Archive for the ‘The role of drawing in art’ Category

How to create models for drawing the imaginary

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

One of the biggest challenges in much of my personal artwork – and that of many artists -  is that I’m painting things that exist in my imagination rather than in the outside world.  So I invent “models” from which I draw the imagined scene.

Do you paint from the real…

When I paint a portrait, I’m painting a person who exists (or existed).  When I do life drawings (the most fun drawing of all), I sketch live models who pose.

When I was a kid, I used to set up still lifes and draw them.  In school (I don’t mean art class), I used to alleviate boredom by sketching classmates When I painted landscapes, I’d go out in the country, find an appealing scene, and paint what I saw.  I might make artistic changes in the scene, but it actually existed.

You may be the kind of artist who always paints real objects from the world around you.

Mr. Pencil Shavings, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal (from ABBIE AND THE DESK DWELLERS)

… or from the imaginary?

Or you may want to paint images from your imagination.  If so, you may want to learn to invent “models” from which you can create the imagined scene.

An example of this is animated character designs I created for a screenplay I wrote, called ABBIE AND THE DESK DWELLERS.  These characters were made of detritus from kids’ school desks – pencil shavings; dirty broken crayons; gum and candy wrappers and scraps of paper; grungy old erasers and eraser dust.

How would you approach drawing these characters?

Here’s my technique, which you might have fun trying:  I did things like grinding out pencil shavings using an old-fashioned pencil sharpener.  Then I shaped the pencil shavings – or the worn crayon stubs or the battered erasers  – as closely as I could to the character I imagined.

Slo Page Reinforcements, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal (from ABBIE AND THE DESK DWELLERS)

It can be hard because in the real world, things like shavings can’t hold their shape standing up as they can in your imagination.  Yet to make the character look real, you need to draw the shavings (or whatever you’re using) from the proper angles even if in actuality they couldn’t hold those positions for more than a split second.   So it involves a lot of adjusting the objects as you continue to draw.

Have you ever created models from real world materials to draw your own vision?  If so, leave a comment about your method and how it worked.  If not, give it a try!  It’s challenging and fun to experiment with.

Reflective surfaces

Detail of reflections in protractor (from Anne Bobroff-Hajal's ABBIE AND THE DESK DWELLERS)

Notice the reflection of pencil shavings in the shiny metal of the protractor. What makes any reflective surface look real is that images of nearby objects appear on their surfaces – but not just anywhere.

I carefully set up a pencil shaving “leg” at the distance and angle from the protractor that my character’s leg was positioned.

Notice that the reflections appear in both the upright metal support of the protractor, and the curly metal extension that almost reaches the pencil eraser.   Capturing that detail is what makes the protractor look real next to a little man made of pencil shavings.

You might enjoy practicing setting up some objects next to simple reflective surfaces.  Look at them really carefully and try to replicate in your drawing exactly what you see.

Don’t bring in preconceived notions of what you think a reflection should look like – its color or shape.  Any reflective shape – like the protractor’s – distorts the appearance of the object reflected in it.  So just draw exactly the oddities you see, and you will find you’ve drawn a realistic-looking reflection in an object that looks three-dimensional.

But why bother with models?  Why not just draw from memory?

Brenda Eraser Crumbs, by Anne Bobroff-Hajal (from ABBIE AND THE DESK DWELLERS)

Why bother with the hassle of setting up models?  Don’t a lot of artists draw purely from memory?  The answer is yes, many do.

For me, though, the everyday visual world is full of such surprises that I don’t want to just repeat from memory something I’ve drawn or seen in the past.  Drawing from my memory of “what an X looks like,” by definition means I’ve developed a somewhat standardized way of seeing and drawing X.  For me – and maybe for you – there’s nothing like the magical pleasure of discovering what’s unique about the particular “X” I’m drawing at that moment, and capturing that uniqueness on paper.

Reality is infinitely variable.  If I hadn’t set up my shavings next to the protractor, for example, I might not have guessed that the reflection would appear in the very particular way it does over several surfaces of it.  Scroll back up to the protractor closeup image above.  Note how the reflection of the shavings continues down the point at the bottom of the protractor as simply a beige stripe.  Notice also how the shading of the protractor itself – the grooves down its length, the white highlight at the top of its curve, the indentation around the grommet – all these intermingle with the shavings’ reflections.  This interplay is what makes the protractor appear reflective and three-dimensional.

What if your subject is too large to set up a model?

I wish I had human models on retainer who I could call on at any time to dress up in the appropriate costumes and assume the emotions and positions I need to draw!   I have a lot of books of models in hundreds of different positions, but I don’t recommend you spend much money on these books.  It’s rare to find the exact position you need to simulate  a particular activity you want to draw.

And the books don’t include the variations that come from the emotional intent of an action.  Any action – say swinging an axe – shapes the human body differently if it’s taken, for example, in anger than if it’s taken in pleasure.

Before the web existed, I used to prowl libraries and magazines for photos that could serve as my models.  The internet has provided a new wealth of relatively easily-found photos of people doing all kinds of activities, from shooting arrows on horseback to singing arias.  Of course I’d prefer to draw from a three-dimensional reenactment.  But I’ll never have a peasant chasing a soldier on horseback with a pitchfork in front of me – or an entire Mongol battle played out before me.

Next post, I’ll provide some tips on how to find images on the web that you can use as models for drawing scenes from your imagination.

Meanwhile, for Jonathan Linton’s popular video drawing demo and commentary, go here.

For a 2-part life drawing lesson, start Part 1 here.

Nicole Mone on the importance of drawing from life

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

This is part of a series of posts about drawing and how artists use drawing.  Others in this thread are here.

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Great works are not created with technical ability alone, but it is the starting line.  I like the quote from William Morris Hunt, “Imagination comes in after we have experience.”

- Nicole Moné on why she believes constant sketching from life is important.

Maia (left) and Outdoorsman (right), by Nicole Moné

Maia in Profile (left) and Outdoorsman, Potrait of the Artist's Father (right), by Nicole Moné


Nicole Mone's sketch of a boy on a Metronorth train

Nicole Moné's sketchbook: Drawing of a boy on a Metronorth train.

Nicole Moné almost always carries a sketchbook – usually a Moleskine – with her, to record her impressions of sights she sees in her travels both exotic and routine.  “In my opinion,” Nicole says, “you can never draw and sketch enough, nor will you ever reach a point where you no longer need to.  Continuous observation is essential” for artists.

For those wanting to draw the human figure, Nicole feels,

“a very important exercise is people-watching.  Studying people and the way they move, observing how arms relate to shoulders, how the back arches, how the pelvis tilts when legs move a certain way… When you train yourself to notice these things, you can more effectively translate your observations into your artwork.”

Nicole uses her sketches to record ideas for paintings or sculptures, and as studies for finished works.  Along with her sketchbook, her constant traveling companions include a camera.  “I always have a camera with me as well, and often use the photos in conjunction with my sketches to create a painting back in the studio….”

But if Nicole takes photos of something, you might ask, why bother sketching the same thing?  Nicole responds that drawing

“is important to me because, while sketching, even very quickly, I am more present in the moment than when I snap a photo and move on. Sketching teaches you to see better and remember more. You absorb so much more of your surroundings while sketching and you are listening, smelling & hearing the world around you in that moment….  Sometimes I only have a few minutes, or less, to capture a gesture or some intangible that I want to remember.  There is very limited information but I’ve gotten what I wanted.”

Nicole Mone's sketchbook: ink drawings of Key West

Nicole Moné's sketchbook: ink drawings of Key West

Nicole Moné's sketch of Aaron Shikler

Let’s look at a painting Nicole created based on one of her sketches.  At the time she made the sketch (left), Nicole herself was being painted by portraitist Aaron Shikler.  Sitting for him gave her time to study him from a unique angle.  Being simultaneously a model and an artist, Nicole was able to create an unusual work of art, “The Model’s Perspective #2″ (below).

I love the way Nicole’s finished painting of Shikler captures the contemplative, right-brained state that artists often enter while working “in the zone.”  As an artist, I deeply resonate with the mood of this painting.  And apparently a lot of other people are affected by it, also: The Model’s Perspective #2 has been selected for the “Inspiring Figures” Exhibition and Competition through the Portrait Society of America, hosted by the Butler Institute of American Art, following a New York showing this summer in the Salmagundi Club’s Painting and Sculpture Exhibition for Non-Members.

The Model's Perspective #2, by Nicole Moné

The Model's Perspective #2, by Nicole Moné

Nicole described her process of sketching Shikler, which ultimately resulted in her evocative painting of this mood:

“While I was sitting for a painting for my friend and mentor, Aaron Shikler, I was intrigued by the way he was silhouetted against the windows of his studio and the look of the pipe smoke in the light.  I had plenty of time to observe him as he painted.  I made the sketch to work in conjunction with a few photos that I took with my camera phone.

“As you can see, the sketch didn’t end up being the exact pose I used in the final painting, but it provided me with the memory of the scene as I wished to convey it.”

Nicole’s initial sketch is a lovely example of a drawing that stands on its own, independent of the painting for which it was made.  She used lines and shading based on artistic choice rather than strict realism.  While the sketched lines of Shikler’s body capture his position perfectly, the shaded area draws our attention to the lines of his head as he turns away to focus on filling his brush with paint from his (out-of-sight) palette.
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This sketch also provides an excellent example of how an artist makes decisions about how to compose a final painting.  For the painting, Nicole made a major departure from her initial drawing.  She decided to paint Shikler in 3/4 view instead of the profile she had first sketched.  And Shikler’s hand is central in the final composition, not hidden as in the sketch.  Nicole made these choices because she wanted to show Shikler
“directly engaged with his work, instead of reaching past the easel to an unseen palette….  The 3/4 view also allowed me to convey some space and ‘air’ around the subject by playing with the smoke lingering between the pipe and his far shoulder.”

She began to make these decisions immediately after creating the sketch – while he was still painting her.

For comparison: The Model's Perspective #1 (left) and The Model's Perspective #2 (right), by Nicole Moné

For comparison: The Model's Perspective #1 (left) and The Model's Perspective #2 (right), by Nicole Moné

After Nicole returned to her own easel, in her first painted study (above), she began to experiment with the position of Shikler’s hand, the turn of his face, and the amount of shadow she wanted him in.

It’s interesting to compare # 1 and #2, in which Shikler is leaning father forward, his head slightly more tilted.  These slight changes in body position in #2 show him at a moment when he is more engaged in the act of painting.  Also in #2, Nicole has shifted her perspective to create less distance between Shikler and his easel: the window no longer separates them.  We see more detail in Shikler’s face, so the backlit lens of his glasses is no longer key.  To me, the first painting, while lovely, is more a study of light and smoke.  The changes Nicole made in #2 make it more about an artist’s process and mood while he paints.

Autumn Leaves - Week 16 of The Skeleton Project, by Nicole Moné

Autumn Leaves - Week 16 of The Skeleton Project, by Nicole Moné

Another of Nicole’s artistic interests is the skeleton, inspiring her to begin the Skeleton Project.  She draws from her own life-sized male skeleton which she bought from a medical supplier.  For animal skulls, she uses friends’ specimen collections and gifts she’s been given of animal bones by friends and Skeleton Project fans.  Nicole wrote,

“I love skeletons; there is something deeply beautiful about the human skeleton. Drawing skeletons gives you a greater understanding for drawing the human figure. When you know the architecture underneath, drawing the figure makes more sense.”

Skeleton Project painting by Nicole Moné

Skeleton Project painting by Nicole Moné

In the Skeleton Project, Nicole is fulfilling the words of William Morris Hunt which she quoted (above): “Imagination comes in after we have experience.”  Her fantastical skeleton paintings grew out of her studies of skeletons.  Nicole has turned her drawings of “the architecture underneath” on their heads.  What were initially sketches -  tools to prepare her to paint the human figure – have taken on a life of their own in Nicole’s imagination.

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Note on Nicole’s sketch materials: She wrote, “I enjoy the spontaneity & line quality of drawing with ink pens (brands I like are Stadtler, Prismacolor and Faber-Castell PITT artist pens)  though I will often use pencil or a combination of both.”  She also sometimes uses a kneaded rubber eraser to “sketch” on a page toned with Conté crayon, removing color to reveal a drawing.

Reuben (left) and Andy (right), by Nicole Moné

Reuben (left) and Andy (right), by Nicole Moné

Isn’t an artist some one who can draw?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Non-artists often admire artists’ ability to draw.  They wish they could learn how.   Many assume being an artist is mainly having the skill to draw realistically.

My sister Ellen

My sister Ellen

It is a lot of fun to be able to draw.  It’s fun to capture the reality of different shapes, textures, surfaces.  I especially love the moment of finally succeeding in capturing some one doing some activity.

But thinking that drawing is the main role of an artist is like assuming that the main role of a professional mathematician is adding and subtracting.   There’s a vast range of other skills that must be built atop the foundation of drawing, along with natural talent and a vision of what you want to create.

Like arithmetic for a mathematician, drawing is my most basic tool, the thing I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.  I grew up drawing all the time.  I used to pester my sisters endlessly to pose for me.  Here’s a drawing of my sister Ellen.  You can see she wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to add shading – I could only do a quick sketch before she’d run off and play outdoors.   

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

So I’d look for inanimate things to draw.  Here are two of my dolls.  They stayed still long enough for me to add detail to the sketch.

I’d set up still lifes using objects with different types of surfaces in order to figure out how to draw a shiny thing so it looked shiny, a furry thing so it looked look furry.  I would puzzle over how you could make a candle flame look as bright in your drawing as it does in reality.  How could I draw a transparent bottle to make it look transparent?

I drew in art classes in school – my ability in portraiture actually first emerged in a portrait I drew of a classmate.  I drew the kids I babysat for.  Their mother, thrilled with the likenesses, bought the portraits for what was for me a huge sum.

Actually, I drew in all my school classes, not just the art ones.  It was a great way to alleviate boredom.  My sketch book is full of drawings of the backs of classmates sitting at their desks, because that was all I could see in front of me.  Though in study hall I could draw them from other angles.  Below are a couple.  Again, these had to be quick sketches before my fellow study hallers shifted position.  I had minimal time for shading.

Two kids in my high school study hall

Two kids in my high school study hall

The most fun of all is life drawing classes.  I got a scholarship to attend a life drawing class when I was about 15 (I was the only kid in the class.  I had to get special permission from my parents because of the nude models).  In life drawing, you’re given varying amounts of time to draw the model in different poses.  Commonly, the amount of time is 5 minutes ranging down to 30 or even 10 seconds.  The idea is to train the artist to be able to capture the essence of a person’s position very quickly, because in reality people don’t hold the same position for very long – as I’d discovered with my sisters and the kids in study halls.

The second classic life drawing challenge is to practice realistically drawing a hand or foot that’s coming straight at you instead of being seen from the side.  Artists need to figure out how to draw people from all kinds of common but difficult angles without ending up with something that looks completely misshapen.

Below is the last drawing of the life drawing class I took in high school.  As a reward at the end of the course, we were given 45 minutes to do this drawing. Next to that is one of my quick crayon sketches of a rare male life model.  (Unfortunately, most life models are women.  I find that sexist.)

A couple of my life drawings

A couple of my life drawings

In short, drawing for me, and for many other artists, is the thing we started doing as far back as we can remember.   We need to keep doing it all our lives, just as mathematicians have to keep adding and subtracting.

But as in any field, there are many skills beyond the basics which the layperson may be unaware of.  In art, these other skills and talents, not just drawing, distinguish great artists from mediocre ones.  Many of my blog posts are about the range of these other skills and talents.  Many involve artistic sensibility as well as knowledge, such as choice of color palette, medium, style, and subject matter; which elements of a scene you will include; the weight of each element compared all the others; lighting issues (the direction of the lighting, whether multiple light sources or one, quality of the light); and countless others.

Here is one example among the infinite number I could give of artistry over and above drawing.  Alexandra Tyng, a highly successful portraitist, has written on the PortraitArtist.com Forum about her  sophisticated method of thinking about and painting backgrounds:

The most important thing to keep in mind about backgrounds is that they are not actually separate from the figure. The background … is actually the air around the figure. It is three-dimensional space! It envelops the figure, surrounds it on all sides, and recedes from the picture plane to varying degrees….

Whether the background is plain or complex, the … figure emerges from the ground….

The key to achieving the illusion of “emergence” is to understand the roundness of the head (or figure) and the colors of the light in relation to the shadow. The side of the face in direct light gives the feeling of solidity and opacity. As the form turns away from the direct light, it picks up the indirect light or ambient light in the atmosphere. This indirect light is slightly redder than direct light. Crossing over the line into the shadow areas, the complement of the indirect light will predominate…..

An artist who uses Tyng’s approach to backgrounds will create a very different painting than an artist who approaches backgrounds differently.

The online Portrait Artist forum gives some idea of the many, many elements of artistry beyond simple drawing.  And keep in mind, this forum covers representational portraiture.  There are many other forms of art, and many, many other issues that artists must be skilled at in order to produce terrific art.

So if you’ve always wanted to improve your ability to draw, don’t view it as an end point, but as something to play with and experience.  Play with drawing every chance you get.  Draw different types of things – animate and inanimate, shiny and dull, smooth and rough.  See if your friends or loved ones will pose for you.  Set up your own still lifes to challenge yourself with different types of objects.  Go to a park, beach, sports or music event and practice very quick sketches of people doing different activities.  Take a life drawing class if you can and if it seems appealing.

And view drawing as one fun stepping stone on your path as an artist.