Drawings can be awkward things. The act of drawing may feel like bending a coat hanger around something. It’s safe to say that too much drawing can destroy form and pattern. Fact is, paintings are best made of patches, not lines.
But lines themselves are a way to understand those patches and the underlying forms. Beyond this, drawing is a beautiful thing in itself — often more lyrical and sensitive than the final works that follow. While often overburdened with clarity, drawings can also be mysterious, unfinished poems — the drawer explores and the observer completes.
The preliminary drawings of two of Canada’s top wildlife painters make this case. Glen Loates and Fen Lansdowne both used drawings as vehicles for exploration and understanding.
Artists can learn a great deal from these masterful drawings. Observed in the wild, flighty birds in particular train the eye to catch gesture at a glance. Further, the dynamics of wildlife movement and change of position need to be recorded in a few cursory lines. Having watched Fen Lansdowne sketching in the field, it seemed to me there’s perhaps no subject that requires a defter eye. It’s a matter of seeing life beneath the feathers.
Turned on by Loates and Lansdowne, I’ve been using a three-step system that might also work for you. A couple of coats of grey gesso on stretched canvas give more opacity and remove a bit of annoying tooth. I draw with a regular graphite pencil or a chisel-sharpened 4B (General’s Sketching Pencil). That’s the first step. The second is to get comfortable. I like to lie down on a chaise lounge or relax in a big chair. Under a good light, this is where I take my time to shade, darken, and introduce gradations and other design elements. I “fix” the drawing (Krylon Crystal Clear, an acrylic coating) so things don’t smudge. Thirdly, I put my effort on the studio easel and add acrylic colour to a chosen part. While I’m no Loates or Lansdowne, I have taken advantage of the smartly-tuxedoed Penguins of Patagonia. In all humility, my “pinguinos” had the decency not to fly away (because they couldn’t).
PS: “Open your eyes and draw. Look, look, look.” (George Weymouth)
Esoterica: I can always tell a connoisseur at an art show when I see someone taking their time to look at top-notch drawing. Whether as a stand-alone art form or implied in a work of art, drawing separates the condors from the cuckoos. To be great art, drawing has to be greatly executed. Greatness, as I think I may have said before in these letters, takes time and patience. Getting your pencil around things, you begin to understand. Caressing with line, you begin to feel. Do it often, and you begin to love. “I sometimes think,” said Vincent Van Gogh, “there is nothing so delightful as drawing.”
Key to seeing
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
The title of your post, “Drawing for Understanding,” says it all. Drawing has the simplest tools and little to get in the way of seeing and experiencing your subject. When I draw, I’m usually observing, seeing things that I didn’t expect to see, finding surprises, learning how something is formed, moves, lighted, and alive. You don’t need a studio and lots of equipment — I’ll sit in meetings at work and draw the people around me, using whatever materials available: ballpoint pen, lined paper, or margins of handouts. I’m currently in Afghanistan, working with the State Department to help locals build their society, and their faces, figures, and landscapes are a goldmine for an artist. If I didn’t have to shuffle papers, I could draw and paint here all day, every day. But drawing is the key to really seeing the people and the places. It’s infinitely better than copying a photograph.
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An essential job
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I’m an avid life drawer and I try to draw with a live model at least once a week. The experience provides a strong understanding, not only of how the body works but also how it carries over and enables the artist to develop a more intuitional approach to a painting. The early one- and two-minute gestural poses enable the artist to have the confidence to move to more studied longer poses. When I draw with confidence, it will automatically spill over into my painting with decision-making because I tend not to labour over ideas and the work becomes less contrived and fresher. Drawing also helps me keep my mind free to explore the possibilities, particularly in an abstract painting. Journaling on a trip also helps the artist retain those special moments for future reference. Drawing does truly become a joyful experience as skills improve and it is so essential to the job of recording accurately what we see.
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Freedom through structure
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Vincent Van Gogh also said in his letters that when he paints he does a drawing and then colors it in. I studied drawing and printmaking for five years before I started to paint. I drew with ink and brush which is very unforgiving. Then I moved to watercolor for two years and finally oils. I still tend to do a drawing first in black paint and then color it in. Most of the time spent on a painting is in that first phase. If the drawing is solid and works by itself I can go pretty crazy with color and the piece will still hold together. The black lines sometimes disappear, blending into the color as shading. Other times they remain as strong contours. I never took a painting course and just grew this way on my own.
Being a bit of an anarchist, it was disconcerting to find that I could find freedom through structure.
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Gains made in life drawing class
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
I “thought” I knew how to draw. That was until I signed up for an Atelier classical drawing course given by accomplished wildlife artist, Joe Kronenberg. I “thought” he could help me out with my boo-boos, difficult perspective and foreshortening, which I had avoided in my paintings. What I got was a very intensive class where every line of the subject (in this case human body parts) had to be copied exactly with the proper tilt and length. At first I felt my eyes would bug out of my head, but over the few weeks I gained confidence and a new appreciation for accurate drawing. I feel very lucky to have found such a kind and patient instructor, as drawing this way requires buckets of time and patience. Was wondering this morning if I would continue with these drawing classes after my current art teaching jobs are finished, and your letter helped me decide yes. In just a few short weeks this class has made a huge difference in my work and, more importantly, my attitude toward drawing for its own sake. And so, I will soldier on.
by Robert Wiltshire, Maple Valley, WA, USA
Last week I went to see the Gauguin show in Seattle, and was a little miffed by the fact that they (museum attendants) would not let me get close enough to the paintings to see enough detail. According to them, I was not “respecting” the art. They had a line drawn on the floor about 10 feet back from the paintings (but I didn’t bring binoculars!).
I know they have a tough job, making sure priceless paintings are protected, but in the dim light of the museum, and having to use my “readers” to see the detail, I needed to get closer than what they (attendants) wanted, apparently.
What I was really interested in was how Gauguin handled “line” in his paintings, and what his brush strokes actually looked like… otherwise I could have saved the expense and trouble of going to the museum, and just looked at a picture of Gauguin’s work in book…
I was able to look at a few paintings satisfactorily, though, before they showed me the error of my ways. I felt like I was in the Seattle Art Morgue (SAM).
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. The distance line varies between museums. The SAM is one of the worst. Leaning forward at their Picasso show I was physically restrained by a couple of hefty guards who objected to the length of my nose. They also took my notebook pencil away and gave me a stubby one. I suggested they give artists a prior nude search and establish a special Nexus line. They said they would take it up with the board, but I could see by the look in their eyes they had already decided on the mental health of Canadians.
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Issues with Robert’s drawing
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
An artist stating that, “drawings can be awkward things” had me looking for my street-fighting gloves — damn, where are they? Hello, Pan Am? Yes a return ticket to Canada, and be quick, please! I cannot imagine Edgar Degas, Andrew Wyeth or Alex Coleville calling drawings awkward things!
Stating that “too much” drawing can destroy a painting, yes, perhaps true if a painter striving for the illusion of volume and space leaves a lot of contours, objects will indeed become flat. But as to form (as in shape) and pattern drawing, I insist that drawing is a great way of getting those into a painting. Take a look at an artist like Toulouse-Lautrec — see what he does with line in a painting — nothing destroyed there!
As a great lover of drawing (the act) and drawing (the art,) I see it becoming a “lost art.” Too few artists rely on life drawing, or even memory drawing, both fine ways of getting things into your head, of sorting out what’s in there and getting rid of the dross. Drawing = Understanding. If you do not understand the thing you are observing, how can you hope to paint it convincingly?
No artist should feel that drawing is like trying bend a coat hanger (?! we have wooden ones); it means you’re not used to drawing and, besides all that I write above, it is rather a pity.
I find that drawing is the best tool in my artist kitbag. Instead of lugging painting gear up a mountain (Norway, French Alps, Gros Morne National Park), I tuck sketchbook and a range of pencils in my pack, hike and sketch, ingest scenes like a dry sponge. Down in the valley at the end of the day I may get out my oils or watercolours and produce a painting or two. No camera needed! Scots artist Joseph Crawhall was right when in the 1890s he stated, “All detail lost when memorizing is unimportant detail.”
During my years in art school I decided to dedicate my time to understanding wildlife, birds especially. In overcrowded Netherlands birds are a great redeeming feature and relatively easy to observe. Looking for like-minded souls in art I stumbled onto “wildlife art,’ a really big thing in North America. Though finding most of it too idealized and removed from what I observed in nature, I recognized the passion animal artists share, and began studying the genre. Over years of publishing articles and books, I am considered somewhat of a specialist on the history of wildlife in art. Despite that I may be off the ball when I say that one thing becomes immediately evident when looking at the Loates & Landsdowne sketches: they don’t feel like sketches taken from life. The study sheets show bird designs, no doubt aimed at understanding feather groups, all heads finely delineated as if drawn from stuffed specimen or from photographs, with little attention given to contour and light. Never say never, but I doubt if they were done in the field, but then, I have sketched animals with acclaimed wildlife artists in the field, discovering afterwards that they had been drawing what they knew instead of what they saw. Not a total waste of time, of course, for being there and observing serves the purpose of understanding. A few cursory lines may indeed capture life, and with a spotting scope more may be had. Swedish artist Lars Jonsson is a fine example of a wildlife specialist who manages to paint stunning oils in the field with the aid of a spotting scope.
Not all artists have to be great sketchers. In fact, for some inexplicable reason, great sketchers are not often great painters. I refrain from comment on your penguins, but abhor “systems” where the process of making art is concerned. And what on earth is a “General Sketching Pencil”?! You North Americans can be so funny! Won’t any old pencil do to “generally sketch”? As to comfort, a little is ok, but never too much! Be active, sit up straight, or better still, remain standing, follow your subject as it moves around; grab contours, put in a bit of shading here, a detail there.
(RG note) Thanks, Robin. Any old pencil won’t always do. The General’s Sketching Pencil is a North American brand of square cut graphite in the form of what you may know as a carpenter’s pencil. It gives a lovely thick and thin line and is great for expressing yourself when you are relaxed and contented.
Drawings are complete artworks
by Rachael Z Ikins
Around 2008, I heeded a friend’s advice to try making art trading cards. There was my grandfather’s voice whispering to me, “Don’t draw like you’re apologizing for something. Draw like you mean it!” So, I laid down a pencil and, at age 54, picked up an indelible pen and drew my first drawing since… well a long, long, time ago. Disbelieving its worth, none-the-less, I like eating, so I posted it for sale on eBay. And it sold!
I continued with photography, selling a piece here and there, and I continued with ACEOs selling them here and there. One chapbook became two, now the third is about to release. My art is on all three covers.
I received a gift of art lessons two Christmases ago from my elderly mother. I attended class because it was close by. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to learn. Mostly, the teacher ignored me. Month after month passed; I sat and waited for her to talk to me. Even when the classes were small, she and I just did not fit. I created some of the best, biggest pieces out of hurt and anger at this time. I juried into that same museum. I won a people’s choice Award for a painting that went into a calendar. Some of my art was published as illustrations in journals.
But I was miserable until I realized I had to leave there. Our parting was not a happy one. Out of that pain, I went back into my sketchbook and slush pile and created so many large and varying pieces of visual art that I currently have work in three exhibitions hanging in my area.
I was asked to be artist-in-residence at a music center. I joined an art guild. I joined the National League of American Penwomen, a 200 chapter US organization, the oldest for women writers and artists in the country. I LOVE drawing. Love, love it! The tight attention to detail, oh yeah! But I desire to learn to paint, as well, because I want to challenge myself in an area I feel discomfort in. I do, however, think many of my drawings stand alone as complete artworks.
Enjoy the past comments below for Drawing for understanding…
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
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