This is the eleventh in a series.
In the last column, I demonstrated a way of looking at the figure and seeing the energy that moves from part to part. This makes it possible for us to draw the figure and express its liveliness and psychology, as well as to engage an effective route toward seeing proportion.
Once we tune into these cooperative forces that animate the body, they seem obvious; yet opening up the kind of intuitive intelligence we need in order to see these forces is difficult when we are so used to relying mainly on the simple scanning operations of our eyes. As we draw, we need to record pressures and not just edges, and we need to see relationships between parts rather than just pieces of the body.
The exercises and ideas in this week’s column are designed to move you toward the goal of seeing the energy chain in the body by practicing drawing large forms, and getting used to the idea of moving out in your drawing and not worrying about attaching one thing to another or enclosing the whole shape of the figure. Once you have gotten over your fear of making a mark out in the white space of the paper and a distance away from the last mark you made, it will free your mind to see that significant energy relationships in the body are often not right next to one another. Read more…
This is the tenth in a series.
In the preceding columns I have introduced you to ways of seeing the particular structural logic of different kinds of subjects — the ellipses within round objects, the strength and/or flexibility built into manufactured objects like shoes or chairs, perspective as a key in seeing space relationships in complex scenes, growing patterns in subjects like flowers and trees, and the cubistic understructure of the human head. Now we are ready to move on to considering how to see and draw the whole human figure. It is the most subtle, challenging and rewarding subject for us as artists.
In order to observe the nuances of movement in musculature, we will study the nude body. It will give you the foundation for better understanding the clothed figure.
(Note: Because the approach I am introducing you to entails a big change of thinking — a reach for the life force rather than just the surface shadows in drawing the figure — I will present the subject in two columns. In this, the first column, I will explain and demonstrate what one could call the goal of drawing the figure, and in the next I will give you strategies for approaching the goal from different directions. This may seem counter-intuitive, since I am giving you the “steps” last, but because the central idea of this approach is so necessary to all practice of it, the leading-up exercises would mean nothing if you didn’t know where you were headed.)
The body, as we know, is a miraculous system of bones, muscles, blood and nerves, and it is possible to study it in purely anatomical terms. We can follow Da Vinci’s example and learn as much about the body as any medical student, and it might serve us well as artists, but most of us don’t have the inclination for this scientific kind of study nor the stomach for dissection.
This is the ninth in a series.
The subject of this column is caricature, but I’m not going to explain or demonstrate it myself. When the art god was doling out the syrup of graphic wit, he must have slipped on a banana peel just as he got to my cup and most of it spilled out on the floor. This being the case, I have chosen three artists whose cups of graphic wit truly runneth over and whose work represents caricature at its highest and most droll level of accomplishment.
Two are friends of many years and are literary wits as well as being celebrated artists: Edward Sorel, whose covers for the New Yorker are legendary, and Robert Grossman, whose animated films, comic strips and sculptures are both political and hilarious. The third artist, Tom Bachtell, creates stylish drawings for The New Yorker every week and, memorably, for many months played graphic games with George Bush’s eyebrows.
I asked each of the artists to create a caricature of Pablo Picasso and to give us whatever back story on their process that they choose to share. I think the results show that in order to draw funny, it really helps to be able to free-associate with fish, ex-wives and square eyes.
So here’s Picasso — three ways.
This is the eighth in a series.
The human head is potentially the most emotional subject an artist can choose. We spend our lives scanning other people’s faces to assess their relationship to us and our feelings towards them. Among the myriad expressions a face can produce we can see friendliness, attractiveness, intelligence, wariness, hostility or aggression, and we tend to credit this expressiveness mostly to the eyes and the mouth. As artists, however, we can draw the head to reveal that its personality comes not just from the features but from the character of all its forms, and from how the eyes, the nose and the mouth are sculpturally embedded in the terrain of the whole head.
To help us get past the idea of the face as a kind of flattish mask sitting in front of a vague bulbous form with ears, we need first to accentuate its spatial ins and outs in a diagrammatic drawing. This gives us a chance to really enjoy how much each of us has a particular nose jutting out at a particular angle, a particular setback from our brow to our eyes, a particular mound of muscles surrounding our mouths, particular rolling fields in our cheeks, a particular thrust to our chin and a particular mass in the shape of the back of our head.
I show here a diagrammatic drawing and a more realistic drawing of a model to demonstrate, in a two-step procedure, the possibility of simplifying the forms in a study to prepare us for doing a more naturalistic portrait. Read more…
This is the seventh in a series.
There is something particularly satisfying about setting up objects for a still life painting. It’s like a little world that you control. First you get to choose the inhabitants — maybe a vase, some flowers, a weird gourd, a plastic Mickey Mouse, your baby shoes — and then you get to move them around like a potentate.
Of course, this opportunity to combine a mélange of objects can lead to a too-complicated visual mess. There are a few fundamental decisions to make before you start a still life: deciding on how many elements to include, how to arrange them so that they overlap in a good way and how to position the objects to create not only a satisfying aggregate shape, but also ensure that the negative space is interesting.
We have many models in the history of art to help us think about still lifes. Cezanne and his apples immediately leaps to mind. His art, like the painting I include here, demonstrates how to build a complex but harmonious arrangement. Thinking of still lifes that are a bit more quirky, I show an early painting by Alice Neel that is full of strange psychological emanations. Some contemporary artists, like Wayne Thiebaud, arrange their objects in grid-like patterns. This style of echoing modern mass production dispenses with the old idea of compositional charm altogether.
This is the sixth in a series.
Probably the first thing we notice when we observe an object is its shape. This is an enormously useful characteristic because it gives us an immediate impression of the spirit of the subject.
Think of the shape of an elephant. Its mass and tree-trunk-like legs suggest the slow, unstoppable movement of the animal. Contrast this with the shape of a grasshopper, whose delicate antennae and jutting-back legs suggest a more nervous, fast kind of energy. Responding to shape is the first step in our logical and intuitive search for the meaning of what we draw.
If responding to shape is a fundamental aspect of seeing an object, it also interacts with all our other perceptual responses in helping us make sense of our subjects. When one is actively observing a subject in order to draw it, the mind is ping-ponging among different visual responses, shape-to-color-to-contour-to-shadow-to-proportion, and from those purely “eyeball” calculations to all the memory and psychological associations we have about our subject.
This ability of the mind to intermingle all our different kinds of reactions enriches our response and strengthens each part of that response. Shape is made more meaningful by seeing color and volume, and particularly by our recognition of our subject’s “thingness” — what makes an elephant an elephant, for instance. Understanding the significance of each part of a shape — seeing that the bump behind an elephant’s head is where the strength of the shoulder reveals itself and is different in nature from the soft curve of the belly — helps us to draw lines that evoke various kinds of energy. This is in contrast to making a contour line that moves around a shape as though each part is equal, like a neutral diagram. What we want from each stage of the drawing is to try to answer more and more of the question, “How is this thing different from every other thing?”
This is the fifth in a series.
Mother Nature can look very chaotic. When we take a walk around a garden, every flowering bush can seem like a confusing explosion of blossoms and leaves, every tree like an impossibly complicated tangle of branches and foliage. How can we possibly draw these verdantly overflowing subjects without going blind, or crazy?
Well, the truth is that drawing or painting the actual complexity of a bouquet of flowers or a patch of forest with precision is a high-level observational and aesthetic task that, for the moment, we will leave to artists like Henri Fantin-Latour or Gustav Klimt. We can, however, take a single stem from that bouquet and choose single trees from that forest to look at and find a way to draw.
Many people learning to draw have an understandable anxiety about getting the proportions right. The skill of drawing proportionally comes from doing a lot of drawing, but also from combining the search for correct proportion with the all the other ways that we think about our subject as we draw. In the following analysis of a flower I think you will see that responding to fundamental issues in looking at the flower help us to draw the proportions of the plant much more easily than concentrating on each part of the plant as we come to it.
A good place to start is to acknowledge that this lily is a growing plant moving upwards to get nourishment from the sun and rain, and that its central stalk is a strong column that supports the out-springing stems, leaves and flowers.
In the first stage of the drawing I establish the direction of the stems and leaves and the centers of the petals as they bend away from their core. Two things strike me as I make these lines — one, that the curves of the stems and leaves have a rhythmic relationship with one another and two, that the petals form an almost symmetrical “fountain” as they burst from their center.
This is the fourth in a series.
In the second column we freed the circle from being a flat-on geometric shape so that it could move out into space as the ellipse. We’ve used it to help us draw a pot and to see the roundness of forms, and now we’re going to use that ellipse to fly us into an imaginary scene that introduces us to the principles of perspective.
We follow that flying Frisbee of an ellipse as it settles down as a perfect little pond on a vast Kansas prairie. A man walks out onto that plain with a picnic basket, a blanket and a beagle. He sits down on his blanket to admire the view and the improbably perfect pond.
The beagle catches the scent of the little rabbit on the other side of the pond and takes off after it. Ignoring the shouts of his master, the dog paddles through the pond, bounds across the vast expanse and disappears over the horizon. (Two nice farmers in the next town find him and call the ASPCA.) Read more…
This is the third in a series.
In the last column, I discussed ellipses and how drawing them involves the fluid, fairly fast movement of the hand, letting your reflexes carry out the kind of rounded shape you intend to make. Now we’ll move on to shading the pot that we previously described in simple outline, using curving lines that are like segments of the ellipse.
These are what I think of as “cat stroking” lines — curves that start gently, reach a crescendo of pressure and then fade out at the end. They enclose lines sensuously and are enormously useful in describing all kinds of bulging, rolling, bumpy subjects. In using these curved lines to shade the pot, we will not only describe the shadow but, because the lines curve around the pot, we will be accentuating its actual form. In my example of cross-hatching I show that, in order to avoid a “clotted” effect, the lines are made at different angles. I have drawn my examples in pen and ink to make the images clearer, but you might want to draw in a 2B or 4B pencil.
Now that the pot has been illuminated with a strong directional light, we can study how that light falls on the object, the angles that the shadows make and how to use lines to shade the drawing. Either using the outline drawing you did last week or, drawing the pot again, follow along with these steps to delineate the shadows on the pot.
This is the second in a series.
Pope Boniface VIII was looking for a new artist to work on the frescoes in St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sent a courtier out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work that he could judge. The courtier approached the painter Giotto and asked for a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Instead of a study of angels and saints, which the courtier expected, Giotto took a brush loaded with red paint and drew a perfect circle. The courtier was furious, thinking he had been made a fool of; nonetheless, he took the drawing back to Boniface. The Pope understood the significance of the red circle, and Giotto got the job.
This is often told as the story of the ultimate test of drawing, and I don’t dispute that it is very hard to draw a perfect circle. However, I would argue that it is much more useful to be able to draw a circle existing in space, a circle seen turned at various angles as we usually encounter it in the world. We need to be able to draw an ellipse.
The ellipse is the Frisbee of art, the circle freed from its flatness that sails out into imagined space tilting this way and that and ending up on the top of the soup bowl and silver cup in Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s still life or, imagine this, on the wheels of the speeding Batmobile. Read more…