Drawing for understanding

Dear Artist, 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.

“Brewer’s blackbird”
graphite on paper
by Fen Lansdowne

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).

“Red-breasted nuthatch”
pen and ink on paper
by Glen Loates

Best regards, Robert 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.”   Fen Lansdowne

Fox Sparrow


Golden-crowned Sparrow


Short-eared Owl


Bonaparte’s Gull

            Glen Loates



Canada Warbler


Black-capped Chickadee


Great Horned Owl


Penguins at Tombo, Patagonia, Argentina I


Penguins at Tombo, Patagonia, Argentina II

            Key to seeing by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA  

“Three elders”
graphite drawing, 9 x 12 inches
by Skip Rohde

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. There are 4 comments for Key to seeing by Skip Rohde
From: jacqui — Mar 12, 2012

These are wonderful Skip! your comment is great inspiration also thank you.

From: Stella Reinwald — Mar 13, 2012

these are truly wonderful! I can see a whole book of them, accompanied by a small amount of (penciled?) notes to the side to describe the subjects, your thoughts, etc. You are a very gifted draftsman, do think about sharing these in the form of a published book.

From: Pamela Sweet — Mar 13, 2012

Sensitive line quality with fantastic faces. Keep drawing and above all stay safe while you are in Afghanistan.

From: Anonymous — Mar 13, 2012

That drawing where you are thing is so basic. The suggestion about the book with a little prose should be seriously considered.

  An essential job by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Abstract #1”
mixed media painting
by Adrienne Moore

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. There is 1 comment for An essential job by Adrienne Moore
From: Anonymous — Mar 13, 2012

I teach a once a week life drawing class. The students tell me that after a few months of life drawing they have more confidence in all of their artistic pursuits. It is so important to get that message out to all of us.

  Freedom through structure by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Night lights”
original painting, 43 x 34 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

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. There is 1 comment for Freedom through structure by Jeffrey Hessing
From: Jacqui — Mar 12, 2012

love this Jeffrey

  Gains made in life drawing class by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA  

“Dancing Queens”
original painting
by Loretta West

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.   Close-up inspections 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. There are 3 comments for Close-up inspections by Robert Wiltshire
From: Bob Martin — Mar 13, 2012
From: MARTI — Mar 13, 2012

Thanks for the tip, Robert. I am going to that exhibit this week, I will be sure to take along some binos.

From: P. Y. Duthie — Mar 13, 2012

Unfortunately for the rest of us too many screwballs have attacked famous paintings. When I was in Madrid in the 1980s Picasso’s Guernica was protected by soldiers armed with machine guns. The line on the floor was so far away from this painting that we could barely see it. One member of our group stepped on foot off the line and a soldier waved his gun at her. I like the google art site as it permits the viewer to study every brushstroke in peace.

  Issues with Robert’s drawing by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

original drawings
by Robin Shillcock

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  

pencil drawing
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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Drawing for understanding

From: Beth Hart — Mar 09, 2012
From: Rene W — Mar 09, 2012

Drawing to me is a means to explore, to think, to see, to design before I paint. But drawing can be a beautiful art form in itself. Robert, I loved your penguin interpretation, excellent!

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Mar 09, 2012

Drawing is touching something symbolically…but to catch a bird on the fly? That is more than my mind or hand or eye can do!

From: Jeanean Songco Martin — Mar 09, 2012
From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Mar 09, 2012
From: Emily Van Cleve — Mar 09, 2012

Last year I decided to focus most of my energy on drawing rather than on my abstract paintings. I became passionate about exploring lines and fascinated by how hints of color affected them. The journey was thrilling and one I know I will repeat in the future.

From: Karen R. Phinney — Mar 09, 2012

The pictures of the penguins are very nice indeed. I like the way you combined the pencil drawings with the painted ones, and the background…… great stuff!

From: Elaine Hanushchak — Mar 09, 2012

I like your penguinos better than all your other work!

From: Nolly Gelsinger — Mar 09, 2012

I think you have a really good point. Even for those of us who work in 3D, grappling with the form with a pencil is the first step to understanding how a flower is put together or where the joints go in a human form. Working that out on paper helps internalize that understanding so that when I’m actually working at the torch, I’ve got a grip on where I’m going–or going wrong.

From: Nicoletta Baumeister — Mar 09, 2012

Absolutely lovely to see the touch of the hands on paper, each so different and elegant. I like the parred down paucity of your penguinos.

From: Janice Slattery — Mar 09, 2012

Thank you for showing the bird drawings of Glen Loates and Fen Lansdowne with partial painting. Recently I found in painting redtail hawk nestlings that I felt the subjects best depicted without the painting of the trees, but only the hawks and partially their nest. I was satisfied so much in stopping there that I didn’t even erase the pencil marks. I guess it was somewhat of a statement that “I” decided not to “finish”.

From: Janis Weisbrot — Mar 09, 2012

How did you get to Patagonia with your acrylic paints? (Or anyplace else you have to fly to.) The airlines have told me that one is not permitted to fly with either oil or acrylic paints, whether carried onboard or checked.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Mar 09, 2012

I like drawing my composition first then applying colour, that way I can envision the focal point of the picture. I then can determine how I can set off the focal point and how I can let the viewer see the lines that draw him or her to that point of interest. It also helps me choose what colours to apply to parts of the picture that can help draw the eyes to that focal point. I agree that drawing is artistic in itself and can be appreciated on its merit. Some of my friends at my art group even say they cannot draw specially the human figure. It is also a challenge to imply movement in a drawing or painting.

From: Ion Vincent Danu — Mar 10, 2012
From: Lenny — Mar 12, 2012

Ah Elaine, why don’t you just say it…

From: Jana Russon — Mar 12, 2012

I love these Twice-Weeklys! They are directed, funny, helpful, educational, witty, inspirational, and right ON The Spot. Thanks!

From: Birte Hella — Mar 12, 2012

I would like to use this letter, in particular, in a course I am designing as part of my additional teacher qualifications (online learning and teaching) at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), as I find your discussion on the topic of Sketching to be bang on, and the ‘bird’ examples most relevant. I would include the text in my lesson plan, and put the ‘link to your site painters keys site, and the ‘clickback'( which includes the Scapegoat letter – also bang on) as part of their resources. I would of course ‘attribute the letter’ to, and the clickback mentions the names of the other two artists also.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Mar 12, 2012

The technique of drawing has in addition that clinical precision that the brush cannot do. It is the thinnest of lines possible that only a dry point contour can achieve. I like best the part of your essay dealing with fixing preventing your penguins from flying off.

From: Patti — Mar 12, 2012

Thank you for your letters…great reading, inspiration and self identity! I also read two pages of your older letters (from your book) each day as a quiet time, just for me…

From: June Tucarella — Mar 12, 2012

I have enjoyed your news letters, you are indeed very generous! I have a Q for you: Re: why do u choose to use the color grey (gesso) on canvas? Also the fact you draw & do your values & then fix the drawing w/ Krylon ( which I use on the completion of a yupo ptg. )? Then u used acrylic, can u use w/c & or oil over Krylon? I so appreciate your vast knowledge of art & artists ( which isn’t easy, artists, I mean!!! ) Best wishes for happy times, June Tucarella, Lexington, SC.

From: Susan Holland — Mar 12, 2012

After a million miles of drawings (if you put the lines end to end) in my early art school days, I was astonished to launch a foray into the land of pen and ink. Starting a drawing without preliminary sketching was the extra discipline I needed to hone my LOOKING. I was amazed at how my hand and eye connected when the possibility of erasure was eliminated. ANYTHING that can make an artist LOOK more critically at a subject is worth its weight in gold. And from there the creation may diverge into exceptions to the real with mastery! At art school we had to present finished drawings before launching into a painting, or sculpture or carving or etching or mural. Line drawing, value drawing, color sketch, and then came approval to do a painting. It’s a very fine system. Creatures on the move were part of the challenge. Our sculpture studio often “posed” a calf or goat which made us have to memorize because the model wouldn’t keep still. From there we went to the zoo. Giraffe, lion, rhino, seal– I am so grateful for the emphasis on drawing! Try a stick, or brush handle, sharpened and dipped in ink. Terrific stuff.

From: pat — Mar 13, 2012

I always put 2 or 3 coats of grayed gesso on my primed canvas. It is easier for me to gage color and value on this surface… White scares me… I sketch with charchoal before I begin my oils and if I make a boo-boo I just earase the lines with a chamoise. It comes right off and I can go from there. I also will shade in areas to help me get my values right. I spray the finished sketch with hair spray… the cheapest the better and let it dry. I’ve been painting for 35 years and had no problems…

From: Gavin Logan — Mar 15, 2012

Pencil on canvas picks up a dot from the weave which some artists may find useful and others find annoying. Getting the tooth just right in a drawing on canvas is largely dependent on the priming. Three coats, sanding between, may be in order.

From: Arla — Mar 15, 2012

I love the penguins!

    Featured workshop: Carole Mayne
031312_robert-genn Carole Mayne workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Splash down

acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches by Jim Toth, Regina, SK, Canada

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Sharon Binder of Jerusalem, Israel, who wrote, “So many of the issues you discuss are dilemmas that artists in all areas of art confront regularly. I am a designer and combine painting and calligraphy in my work and find your discussions relevant and pertinent. Your letters are intergenerational.”