Happy Labor Day! Last week, I started a project I've been thinking about for awhile now. Each Monday, I'll be posting on my blog a basic drawing exercise that can help you to learn to see and draw more accurately. On Friday, I'll post pictures of the sketches I made.
Last week's assignment was on pre-instruction drawings. I won't be posting mine here for a couple of reasons--if they were here, I would look back at them (I probably look at my blog more than anybody else), and part of the fun of doing pre-instruction drawings is being surprised at your progress when you look back at them after weeks of work. Second, since I have already had a LOT of art instruction, I don't think it would be fair to show mine as examples of what a real drawing done before any art instruction would look like. I think I may post them at the end of this series, though, to see if I made any progress through doing these exercises.
I want to introduce the exercise by doing a sort of "in class" activity. I'm going to intentionally leave spaces you'll have to scroll past to see the final "solution".
Am I being vague enough?
I did this activity with a group of twelve year old girls last week, and it took about 45 minutes start to finish--so do this when you have a little chunk of time and don't rush through it.
To start this activity, print out these three pages. They need to be in proportion for the activity to work, so don't fiddle around with the printing size options (or if you do, do it the same for all three.)
Now you have all you need to do this activity. You know its a puzzle, you have your pieces, your frame, and your reference picture. Ready.... Go.
You probably figured out by now that this is not a jigsaw puzzle. What kind of puzzle IS it? That is for you to figure out. Some people see the solution quicker than others. If you're feeling stuck, here are a few hints. I'll make the text white so you have to highlight it to see it.
1. Start with the corners.
2. None of the black pieces will touch each other.
3. See if you can line up a black piece with one of the white spaces in the chair picture. Then, place it in that same place in your frame.
Think you've got it?
Here is the solution:
I call this a Negative Space puzzle. I got the idea for it by combining a couple of activities suggested in Betty Edward's book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, though this specific activity is my own way of showing the concept.
And what concept is that, exactly? And how does a puzzle help me learn to draw?
We're getting to that. Actually, it's the next part of the activity.
I want to take your puzzle pieces off of your puzzle frame. Place your frame and your reference picture side by side. Now, using the picture of the chair as reference, draw where each of the puzzle pieces should be. DO NOT think to yourself, "I am drawing a chair." Instead, think, "I am drawing those puzzle pieces." Think of those empty pieces as the actual physical thing you are drawing--think of the real puzzle piece that you held in your hand. That is what you are drawing. To keep yourself thinking about the pieces instead of the chair, it can help you to turn your picture upside-down and draw it that way. Something else that might help you think this way is to color in the puzzle piece spaces, and leave the chair space blank.
How does it look? Many people who are introduced to this concept for the first time are surprised at how much more accurate their drawings are. How can such an odd way of thinking make your drawing more accurate? It seems like thinking about the chair should make your drawing look more like a chair, but that isn't how it works.
Before we learn to draw, we often think in symbols. Symbols such as these:
The thing is, nobody's eye is actually a football shape with a circle in the middle. Nobody's house is a square with a triangle on top. There isn't a tree that is actually a puff ball with a pole holding it up. These are simplified shapes that represent the idea of the thing, but they aren't what these things actually, realistically look like.
Don't get me wrong, these symbols can be useful--but not when you want to learn to actually understand what you see and draw it accurately. To do that, you have to move past the symbol and see what you are actually drawing. You need to stop thinking "chair" and start thinking "a group of specific abstract shapes".
By focusing on where the chair isn't--the negative spaces, our puzzle pieces--we see more accurately what shape the chair itself takes, rather than simplifying it into a symbol.
Exercise: Negative Space Drawing
Goal/Focus: Drawing accuracy, seeing past the symbol
Materials: Pencil, eraser, sketchbook
Assignment: For at least 20 minutes a day, draw in your sketchbook. Do these drawings from life. Draw the negative space around an object or group of objects. Some ideas of good subjects for negative space drawings might be:
Furniture, like a chair, table, or stool
Plants or trees
Stacks or groups of things--a stack of books, a bowl of fruit
Other somewhat complex objects with overlapping pieces--a bike, a lamp, a musical instrument
Don't limit yourself to these ideas--draw what you want. But as you draw, focus on drawing the spaces where your subject is NOT. Think of the empty spaces as being the actual subject you are drawing. Remember the puzzle pieces--think of them as an actual physical shape you can hold.
It feels really good to say this: I did what I said I would do.
I said I would work on making new portfolio pieces over the summer, and I did. I said I would send out a mailer in August, and I did--it is in the mail now. I'm nervous, but excited. I'm moving forward!
Now that that months-in-progress goal is taken care of, its time to make a new one. I will, of course, continue to create new work for my portfolio and work to improve my skills. But I want something new to work on.
Something I've always been interested in is teaching art. I would love to some day not only to work as an illustrator as I do now, but also to teach drawing and illustration.
I was lucky enough in high school to have an amazing teacher who taught real drawing and observation principles. Many would-be art students aren't that lucky. So much of what I see of art classes in schools or in art class outlines online are more like what I would call "materials manipulation" classes than actual classes. They choose a media or process--watercolor, collage, mosaic, whatever--and give step by step instructions for how to create a piece. They focus on teaching how to hold and use the materials and on following step by step instructions, rather than actual observational skills that will help the students create original work.
My biggest personal pet peeve in this category are those classes where a teacher will tell new students step-by-step how to create a certain painting. The students follow along, using the same colors and brushes and ideas as the teacher. In the end, each painting looks more or less like the next. What frustrates me about this is that nearly all the real learning and creative thinking done in this exercise is done by the teacher rather than the students. The teacher is the one who thinks of the idea and figures out how to execute it. The students leave with a completed painting and very little idea of how to create one on their own. I do not call that real art training. It may give the students an enjoyable evening and a sense of accomplishment, but it does not give them real drawing or creative thinking skills.
There is a time and a place for these types of exercises. Elementary school age children usually have not yet learned to care whether their art looks realistic or not, and these "materials manipulation" classes are fun. But around 10 or 11, kids start to recognize when their drawings "look right" or not. They ought to be given instruction that will help them develop real observational drawing skills, rather than continued "materials manipulation" classes.
People are free to disagree with me. If you think that these classes are really valuable, tell me why in the comments. I'm willing to believe they're not as bad as I've painted them here.
But this is what I think--real drawing classes that teach real observational skills need to be more generally available. They are becoming more available online, but I would love to see this as real classes, in person, face-to-face. I would like to be able to teach that type of class. That is my dream.
But how to get there?
To start teaching--start teaching. That is my plan.
I'm going to be teaching myself, along with anyone who wants to follow along, here on my blog. I'm going to outline ten drawing exercises which I believe will help develop real observational skills for beginners. On Monday I will post the exercise, on Friday I will post the images I made doing the exercises and any thoughts about it--whether I think it was successful, whether I improved, how I would do the exercise differently in the future. I will post all ten exercises by the end of November.
You may have noticed the weird title of this post--dropping pebbles, not breadcrumbs. That is my attempt to reference the story of Hansel and Gretel, and it applies to today's exercise. This activity is well known through Betty Edward's book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The idea is to make a record of your current ability, something you can look at to see how well you draw now, before doing any other classes or exercises. If you don't make a record, you will have a hard time seeing your progress--like when Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs and couldn't see their way back home. (Ok fine, weird comparison. Moving on.)
Though I didn't have regular, long-term drawing instruction growing up, I did have music lessons. I want to create an art class that involves daily practice like my music classes did. Therefore, each exercise will be something that you do each day through the week, not something you do once a week and then forget about. This is another thing I feel many art classes are ineffective at--only expecting the students to do and think about art while they are in class, rather than working on it daily.
Exercise: Pre-Instruction Drawing
Getting started, seeing your progress
Sketchbook or paper, pen and/or pencil, mirror
(These aren't required, but helpful if you want more information)
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
This video of Betty Edwards introducing her instruction methods
Each week day, choose one of these subjects to draw. Choose a different subject each day. Draw from life, not photographs. These should each take 20 minutes or more.
-Still Life--choose 1, 3, or 5 objects, arrange them attractively, draw them
-The corner of a room, including any furniture, decorations, etc.
-A full figure, other than yourself. Include the full body, head to toe, in your picture.
Use whatever paper you have--if you have a sketchbook already, go ahead and start there, if not, use the paper you have. Try to get a sketchbook before next week. A sketchbook is easier to transport, and having something to take with you everywhere really helps you develop a drawing habit. That's the real secret to drawing "talent"--time spent, everyday, on drawing and observation.
If you draw on loose paper for this exercise, find a safe place (maybe a folder or a drawer) to put these drawings so you can find them in a couple months after doing all the exercises. If you do them in your sketchbook, put a paperclip around them so you don’t open that page until completing all of the exercises.
So as I've been trying to put together some new work in "my style"--whatever that might be--I keep hitting walls. What do I want to do? What are the defining characteristics of "my style"?
What do I even like?
So I decided to do an exercise I've seen a few times on other artist's blogs--an "influence map". This seems to have been a thing a couple years ago, and I saw a bunch of them around and then the trend kind of died. I liked the idea of it even though I never really used it until now.
So, here it is:
The map is arranged the way it makes sense to me--its my map, I can do what I want ;-). Obviously, I'm in the center. The artists whose pieces actually touch mine are closest to the type of style I'd like to work in. The bigger the piece, the more I'd like to emulate their work in my own.
A little about each artist:
1. John Singer Sargent--The man was crazy awesome at what he did. Painterly portraits, fabric textures described with just a few brush strokes, expressions and colors and shapes that tell you about each person. Man, that guy was crazy skilled. His piece doesn't quite touch the "me" in the middle because, most days, I don't want to paint portraits, I want to paint stories. You can argue about how different those two things if you want, but in any case, If I could create pictures with a fraction of this guy's skill I could die happy.
2. Norman Rockwell--also doesn't touch the little "Me" piece in the center, but I seriously love so much of his work. His story telling ability, his sense of humor, and especially his ability to manipulate the human face into any expression while still maintaining its real-ness... wow.
3. N. C. Wyeth--wow. This guy was awesome. I kind of want to be N.C. Wyeth. I could say that about most of the people on this map, but I'd probably say it about him the most. Could we please go back to the golden age of illustration where novels were illustrated with awesome huge painterly colorful paintings? Because that would be awesome.
4. J. C. Leyendecker. Man, that guy knew how to use a paint brush. He has the most deliberate brush work I've ever seen.
5. Alphonse Mucha--he only gets a little sliver, because I don't really want to be Mucha... but I do really like to draw pretty ladies with swirly hair and drapey clothes. And this guy is seriously the master of pretty ladies with swirly hair and drapey clothes.
6. The Secret of Kells. Yeah, it's a movie, not an artist, but this movie really helped me to understand how much I love simplified shapes and highly stylized characters. I love watching it to this day. It doesn't touch "me" in the center of the map because I don't really want to make movies, but I want to make art with cool textures.
7. Jake Parker. Above my computer I have a little not to myself, which I picked up from this guy--"FINISHED, NOT PERFECT." I need to remember this, to help me to push through to the end of each project. I think this saying is great because it addresses what I see as two of the most common problems creators have--either jumping from idea to idea without finishing any of them, or not moving on from one idea because they have to noodle with it until it's perfect.
In addition to the "FINISHED, NOT PERFECT" mantra, watching and listening to his videos about sketchbooks has really helped me to love my sketchbook. I'm not sure I can say I ever really loved sketching before--It was something I did because I was an artist and I was supposed to. Now, its fun. I don't really like drawing robots or monsters or anything that Jake seems to love drawing, but he was a huge influence just for helping me to love my sketching.
8. Tom Whalen is the king of vectors and color schemes, in my opinion. Ironically maybe for someone as in love with painterly art as much as I am, Illustrator always made more sense to me as a way to work digitally. Photoshop just frustrates me. I would be for book covers or childrens books what Tom Whalen is for movie posters.
9.Tom Duxbury is an Illustrator I only came across recently, but I love his simple shapes and color schemes. He is definitely one that I'll keep track of.
10. Margaret Chodos-Irvine makes the coolest prints--to illustrate childrens books! She also writes. Yeah, basically I want to be her.
11. Charley Harper is known for his simplified animal illustrations. Look them up, they're super cool.
12. Shaun Tan wrote AND illustrated my favorite short story collection of all time, Tales from Outer Suburbia. Each story in it has a different illustration style, but each style is well executed and interesting. I love his textures and weird creatures.
13. Jon Foster paints the coolest book covers ever. And he works both digitally and traditionally, sometimes moving back and forth between them for one piece. Cool, eh?
14. Gregory Manchess does awesome painterly illustrative work.
Whew. Looking at this list, I'm inspired and intimidated. I've got some work to do.
By putting this together, I am able to see some gaps in my work that I need to fill. They are:
1. Backgrounds/environments. I'm bad at them. I need to do more with them.
2. Textures. I love it when people incorporate textures into their work, but I haven't done much of that lately. I need to figure out how to use them more in my work.
3. I seem to have two loves--painterly, on the left side of the map, and shape-y (pretend that's a word) on the right. This might mean that ultimately I'll have two portfolios. I think that first I'll work on shape-y, and then after I've got that together, I'll move to building up a portfolio that is more painterly.
This ended up being a really fun exercise. If anyone else puts one of these together, give me a link! I'd love to see it.
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