Me against Da Vinci? What’s the best way to draw?

May 6th, 2010

If you’ve ever taken art classes, you may wonder why I didn’t include information about the structure of the human body in my two life drawing lessons.  Aren’t figure-drawing teachers supposed to start by describing the internal skeleton, segments and joints of the body, standard proportions of head, legs, eyes, arms, mouth?

For example, Rebecca Alzofon began her online figure drawing lessons with wonderful animations of a skeleton, followed by the three ovals of “Head, Ribcage, Pelvis,” the “Pivot points” inside joints, “Long bones,” and so on.

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

Drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

The early, great champion of the anatomical approach to life drawing was of course Leonardo Da Vinci.  Da Vinci,  one of the greatest artists who ever lived, did minutely detailed dissections of human corpses along with eyewitness drawings of human anatomy.

But the Angle-Abstraction Game I described in my life drawing lessons, on the other hand, is all about angles and shapes.  Isn’t that geometry, not human bone and flesh?  Where is the brilliant Da Vinci in that?

There are different ways to approach drawing.  I’ve linked to Alzofon here because I admire the care and thoroughness she devoted to her tutorial’s very detailed illustrations and text.  If you want to try out the life-drawing method she represents, I recommend working through her multi-paged lessons.  Her presentation is, I think, more helpful than some of the other briefer ones you can find online.  Above all, I love her use of animation.

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

Da Vinci: Placement of features in the head

My own earliest drawing classes included anatomical information, standard proportions and focus on the body itself when drawing.  I learned, for example, that the crotch is the halfway point in the length of the human body – which, by the way, is 6-7 heads.  The nose ends halfway between the eyes and the bottom of the chin, and the mouth is one third down that same distance (you can see exactly this noted by Da Vinci in his drawing of the human head).  The pelvis tilts and turns independently of the chest, as do the shoulders, and so on.

But for me personally, it wasn’t until I put all that aside and looked simply at shapes and angles carved into space that I suddenly began to draw fluidly and with assurance.

In current parlance, I began to draw from my right brain instead of my left.  For me, that made all the difference.

But how could that be?  Where did I get off disagreeing with Da Vinci?

Betty Edwards is the pre-eminent teacher of the “right-brained” approach to drawing, made famous through her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  I had actually begun using my angle-abstraction game more than a decade before her book came out.  But the book explained to me why forgetting – or at least not focusing on – all that detailed information about the human body worked so well for me.  Edwards made me feel it was OK to diverge from Da Vinci.

In a nutshell, Edwards explains that we often can’t draw because we’re blocked from seeing what’s right in front of us.  What blocks us is our preconceived notions about what a human hand or leg or eye should look like.  We struggle, trying to draw what we assume we’ll see – instead of seeing what’s actually there: how the specific hand in front of us looks, for example, when its fingers point straight at us.

With this in mind, it now seems to me that all the detailed information about the human body’s standard proportions might get smack in the way of our drawing well, rather than helping us draw better.  “Standard proportions” provide more expectations of what we should see, rather than removing expectations so that we can see.  This is especially true when the model isn’t standing upright, but is bent or folded in more complex poses, where “standard” proportions get lost in the twists and turns of the person’s limbs.  And after all, it’s non-standard poses that express the body language of individual people whose personalities we want to capture along with their outward appearance.

Edwards’ great contribution to artists everywhere is that she teaches how to disengage our left brains while we draw, in order to enable us to see what’s actually there.  One very important way of doing this is to focus on “negative space” – the space around the figure, rather than on the figure itself.  Counter-intuitive though this may seem, focusing on the space around your subject is often the best way to capture your subject accurately.  This is because looking at the unexpected negative “turns off” the left brain and allows the right brain to do what it’s good at – drawing.

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

Da Vinci: Muscles of the neck and arm

So all the focus on the body itself, and all the analysis of what’s going on inside it, for me at least, engages my analytic left brain and gets in the way of drawing.  Conversely, the more I forget I’m even drawing muscles, hair, and bones, the better I get at drawing muscles, hair, and bones.

I will never know what it would be like to draw without first having my early foundation of information about the body.  It’s very possible that this knowledge informs my drawing even though I never think about it consciously.  I also think I happen to be the kind of visually-oriented person who is always sponging in information about everything I see, like how babies’ knuckles look like dimples and how my own knuckles look as I sit here typing.  I think I may more quickly recognize and draw certain shapes because my mind is always noticing them in my everyday life.  So I’m undoubtedly not a pure test case of drawing from abstractions rather than awareness of the body.

I encourage experimentation with all kinds of approaches to drawing.  What works for me may not work for you.  But I’d also encourage you to strongly consider the possibility that emptying your conscious mind of analytic focus on the body may be the best way to draw the body beautifully.

13 Responses to “Me against Da Vinci? What’s the best way to draw?”

  1. Anne Bobroff-Hajal says:

    Tell me more. Why didn’t you like the pictures? What were you looking for?

  2. James King says:

    This is a brilliant post. I’ve had the identical experience. I spent years hauling anatomy books around with me. There came a day though that I let them go. That was day I started actually, truly, drawing.

  3. Thanks for letting me know about your experience! I’d love to see your work – can you share links?


  4. DPLblog says:

    Don’t forget that Da Vinci was doing what he was doing particularly because he was trying to rediscover the essence classical architecture and ancient Roman sculpture. The tenets of those things are all steeped in geometry and “perfect” proportion. Sometimes people forget that the Renaissance was not just people making up art – they were actually TRYING to relearn methods from antiquity. It’s natural that your own personal approach will be different than Leonardo’s if you are not drawing on the same intent.

    That said, Leonardo was just a fantastic drawer, period. Look at his self portrait that hangs in Turin. Except perhaps for the wave in his beard, this image has little to do with geometric proportions: just the true image of a man who had mastered living, but was realizing that life was ending.

    Thanks for posting about your experience. Art is such a rich activity.

  5. Anne Bobroff-Hajal says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, including placing Da Vinci’s tenets in historical perspective. By the way, I took a look around your website with its very cool mosaic – I’ve never seen a home page like that before! – and I like the way you generally set your thoughts in various contexts, including historical. I like your Guitar Player best of all your paintings, and I love the page of Memling portraits you link to – they are some of my favorite paintings too. I sent your Thankful cat page to my cat-loving daughter who just made a turbulent cross-country flight with her “special needs” cat.

    I agree with you that Da Vinci was an extraordinary drawer, and my post certainly wasn’t intended to argue against that – to me it goes without saying! You’re right that his goals were different than mine – he was a scientist as much as an artist, and wanted passionately to understand what were at that time the mysteries of human anatomy.

    In my post, I was actually writing not about Da Vinci alone, but about an anatomical approach to drawing that has existed from his time to today, as James King’s comment above demonstrates. As I wrote, “for me personally, it wasn’t until I put all that aside and looked simply at shapes and angles carved into space that I suddenly began to draw fluidly and with assurance. In current parlance, I began to draw from my right brain instead of my left. For me, that made all the difference.”

  6. the_wanderer says:

    I agree with all you’ve written, and although you essentially described what that thing is (“shapes and angles carved into space”, you left out that one crucial word that Da Vinci himself stressed as the basic building block to drawing well – perspective. Taken straight from his notebooks, he wrote:
    “The youth should first learn perspective, then the proportions of objects. Then he may copy from some good master, to accustom himself to fine forms. Then he may work from nature, to confirm by practice the rules he has learnt. Then see for a time the works of various masters. Then get the habit of putting his art into practice and work.”
    As for my own experience, I experienced an increase in fluidity in drawing as I increased my level of understanding of perspective, much like how you described. Drawing just seemed to make more sense from then on.
    If you have never heard of him, I highly recommend checking out the work of Kim Jung Gi. His comprehension of perspective is so strong, that he can draw a person, car, animal, building – anything, really, from any angle, and beginning with the most bizarre of starting points ( for example, working from the finger tips up through the arm to the upper torso, head, then lower body, then place the figure on an elephant) and with zero construction lines, all ink. You’d swear the guy is tracing his images.

  7. Anne says:

    Hi, Wanderer, it’s really interesting to hear about your drawing experience and what helped your fluidity increase. For me, fluidity increased dramatically when I forgot all about depth and began to see my subject as a flat jigsaw puzzle of shapes and colors. When I allow my “vision” to shift in this way and draw what I see, “magically” an accurate drawing of the fully 3-dimensional object appears. I believe this works because after all, the paper you’re drawing on doesn’t have depth – it’s flat.

    However, I wonder whether your brain works differently as you’re drawing than mine does, so that picturing your subject within space and perspective makes more sense to you. It would be interesting to know….

  8. Marcus says:

    The issue is that the teachers aren’t teaching true davinci. Davinci drew what he saw. It was only later as he became advanced that he started analyzing the body. But we need to start where davinci started and where you are now at, drawing what you see, not what you are supposed to see.

  9. What an interesting comment, Marcus. Thanks!

  10. ds says:

    The thing is, if you draw *only* what you see, you’re basically an obsolete over-expensive, super-slow camera. “Drawing what you see” implies that there’s something right in front of you and you’re copying, not creating anything. It’s just variations of copying within squares in a grid.

    Knowing the three-dimensional structure of the objects we draw, in the other hand, allow us to create more freely, independently, than we could if we had always to depend in composing pictures almost exactly as we want in real life before our eyes, so we could “draw what we see”.

    Knowledge of how light behaves further improves on that, so these 3d structures can be convincingly painted.

    There are some painters who have an astounding, mind-boggling ability to paint what they see, but at the same time, they’re lacking in these aspects I mentioned, and consequently they end up with pictures that look like a mixture of crude paste-ups of photographs or and unconvincing scenarios, such as a “landscape” that actually looks like a poster right behind a model that posed for him in front of a wall with a landscape poster. Monsters that actually look *photorealistically* like miniature toys or papier-mache used as models.

    That’s not to say that “draw what you see” is useless; it’s necessary to build this repertoire of common 3d structures or to infer what they are and mentally move them, and even to see what the “visual” color of an object really is under a given light condition, rather than it’s “nominal”/abstract color under white light.

    But, of course, the more one decides to deviate from realistic depictions towards impressionism and abstraction, both things will lose importance accordingly. One can as well prioritize drawing what communicates the idea with an aesthetic that the author just likes for whatever reason.

  11. DS, you’re absolutely right in your comment! These tutorials are meant for the single purpose of learning to draw what’s in front of you, which is a skill many people would like to master. But I agree with you completely that what’s important in art is what an artist then does with that skill, the originality the artist brings to the work. Then of course there are artists whose art has nothing to do with realistic drawing.

  12. Marianne says:

    I’m not too sure about that left/ right brain science but then again, I haven’t studied that field that much. Interesting post though. I wouldn’t say what you were saying was disagreeing with or against Leonardo da Vinci. When I look at the sketches Leonardo drew, he never drew the bones first and then on top of that muscles and then on top of that clothes. Never. Or at least I haven’t noticed. He was simply studying the human anatomy and making notes for himself. That’s why all the measurements and exact drawings of muscles. And he was also studying how there’s actually something that mathematics can present. For example if you know the Vitruvian man, he drew a man in a perfect circle and in a perfect square. And if you know the mathematical task many was given to (it was proved impossible later on) that people were supposed to square a circle. Leonardo, brilliant mind that he was, did his own way this and you can just look at the Vitruvian man drawing. Leonardo was also a charming joker so it might have been that too, but this was he’s own notebooks so I can never know. 😀

  13. Thanks for your comment, Marianne. Leonardo was a genius, no question. I love the way he incorporated science and art. Your observation that he never drew bones first, with muscles added is interesting.

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