While this is the Oil Painting forum, good representational painting relies upon drawing skills. With our Painting From The Masters series, we are keen to encourage members to do study-copies of paintings, as this is a way to understand how expertly-done paintings were made, and helps to improve our own skill-set and technical knowledge.
Many master artists historically started with drawn study-sketches. These served several purposes - "thumbnail" drawings were used to work out the overall design of the painting, and ensure that the large forms "read" well and are visually interesting.
More detailed drawings were often then done as a way of getting proportions and placements correct, and to pin down aspects of anatomy/form and poses, and also values for lighting effects - again, this is faster and cheaper than working in paint.
I'd also suggest that by doing drawing-studies, artists "rehearsed" their paintings, solving most of their drawing problems before
they got into paint - and that this significantly contributes to the effect of "mastery" with the painting, because they already know what they are going to do with their brushwork, making the painthandling look more direct and confident.
General notes on drawing.
First of all, don't be in a hurry - I know a lot of people advocate fast drawings, but its important to take as long as it needs - and that might mean slow at first, take your time, speed builds after gaining accuracy.
Time spent looking is not time wasted - you don't have to be applying pencil to paper the whole time. (And, one good drawing is better than a dozen rushed ones!).
Getting a likeness is (at least) as much about getting the overall shape and structure/proportions of the head right, as it is about "features" or about detail. This is why we can recognise a friend at the far end of the road.
Avoid the error of "drawing symbolically" - What I mean by this is drawing symbols for "an eye", "a nose", "a mouth" and so on - representing an idea instead of drawing what you see. Don't think of "features" as being separate from the head - in fact, try to forget that they are "an eye", "a nose", "a mouth" and so on. Just try to think of the head as being a solid block - those parts turned towards the light are lighter, the parts turned away from the light are in shadow, and those parts where the surface is almost parallel to the direction of the light are the half-tones. If you break down the face, not into "features" but into areas of light, halftone, and dark - or even, initially, just into light and dark... just get the abstract shapes right, and you will have drawn the face.
It is a good idea in the first instance, to find subjects that are illuminated by a single light-source, showing what is known as "form-lighting" - illuminated from a lamp in a 3/4 position - that is, up to one side, and a bit in front of the subject. Classical sculpture/casts make a good subject for practice, as it doesn't move, and the form is shown by the play of lights and shadows across the surface. It may be better to work on only part of the sculpture, for example head, hands, or feet. Paintings showing similar chiaroscuro lighting are also a good choice - for example Caravaggio or Ribera.
Hold the pencil at the back, lightly - like a wand, or an orchestra-conductors baton, or a pointer - not with your hand all scrunched up gripping it tight, near the point. Move from the elbow and shoulder, rather than from the wrist or within the hand. If you move from the elbow and shoulder, its much easier to draw straighter lines.
Work large enough that you don't end up in "miniaturism" - many people work too small (there's a "modesty" thing going on, I think - "I'm not good enough to work large - its showing off" or some such). It is actually more difficult to work small - you are giving yourself less leeway for error, and requiring greater precision of yourself.
Drawing practice doesn't require a lot of expensive or sophisticated materials - some graphite pencils in different hardnesses an HB, and perhaps a 4B for shading. Paper with some slight tooth, or if you prefer a smooth surface, bristol board. Faber-castell make an eraser in the form of a pencil - called "perfection" - its got eraser-rubber instead of a pencil-lead - its great for taking out limited areas., and a kneaded eraser is also useful (the more you knead them the softer they get.
Charcoal can also be used - use paper which has a slight degree of tooth for this. Vine or willow charcoal sticks are generally softer than charcoal pencils. Sharpen charcoal sticks with fine sandpaper, and charcoal pencils tend to sharpen best with an electric sharpener, but can be done with a knife or a manual sharpener with a little gentleness and patience, or with sandpaper. Draw lightly, holding the charcoal at the back - in general, its probably a good idea to avoid pushing the charcoal heavily into the tooth of the paper.
I think the really crucial bit of information though, for charcoal, is the idea that you are not so much drawing lines with the charcoal, as pushing the charcoal around on the surface with tissue-paper, brushes, or whatever other tools you find useful, and lifting the charcoal back out with a kneaded eraser (you can also use bread!).
Placements and Proportions
One of the themes we keep coming back to here, for oil painters, is the issue of placement and proportions. When people say "I can't draw" or "I draw badly", what they most often mean is that they struggle to get placement and proportions correct.
I'd like to show some "tricks" and ways of thinking about the problem that people might find helpful. I'll use Bernini's "Neptune and Triton"as an example here, since its a pretty complex object.
So, how could we go about drawing this
It seems intimidatingly complex. But there are ways we can think about it which can help. These ideas apply equally well to working from a photo, and for working from life using three dimensional subjects. All you have to do in that case is to pick a particular viewpoint (it helps to get back to it if you notice the alignment of the subject with other things in the background)
The first thing is not to get swept up in all the detail - try to think of it in terms of the basic shapes:
We can look at the overall shapes:
In this case, the overall shape in the broadest sense is triangular, and leaning a little leftward.
and we can think of the basic "armature" of the forms:
So what I'm doing here is trying to assign lines that capture the overall directions of the torsos, shoulders, hips, limbs, necks, and faces.
If we relate these to the overall triangular shape, and try to get their relative lengths and angles correct, we should be well on our way.
The approach then is all about "divide and conquer" - separate up the forms into line-segments (straight lines are easiest for this), and look for landmarks, and for how the lines relate to each other.
We can also drop vertical lines - a plumbline is useful for this (a strong thread with a weight at the end). See how many landmarks line up along verticals:
and we can do the same thing with horizontals, too, of course.
If we break up the edges into straight line segments:
What we're doing here is just trying to relate the length, angle, and position of each line to the others around it, and to any other landmarks we've established.
Its also useful to see how many of these edge-lines can be extended, and if they line up with one another:
For example here, the line running up the front of Neptune's shin lines up exactly with the edge of the deltoid muscle on his shoulder, and its also useful to see where this line crosses his chin and the top of his head, as its extended on upwards. This latter idea is one I'd like to emphasise here - that by extending lines and seeing where they cross other features, it can really help us pin down the relative positions and relationships
Likewise, the general line of Triton's torso, below, lines up with the front edge of Neptune's - and between these, its useful to see where that line crosses the edges of the shell. The edge of Neptune's back can be lined up with various features on Triton - the back of his jawline, and points on his neck, chest, and hip. If we look for as many lines like this as we can, we will inevitably tie together the relationships of the drawing accurately. Its worth spending time on this, and ploting such relationships out very lightly in pencil, before
we get into the detailed and rendered version of the drawing.
Start light (use a hard pencil) to faintly mark out the top, bottom, left, right. Once you have "eyeballed", then measure (thumb on pencil is OK) to check the relationship of height and width. The ratio of height/width ought to be the same on the drawing as it is on the subject from your viewpoint. If it's not, correct it. Use an eraser, redraw, recheck. Forget about "overworked" - accuracy is more important.
Very lightly, draw in the edges of the form. Squint your eyes, and look at the large light shapes, and the large dark shapes.
Lightly mark out the edge shapes of any shadows. Don't worry about following the exact twists and turns of the contour of the edge, at first. - instead, simplify, and mark in straight line-segments rather than curves. What you are trying to do at first is just to draw an "envelope" round the figure, so that you can get the big shapes and overall proportions right. People make the mistake of thinking they can skip this stage, when in fact its the most important step in avoiding wonky disproportionate drawings
Every time you make a line, ask yourself:
- should it be longer or shorter
- is the angle correct
- is it in the correct relationship to other lines around it
- are the shapes of the related spaces/areas correct.
Keep going on this, correcting as needed, until you have accurate placements lightly marked out - while it may look like you've hardly begun, you are actually getting everything in the right place in this stage. It may take as long, or longer, to get this far, as it will take to do the rest of the drawing! That's OK.
Shadows, Shading, and Values
As well as the edges of objects, look for the shapes of the edges of form
-shadows, where the surface is rotating away from the light, and cast
-shadows, where the shadow is "projected" onto another surface - these shapes both give us a lot of information about the 3D form.
At first, try to divide the form into just lit areas and shadow areas - and look at the shapes the edges of the shadows make as they cut across the surface. Block-in the shadow areas, so that the lit and shadowed areas are clearly separate values. Then look at the half-tone areas, where the form is turning away from the light into shadow - the gradient of this is also telling you about the shape of the surface.
Shade lightly in blocks of tone - block in the major shadow shapes first. Build up density by going back over areas as several layers. Once you've got in any darker shadow shapes, then go for the half-tones and transitions. Bring the general value of the skintone down (even for the whitest of white skin, or for marble statues) by light shading, and reserve whites for highlights only. People often (erroneously) draw portraits where large areas of the flesh are white or near white, on a 0-10 greyscale (0=black, 10=white), but the local colour for caucasian skin is typically a lot darker than that, about 6 or 7 - getting that general tone down can be very helpful.
Don't be afraid to correct as you go, and to soften, slightly
blend, and re-state your drawing.
As you shade, again, you are comparing shapes all the time, and asking - lighter or darker, comparing each patch of shading to those around it, and across the subject generally.
Try to keep the overall relation of the values, so that they change as the big forms turn - the minor forms, and detail, need to be subordinate to the big forms, so that they keep in the right range of values (in other words, slightly lighter areas within the shadows, for example from bounced light, still need to be within the range of values for shadows, not getting so light they look like they belong in the lit areas.) Try and finish the drawing by shading, resist the temptation to put in dark edge-lines.
Finally, drawing skills definitely respond to practice - it is a good policy to do as much as you can.