathlessly, his face red and perspiring, “I’m afraid the table is too heavy.”
The old Monk smiled at him. “No, my young friend,” he said. “The table is not too heavy. You lack the strength to move it.”
The point of this story is that we often fail to admit responsibility for our inadequacies. In reality, no subject is difficult to draw; it is our lack of drive or ability that makes it seem so. In denying responsibility for our shortcomings, we diminish our awareness of what we must learn in order to improve. To draw well, we must meet our weaknesses head on. We must harbor an awarness of our inadequacies and constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve them. This is the key to successful advancement as an artist.
If in the future you find yourself having difficulty drawing, ask yourself why. Is it because you need more knowledge of anatomy? Can you benefit from more practice in a specific area? Conversely, if you find a certain subject uninteresting or uninspiring, ask yourself how you might draw that same subject so it comes alive with vitality and appears beautiful. Ask how you might convert your perception of that dull, tedious subject into a facinating drawing. The artist’s job is to confront the ordinary, muntane elements of life and—by sheer strength of will—transform them. This only happens when you take responsibility for understanding the character of your weaknesses. It is only by overcoming them that you will experience artistic growth.
The Artist’s Privilege
Artists are a privileged lot in that we have the opportunity—indeed, permission—to truly study the human face and figure for prolonged periods of time. In our society, few others are afforded such a luxury. No other circumstance permits our assessment of the human form in such a prolonged, disciplined and focused manner. As a result of this privilege, artists gain deeper insights into what makes the human body function and appear as it does. In studying the figure we come to understand more and with greater fidelity than those who do not draw. Don’t take this privilege for granted. Make use of it to the utmost level of your abilities. See well.
In the photograph above, notice the shadow that the model’s left arm casts across her stomach. Her arm blocks the light and causes the shadow’s shape, but this in turn is modified by the contours of her stomach. The shape of the cast shadow, therefore, is defined by both the arm and the stomach, not simply one or the other. From this observation we realize a universal truth, that cast shadows are descriptive of both the object which casts, and the object which receives.
Also notice how the portions of her body that face the source of light most directly—such as the top of her legs, upper torso and stomach near her navel—are brighter than the areas that face away from the light. Note how her right breast is lifted and pulled backward with the raising of her right arm, and how this outstretched appendage is counterbalanced by the left leg, which extends outward in the opposite direction. Careful observations such as these are essential if one’s drawing is to appear convincing. Drawing is, after all, mostly seeing. The dexterity required to put what is seen on paper is minimal by comparison.
Judgement by Others
Artists must be thick-skinned. They must be able and willing to work alone and unappreciated. They must also recognize when praise is unwarranted, unqualified, or exaggerated. Vincent van Gogh understood this.
In late 1889, at the height of his abilities and only months before his self-inflicted death, Vincent’s art was represented by his brother Theo at the Vingtistes’ exhibition in Brussels. His work was consequently reviewed for the first time in the French newspaper Mercure de France by Albert Aurier, a young poet and art critic. In his long and highly complementary review, Aurier praised Vincent’s dazzling use of pure color, and his aggressive manner of depicting nature faithfully.Vincent’s response to the review was immediate and less than enthusiastic. He felt that the poet’s praise, although surely sincere, was unfounded. He wrote a polite letter to Aurier, thanking him for his favoritism but cautioning him against over-emphasizing the value of his work. He urged that the praise heaped upon him might be better directed at those to whom he was artistically indebted, Monticelli and Gauguin in particular.
In the 10 years he worked in virtual obscurity as an artist, Vincent produced some 1,100 drawings and 875 paintings—70 in the last 70 days of his life. Only a few of these were sold in his lifetime. Contrast this with recent times, when van Gogh’s work routinely commands the art world’s hightest prices. His painting entitled Irises, for instance, sold recently at public auction for a record $53 million. A year later, his painting of Dr. Gashet sold for an astonishing $82.5 million.
The point is that regardless of what others thought, Vincent maintained his own sober appraisal of his abilities. Like every artist, he alone understood the true scope of his unique strengths and shortcomings. Vincent’s value system stemmed from an assessment of his ability to communicate clearly through his medium that which was inside him, rather than how others judged his work, good or bad. So it should be with you.
What makes a drawing or painting have worth? Consider the premise that artistic value comes as a consequence of a work’s ability to sustain interest—in both the artist and other viewers—over the long term. Some works of art hold our interest indefinately; others loose their charm after only a handful of viewings. Think of the most memorable works you have seen in books, galleries and museums. What qualities do they share in common? Enduring works of art do not have to be sizeable, or expensive, or ancient, or elaborate, or even beautiful. They possess, however, universal traits that quantify artistic value; aspects that help to maintain our interest for years on end. Here are some of them:
Identification with the human condition; the dignity and worth of human beings.
All parts working for the good of the whole. Rhythms are not random, but lead the eye about the composition in a purposeful manner.
Artistic proficiency. Bravura, forcefullness, high spiritedness, technical prowess, realization of the artist’s intent.
When the viewer perceives that there is a presense beyond the boundaries of the drawing (or painting), a sense of mystery is envolked. When the human subject of a drawing glances expectantly at an unseen suitor, or a shadow cast from beyond the frame falls into view, we cannot help but wonder what exists beyond. Mystery happens when the whole story is not revealed. It occurs when—as was often the case with Caravaggio’s work—portions of the picture are accentuated in the light, while others are obscured by shadow.
The ability to appear whole and complete. Harmoniously weighted across horizontal and vertical dimensions.
Insofar as is possible, unencumbered comminication between artist and viewer.
Unpretentiousness, modesty and introspection; the absence of vanity and arrogance. The ability of the artist to speak through his work, to give freely of himself.
These are some of qualities that help define artistic worth…you may have others. Think of them when you are drawing, and even when you are not. Remember, a drawing is not simply a random series of marks on paper. It consists of thoughts first…pencil strokes second.
The Art School
The art school is a place where students are taught by example, where there are ample opportunities for practice and experimentation, and where one finds others with whom one might exchange creative ideas. A melting pot of methodology and creative talent, the art school helps the student by introducing a him or her to a broader range of possibilities than might otherwise be encountered.
Unfortunately, schools can also be aesthetic processing plants, stamping out cookie-cutter artists having adequate, though not unique, skills. Due to the subjective nature of art, schools may also be centers for political infighting, power struggles, and the flexing of egos. Whatever your goals, you would be wise to recognize that your education is essentially your own responsibility. It is your choice if you become a product of the school or exploit the school’s many resources for your own gain. As you mature as an artist, give voice to the growing strengths of your convictions and resist the tendency of any school to embrace you within its subculture. From the school’s barrage of visual and verbal information, you must ultimately decide for yourself what is good, bad, useful, or to be discarded.
As children we were taught using a process of selective introduction. There were colors and shapes to be identified, patterns and textures to be discovered for the first time. There were new visuals to be seen in books and encountered on outings; countless objects and images to be categorized and named with the help of our parents and teachers.
This method works well for children, but for the adult learning to draw, these distant memories become problematic. We grow up thinking that a nose, say, is a thing in and of itself—which, of course, it is not. A nose is simply a protrusion from the flatter front of the face; it is not a separate object which may be removed and replaced like a watch on the wrist. In the same way an eye is not a distinct thing. From the artist’s standpoint it consists only of various shapes, values and colors; a roundness within a depression within the front surface of the head. What is the head, for that matter, if not an elliptical protrusion from the top of the torso?
Odd though it sounds, in order to draw effectively we must unlearn a bit of what we learned as children. When we draw a head, a figure, or anything at all, we must first and foremost distance ourselves from what the subject actually is, and see it abstractly. Instead of a human being, we must train ourselves to see an abstract pattern of light and dark. If we reproduce this pattern accurately, we will go a long way toward describing the essence of the subject. This is why beginning students draw best from photographs that are turned upside down, where the actual subjects are less recognizable. Liberated to reproduce the pattern of light and dark without distraction, students draw with greater accuracy.
The astute reader may be aware of an apparent contradiction in what I have said. How, you may ask, must great art, high art, contain an element of humanity when the artist views the subject abstractly? The solution becomes apparent when we realize that there is a difference between one who is learning and the accomplished artist. The student must forget about the human being, thinking only of the pattern of light and dark. Only later, when the fundamentals have been mastered, should he allow humanity to slip back into his work.
Self and Subject
Whether you are drawing from the model or from a photograph, avoid the temptation to copy exactly what you see. Every person, no matter how attractive, may appear grotesque from a certain vantage, or under unusual lighting conditions. When this happens, make the feature in question look more ideal than you see it, more closely related to its essence, its character. The artist’s job is to use his subject as reference, rather than to transcribe it literally. Realize this, and you will never merely copy, but will include only what benefits the rendering. This is how your personality finds its way into your drawing, becoming an integral part of it. Remember, your primary task is not to reproduce the model in every detail, but to make a successful, personal drawing.
This having been said, there are highly regarded artists who render their subjects literally (or nearly so), but even they have imposed their personal vision by selecting the model(s), composition and value scheme. Consider the Dutch master Jan Vermeer, whose objective was to promote the quiet domistic interiors he rendered so carefully. His paintings reproduce, in a highly realistic manner, luminous conditions of light. Although Vermeer’s presence is felt in his choice of subject and composition, he has made a conscious effort to subjugate his personal feelings. We are left with the impression that the actual settings he used looked very much as he depicted them.
For other artists, however, the subject chosen is much less important than their personal vision, their emotional state. These artists interpret what they see, not merely transcribe, so their feelings become an integral, if not dominant, part of their portfolio. At the turn of the century Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and other French Impressionists were far more interested in how they went about painting than they were in what was painted. Theirs are largely portraits of themselves, regardless of the subjects depicted.
It is up to you to decide how you will proceed. Keep in mind, however, that you should master the basics before launching into the depths of personal expression. You must learn to speak before you can communicate to others. New students always want everything immediately. They wish to paint like Charles Hawthorne or draw like Howard Pyle—but without putting in the years of practice that it took these individuals to become masters of their craft.
Many a good artist has dreaded the comment, made to them by laymen: “You are so talented!” They object to the phrase because it denies them all the many dedicated years they worked to hone their skills. Artists may be born with an innate intererst in art—a force that drives them forward, past countless obstacles—but the skills they aquire are always the result of years of hard work. If you are unsure how to proceed with your drawing, discover what kind of art you enjoy. Visit museums and galleries; study art in books and magazines. This will show you the way. Whatever path you take, be sure that your choice is not merely cover for a lack of skill. If you are fond of abstract art, for instance, make certain that it is not because you find it easier to produce than realism. First and foremost, learn to draw well and to speak with a clear voice. Then, when you finally do communicate through your work, you will be understood by others.
When you think about it, drawing is an excercise in memorization. You look at the model, soak up information like a sponge, then retain it long enough to spill the image onto paper. All of us like to think we have keen powers of observation and good memories, but this is rarely the case. You have looked at your own face in the mirror for years, but can you draw it from memory? How about the faces of your parents, your spouse, your children? You look at the dashboard of your car every day, but do you recall it well enough to draw it accurately?
The trouble is that although we look, few of us take the time to really see. Needless to say, increasing our power of observation is paramount in learning to draw better. One way of accomplishing this is to increase the time taken between looking and drawing. As an excercise, try turning your back to the model. You’ll have to turn your head to see your subject, and thus extend the time taken between observing and drawing. Better still, place your model in one room and your drawing paper in another. Although frustrating at first, you will soon develop an exceptional visual memory. Practice such exercises, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly your powers of observation improve.
Nature and Art
It may be argured that artists are closer to nature—and to their own nature—than are other individuals. Artists are not simply observers of the natural world, they are a part of it. While drawing, an artist spends many minutes or hours in tranquil contemplation of his subject. How different this is from one merely glancing, merely passing through. Perhaps not surprisingly, most artists are always drawing—or painting, or sculpting—if only in their minds. They see an unusual face in a crowd and think about how it might be faithfully rendered, what effects might be achieved; they drive their car and compose landscapes in their minds with every turn of the steering wheel. It has been said that to truly understand a man, we must walk in his shoes. To truly see him, we must draw his picture.
To better understand our relationship with art it is necessary to first define our place in the scheme of things. What is our true nature, our essence as human beings? How do we fit into the world? These are not easy questions to answer, but we do know this: animals in the wild are somehow closer to nature than we are, and perhaps for this reason, closer to their essence. They “fit in” better than humans do, and left to their own devices, rarely deviate from their natural course. Every action a bear makes in the wild, for instance, is essentially bear like. Everything about a rainbow trout says “trout.” In every way possible a deer is a deer, a wolf a wolf, a hawk a hawk; they never stray from their nature. Human beings, for the most part, are not as consistent as this. Men and women dieting, day trading stocks and driving in rush hour traffic are not essentially human in quite the same way that an otter gliding through a river is essentially an otter.
The difference is that we humans are too aware of our own existence; we think too much and deviate from our charted path. We constantly create ourselves anew, redefine ourselves, perform self analysis. Our minds, our thoughts, our free will—very often distance us from what we naturally are, from simply being. We live in our minds, rather than in the world. It is the age old existential problem, and the reason why Eastern meditation techniques typically begin by a focus on breathing: being, rather than thinking.
There are, fortunately, essentially human endeavors that remain untainted by egocentrism, acts in which the analytical mind of man fades into the background. Drawing is one of these acts, revealing a glimmer of our true nature. While drawing, a kind of transcendence takes place. In hindsight we look back upon these occasions as being ones in which we were no longer set apart from nature, but were an integral part of it. While drawing, we are living the moment.
Many of the world’s greatest works of art are simple arrangements of everyday things: a pair of old shoes, rendered with quiet dignity by van Gogh; a hanging beef carcass, painted with great sensitivity by Rembrandt; a seated, contemplating man, powerfully sculpted by Rodin. In the developmental stages of your own abilities, place your model in a simple setting with few, if any, additional elements. A lone figure against a plain background provides enough to challenge even the most experienced artist. If you have the occasion, examine the work of American painter Andrew Wyeth. Although he creates highly rendered scenes, they are composed in a profoundly simple manner. It is his basic, simple compositions that serve as foundations to hold his extraordinary detail together. Remember that while simplicity unifies, complexity fragments. A drawing that is composed of only a few basic elements, economically stated, speaks clearly of the artist’s intentions. It says he is in control of his medium, rather than the other way around. A complex drawing more often appears confused and monotinous, and lacking a sense of direction. It is said of Ernest Hemmingway that his writing has a great economy of style. Like him, we would be wise to say more with less.
As you draw, create a methodology in which small accidents are allowed to happen. Cultivate a degree of randomness or unpredictability in your work, so that the unexpected might be occasionally thrown your way. Try drawing on randomly textured paper, for instance (like hand-made rice paper), or with a dry oil painting placed beneath your drawing paper. Try starting a drawing by sanding a soft charcoal stick over the top of your page, letting the dust settle as it will. Then, see how your drawing can be woven into this fabric of random tones. Try staining your paper with a haphazard wash of watercolor—even coffee or tea—and letting it dry before beginning your drawing.
The point is to allow accidents to occur; a bit of randomness. Use your imagination and see what happens. The benefit becomes clear once you realize that when you allow accidents to happen—and work with them—you gain insights that would not have otherwise occurred to you. A drawing in which the artist has delt with—and overcome—several accidents is nearly always superior to one in which he has anticipated each and every move. It is in working with accidents, with the unknown, that the artist expands his knowledge base. He learns nothing, on the other hand, by simply repeating what he has done before.
The High Ground
Proceed with your drawing from the outside in, rather than the inside out. Instead of moving from one small detail to the next, plan your entire design before hand. Find where forms will be located before you actually render them. The process is similar to standing on a tall mountain and looking into a valley below. As long as you stay at this height your view is unbroken; you can see where you’re going and maintain your objectivity. If you are a bird flying at this height, you can proceed where you desire because you are taking in the big picture. But what happens if you decend into the valley, forested with tall trees and riddled with bolders? Your sense of direction is compromised because you have lost your grand perspective. Your ability to determine your own fate, to navigate effectively, is entirely lost. While drawing, look for the big picture and fight off the temptation to render details before larger forms. Your drawing will become more harmonious and will gain a sense of unity. Take the high ground, and you’ll always know where you are headed.
Dealing with Frustration
Every artist has periods of frustration, times when the gap between what he wants to do, and what he is able to do, seems insurmountable. As a beginning student, I remember sessions when my drawings seemed so far away from what I wished them to be that I stormed out of class, angry, discouraged, profoundly dissappointed. Finally, I stopped drawing altogether...for a year or two, until eventually the prospect of never drawing again became even more painful than my initial frustration. It was then I made a pact with myself—a kind of solemn oath—that in order to master my craft I would continue to draw, seriously and continually, for a minimum of 10 years. I told myself that I would no longer be concerned with perfecting any particular drawing, but would simply try to draw better today than I did last week, or last month, or last year. I’d concentrate on learning how to draw, rather than creating a magnificent drawing each time.
It worked. My periods of frustration diminished once I freed myself from the burden of having to create a flawless drawing every time. I finally realized that drawing was a process, an evolution, rather than a destination. Today, if I make a drawing that I dislike (and believe me, it happens), I no longer fear that my skills have vanished, that I will never draw well again. All it means is that I made a bad drawing. Other good ones will follow; some may even be sublime. It is all part of the learning process.
I have come to realize that we who engage in creative tasks are on a kind of train, speeding toward an unknown destination. The train seems infinitely long, extending forward and back as far as the eye can see. Some of our fellow artists are seated behind us, while others are seated ahead. As we increase our level of skill, we move a seat forward; in time, an entire car. You see, it doesn’t matter which car we are on. Nor does it matter who we are in front of or who is ahead of us. What matters is that—as long as we are creating—we are on the train, and that with it we are moving forward.
As your experience grows, you will notice more and more how life imitates art, and art imitates life. You will find, for example, that a better understanding of the craft of drawing will make you a more caring parent, a more lyrical musician, a more insightful scientist. In turn, learning to be a better spouse, writer, fisherman or plumber will help you become a more enlightened artist. The only requirement is that you remain open and aware of this process; that you consciously search for similarities and connections between art and other disciplines. Over time you’ll be surprised how much one benefits the others.
It helps to realize that nature is always aesthetic and can guide you when other forms of motivation faulter. Whether observing the graceful rhythms of the human body, or a leaf floating in a pond—nature is never harsh, never disproportionate, never without balance, poise, and a sense of harmony. Whenever you are in doubt about your abilities or reasons for drawing, study nature. Watch the branches of trees blow in the wind; look at clouds as they caress the mountain tops; observe a puppy at play. Nature is our ultimate source of inspiration, as well as our best teacher.
What exactly does the experienced artist know? How do his methods, his thought processes, differ from others? Does he hold the pencil differently, or summon complex proceedures?
It may surprise you to hear that—by-and-large—the only advantage the master has over the inexperienced artist is a heightened ability to see. His refined visual sense is more selective, more focused than those with less experience. He has learned to filter out the non-essential, getting at the root of the matter quickly. And yet, such things are relative. If you asked the master about his acute visual sense, he would no doubt say that he too has much to learn.
To succeed in drawing as with anything in life, you must give it due respect. Proceed as if you were performing a grand ceremony, taking part in a solemn ritual that has linked humanity since its beginning, as indeed it has. Before starting to draw, have your tools and materials present and ready, your pencils sharpened, your eraser clean, your paper smooth and anchored firmly to the drawing board. Take a few deep breaths. Observe your model for several minutes before actually beginning to draw. Try to visualize the finished product in your mind; work out the composition, the values and focal point. Where will the darkest dark be? The lightest light? Where will you center the viewer’s attention? It has been said of the great Renaissance master Michaelangelo that he could examine a raw slab of marble and actually visualize the finished figure inside it. All he had to do was chip away the unwanted fragments to expose the living form within. Know exactly where you are headed before you begin and, like Michaelangelo, your progress will be quick and sure. At all cost, avoid being careless, unorganized or haphazard. If you are neat, dedicated and reverent to the task, you will not fail.
Ambassador for Art
In my travels to Europe I observed that in the eyes of many I was not simply an American, I was America. Whatever I said or did was taken to represent the collective views of all occupants of my beloved country. As a result, I inveriably assumed the role of ambassador, and was on my best behavior. The impression I wished to leave was a favorable one.
When we engage art we must become its ambassador also. As with our homeland, we must give art due respect, behaving properly, speaking well of it so others will be left with an accurate and favorable impression. We must be willing to come to Art’s defense when others strive to bring it down; we must possess a substantial knowledge base to back up our aesthetic assertions. More than this, we must be a kind of missionary for art, spreading the good word, in a sense; opening the world to a better acceptance of artistic values.
I once heard of a small shop owner in New York city who did something extraordinary. Each day, he took a photograph from his shop window, never leaving his store to do so (for indeed, this was not possible during business hours). When each photo was developed he placed it in an album for his customers to view. Over the years he filled dozens of photo albums with his snapshots of daily city life: a taxi driving by, a police man writing up a ticket, a child with a balloon, a weeping, homeless woman, a pigeon on a mailbox. His collection became a window to the world, a grand appreciation, a celebration of life, motion, composition and pattern...all from his little shop. Truly, this man was one of art’s ambassadors.
The true difference between the non-artist and and the artist is that while one may think something is beautiful, the artist believes it to such an extent that he takes measures to share it with others. Training certainly bolsters one’s skills, but training alone is not enough. Love what you see and draw to share it with others, not for the purpose of showing off or for monetary gain, but out of generosity.