Artists train themselves to see shapes, angles, lines, and planes in ways that help them to get the picture on the paper. These are useful as individual excercises but more importantly, they can be integrated into the way you draw.
Note: scroll to the bottom to see a full video of this workshop.
Drawing is a skill that you can learn. The most important thing is to start drawing and sketching on a regular basis. This will form the neural pathways you need to connect your eye, brain, and hand. Artists use a bag of tricks to help them transfer what they see to the page. You can learn these techniques and drawing will come much more easily. Even if you are already an artist, notice if you are taking full advantage of these different ways of processing your drawing. If there is something new, experiment with it and see if you can incorporate it into your approach to drawing.
We will explore five approaches that you can integrate into your drawing. The first is contour drawing which helps you to look more carefully at the angles and curves of your subject. Gesture drawing is a loose and fast method for getting the big picture in a minimum of strokes. observing negative space helps you to flip back and forth between shapes and the spaces between shapes. Both are important for creating an accurate drawing. measuring your drawing and checking proportions helps you capture subtle mistakes early in a sketch that could result in big problems down the line. Finally, making a constructed drawing helps you to visualize your subject in three dimensions and align parts of your subject even if they are hidden from view.
The most important part of drawing an object accurately is to look carefully at that object. This seems too obvious to mention but all too often we rely on our mental image, what we think it should look like, instead of observation. Contour drawing is the most powerful way to train yourself to look carefully.
In a blind contour drawing the point is not to draw but to see. It is a fun exercise that will train the connection between your eye and your pencil. Sit at a table with an interesting object in front of you. Stare at the object and slowly begin to draw its shape. Let your eye crawl slowly along the contour of the object. As you do so, your pencil creeps along your paper moving up or down following the curves and angles that you see. With every change in angle, your pencil responds with its own direction change. Do not lift your pencil or look down to see where you are. Take your time.
When you are done, take a look. The results are comical and fascinating. Look for places where your line has revealed subtle changes or aspects of the real object. Now do twenty of these drawings with different objects. As you do, you will train your eye to see and your hand to respond.
A modified contour drawing leverages the intensity of observation you develop in the blind contour exercise but results in a drawing that looks much more like the object. The process is the same only this time you get to peek. Every now and then, glance down at your paper to allow yourself to relate the spacing and size of the lines to each other. You can also pick up your pencil and move it to another spot. To keep the energy of the contour drawing, keep your eye on the object as you draw your lines.
Would you like to draw a perfect circle? Grab a piece of paper and draw one with one clean line right now. Notice where it is lopsided or uneven. Drawing a circle like this is hard. I can not do it. Let’s try an easier way. Lightly and loosely draw a circle. It is OK if it is a little lopsided. Now, without erasing, draw over it correcting some of the imperfections with continued light lines. Overlap five or ten circles, slowly correcting the roundness. Your brain will gravitate toward the right lines. As it does, press a little harder, reinforcing them. Watch a perfect circle emerge from the page.
The key is to begin lightly, make lots of lines, and reinforce those that emerge as being right. By keeping it light, you let your brain sort between several possibilities as you carve into or add to your original shape. If you start with bold, hard lines, you will feel committed to those lines even if they are wrong. Use this approach when starting any subject.
Negative spaces are the shapes that are formed between the objects we are drawing. We tend to focus on the shape of the upper jaw and the lower jaw. The negative space is the shape of the air between the upper and lower jaw. Just as the jaw has height, width, and angles, so too does the negative space. By drawing the negative space as an actual shape, you may discover that you drew the jaws too close together or too far apart. If your negative space does not fit, do not just ignore it and move on, this is a valuable indication that something is off with your proportions. Find out what is wrong and fix it before continuing to draw. Using negative space is paradoxical one of the most powerful and most underused tricks in the artist mind. If you use it regular, you will dramatically improve your work.
It is easy to distort the proportions of what you draw. Try measuring your subject early in your drawing process. Rather than using a ruler and measuring standard units, use a prominent feature of the object itself as the unit of measurement. In the skull at the left, my unit of measurement was the distance from the teeth to the start of the nose. This porcupine skull was three “nose-tooth” units long and two tall. Close one eye and hold your pencil up to your subject to help you see straight lines and angles.
You can also project lines from one prominent feature to another and note what elements they intersect. A vertical line from the front of the nose intersects the start of the molar teeth below. A diagonal line from the back of the lower jaw past the tip of the cheekbone projects out just above where the teeth start. This is a great way to check your overall proportions.
Run these tests before adding any detail or refining the lines in your drawing. If you discover a proportion problem late in your drawing, it is too late to do anything about it without a lot of eraseing. If things do not line up, stop and fix them before moving on.
Visualize your subject as simple interlocking, three-dimensional, geometric shapes. See into and through the object. I often imagine the subject made of glass or ice. As I construct and align the geometric shapes I can see through to the other side of the drawing. These shapes will also help you see and understand the way that shadows fall across your subject. The edges of these planes will also be the edges of areas of shadow or light. Some parts of a subject may lend themselves more easily to this approach (here the blocky nose). Where on your drawing does this approach bear the most fruit?