Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 15, 2017

Good Drawing

You have to be careful using terms like “good”. Because any one who hears a statement like “Good drawing is the key to good painting.” could jump to conclusions. My drawing is fairly straightforward, I draw what I see for the most part roughly where I see it and in the general proportions I see it. So when I make statements like the one above people assume I mean that good drawing is going to look like mine. They also assume I can only draw that way, not that I have chosen to work in that manner. In reality I have made my living from drawing and have been asked to draw in quite a few different styles for many different purposes. The one I use now is just the one I have settled on in my dotage.

The key to good drawing in my opinion is in my last sentence: Purpose. A drawing is good when it is fit for its purpose. That might be planning out a kitchen, or a study of hands for a pieta. Each will require a different approach. Each may require similar set of skills but in differing proportions.

Many people seem to approach drawing like writing a signature. They do it the way they do in their own manner and that is it. This can be fine but it is very limiting. When I was at college there was someone we knew who had what I now call a lovely line. His sense of how a line should move across the page was exquisite. I on the other hand had a rather clumsy and laboured line that struggled to flow. Even when I tried to make the shapes elegant they somehow didn’t really sing. I now realise that was perhaps just as well. My friend could only do that line, he would struggle to do an ugly one. I on the other hand had the ugly one well and truly nailed down and so had plenty of room to make the long journey to a certain degree of improvement!

I would like to report that I set to and systematically worked to improve my line but I didn’t. Like most people I struggled on with the one that came naturally and thought that I was stuck with it. It was not until years later that I noticed after years of drawing stuff for work occasionally an elegant line crept in here and there. Just the process of drawing all day every day had wrought a change.

It is hard to look back and work out how your own progress came about and for what reason. My first love with drawing at about 15 or so was architecture. I loved drawing churches, castles and cathedrals. Buildings are generally on grids so tracking where lines ran, their angle and where they met was something I became pretty good at. Unwittingly I had taught myself the beginnings of accuracy.

Accuracy. Now this is an unfashionable quality. If I was to poll my life drawing group they would mostly I suspect put accuracy very low down on their scale of important things to learn. When I mention it I get the reply, “Oh, I don’t do accuracy!” The majority would I suspect put “expression” at the top of their wish list of attainments. Yet I suspect the thing that is most standing in the way of their expressiveness is their weakness in the very area they dismiss so airily.

So what do I mean by accuracy? People tend to jump to the conclusion that it means getting things in precisely the “right” place. Like a sort of graph or the imitation of the tracing of a photo using direct measurement and observation. However that is not what I understand by accuracy. For a start the artist is a quivering mammal. Swivelling head, eyes and torso. Shuffling and bobbing about from here to there. They might be drawing another mammal who is also shifting about albeit unintentionally. The result of all this is that a line in a certain place one second is in a different place the next.

So accuracy is about getting something in a plausible and possible place, or more often recording several of them in the same area. You then have the option of strengthening or suppressing various lines to best express the changing form. However in order to collect these varied lines you need to be able to measure proportion, distance and angle in order to get your mark within the zone of beleivability. With figure drawing you do not just have placing individual marks, you have to relate each to the whole. Your first mark will always be right, it is the second and following marks and the relation ship between them that is critical. So it is possible to make an acceptable mark and then undermine it with another less well chosen one.

Quality. As well as where a line is there is also “how” it is. This can be how hard or soft it is. How assertive or tentative it is. How it changes along its length. How wide it is, what texture… there are an infinite number of combinations of all of these. Quality of line or mark is an area where I see great deal of confusion and once you think of all the variables then some sympathy is due! This is not helped by muddled teaching. I hear a great deal of, “Draw with a long stick dipped in ink.” or a badger dipped in tomato sauce… As if changing the medium or difficulty of application could somehow magically lead you to an expressive transcendence. The result is often an ugly mess, sometimes a quite nice looking mess, but only rarely has a great deal to do with the subject. This approach is so ingrained and hallowed I no longer really try to argue with it. Different media and means of application are a very powerful set of tools to express information or emotion on paper, but there must be intent, accident is not good enough. It maybe that an accident is the result of attempting to carry out an intention, it may be a happy one or otherwise, but the original intent needs to be there, not random activity hoping to get lucky. Which brings me to:

Intent. Why are you doing the drawing? Will you use the information collected to paint a picture? Use it as an accurate guide to build a kitchen? Is it a practice piece to hone your ability? Is it an experimental thing to find out what might be possible by some different approach? Is it finished work to hang on the wall? I think you can see that each of these might require a different type of drawing. The important thing is that you actually have an intention and are not just setting out randomly as you might on a doodle on the corner of an agenda during a particularly dull meeting. A drawing is as far as I can see always of, or for, or about something. You might well start out with one intention and discover as you work something else to focus on, but that still requires the original intent to be there.

Uncertainty. When we see things we take in a quick general assessment and then scan over in detail with a part of our eye called the fovea. This means we cannot see the whole figure all at once in detail. So if you resolve and make definite every part of the figure then the result will be stiff and lifeless like those laboured drawings from ateliers. In navigating the world we are unsure about quite a bit of what we see and one of the hardest things to learn in drawing is to reflect that uncertainty and its different degrees. If you have difficulty in estimating an edge that say runs around and out of sight then you can leave it vague. It will look better and even more realistic because when looking at the world our eyes and brain are dealing with this sort of thing constantly. This is why we are quite happy with sketches with bits unfinished or just hinted at. As Braque said, “If there is no mystery there is no poetry.”

When drawing you have an important factor on your side. The viewer wants to see something in your scribbles and will do their very best to fish some sense out of the morass of possibly ill considered marks. They will even pat themselves (and you) on the back for extricating some sort of vision from your effort. Don’t be fooled though they are really patting themselves on the back for being perceptive, not you for being a genius. When people look at a really good drawing it zips through their eyes and into their brains and evokes a response before they can do any analysis. If anyone looks at your drawing and then they are plainly taking a moment or two to formulate a response then it probably means your expressive marks have possibly not quite made the grade! Of course drawing is so hard that most of everyone’s effort will fall Ito this category. Every now and again though one will take flight and if you master the skills behind the art then that will happen more frequently.

I should follow that up with some examples of my life drawing OKish and not so OKish so you can see by the duff ones how hard it is to put all the above into practice!


Life drawing, figure

Here is a very unresolved one. I doubt if there is a single thing in the right place. It was done in 1min so I’m not too upset about that. What it does show is that your eye is very very good at picking the human form out of a set of approximate blobs.

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Here is a more resolved one done in 30min. You can see here that I leave each mark to stand. I don’t try to erase the ones that have gone astray. Nonetheless I can see I have over explained the closest arm and under explained the turn of the shoulders compared to the hips.

life drawing, figure, watercolour

Another 30min done directly after. Here there is less resolving and more uncertainty about edges but somehow the whole thing works better. The previous one was sketched out in pencil but this one was just painted. A painting done very quickly like this is a collection of different observations each observation varies in accuracy and certainty. The success or failure hangs on how these parts relate. You might get two parts that are really well described but not in the right position relative to each other. A worse painted bit in the right place might work better!

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 30min drawing done with a specific intent. I was describing tone only and leaving the interpreting of volume and edge to the viewer. I intentionally reduced my options to a vertical hatch with only a few erratic fills to prevent it from being too mechanical. I allowed myself a very few lines under forms which were put in only at the last minute. The white adds a further step up in tone that allows the paper itself to play a major role. I notice I did in this case pencil out, as this sort of drawing is not “free” but analytical.

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 3min one using the same mix of media. Here though line is of greater importance and the initial pencil plays more of a part. The white is really there just to push the paper back and the hatch to indicate shadowed areas. There is no attempt to show accurate tone values.

pen and ink drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a sort of halfway house done in 15min. The difference to the previous two is that I am using the hatch to describe form and pick out direction and indicating the angle of planes. You cannot show everything in a drawing so you have to apply limits at least initially. When I fail to do this or cannot find anything in a pose that I can see how to explain, then a poor result is more or less certain.

life drawing

Another day another medium. For me it is important to chop and change my medium. Conte stick is very adaptable allowing you to use both line and flat tonal marks. This only a couple of minutes and you can see where I am testing out lines in different places. Once you have one line down it is easier to see where it should have been and add another.

life drawing

This was 2min but actually 1min, I spent the first minute wondering how to start! When you draw a line try to make is do as much as possible in a single stroke. Actually think about varying the pressure to make it change over its length. In this sort of time frame there is no possibility of accuracy so this drawing is made up of about 50 marks attempting to represent 50 rapid observations.

Life drawing, conte

20min This was done in tone with only a few lines here and there put in at the end. Many people start with the delineation then “fill in” or shudder… “do shading”. It is so much easier to do the lines last as you have all the tonal shapes already there to guide you. People feel I suppose that you need the lines to plot the form, but there is no reason you cannot place tonal blocks and shapes in roughly the right places.

life drawing

10mins. Here the tonal blocks are quite clear and the line less insistent. When I am looking for blocks of fairly consistent tone I often, at least for the first key shapes, softly mark out the boundary and placement and then try an fill that area with a single stroke. I see many people going in with marks that are to strong too soon. The feeling is I suppose that pressing hard expresses confidence. That however means you are possibly trying to say something about you and how you would like to be seen to draw, rather than your actual purpose which should surely be to say something about what you have seen in the model!

life drawing

Here is one where I rather lost the plot! There is at the same time too much and too little information. You can tell I am struggling by the addition of directional lines to existing toning. I was I think distracted by the foreshortening whereas the real story is perhaps about the tone values.

pen and ink drawing, figure drawing, life drawing

Back to the pen and ink. Note I have been careful to break my lines if I am delineating an edge. If they are too certain as the one on top of the nearest shin is then they undermine the whole. The little touches of white here are very important for such tiny areas of tone they make a great deal of difference to the whole. Always remember any added marks makes a difference to every other mark already there.

life drawing, watercolour

This was one from a whole days life drawing which is a real luxury. My plan here was to retain the whites at all cost to describe the light flooding in over the figure. It is always fun when something really strikes you about a pose. The hard bit is sticking to it and not getting distracted and putting too much in. About 20min I would guess.

life drawing, watercolour

Here I remember trying to keep it all to single brush strokes. Of course what you sacrifice by this approach is flow the result is more like a mosaic in feel. I had decided from the outset to describe angularity as that was what struck me about that particular pose. To that end I didn’t allow myself curved strokes only lines and blocks. As to whether those decisions were the best ones, who can say?

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Another from the same day. It is amazing that as I post these and see the image I immediately remember how I felt when doing them on the day. With this one I thought, “What the hell do I do with this?” Being very unsure I just stopped and looked. Eventually what took my eye was the fact that the bum and hips made an almost perfect circle! A very thin twig to hang a painting on but once I had that imaginary circle placed the rest sort of followed along. It is very hard to do a painting of a pose that looks weird from the outset. Even in a photo this pose would have looked quite abstract. So I was quite pleased to have got something down that made sense.

life painting, drawing, figure

Here is one where I really struggled. Almost in desperation at the end I added some body colour which unusually staved off complete disaster. Sometimes drawings get to that stage where nothing is particularly wrong but nothing really right either. Still, more like a battlefield than a work of art!

That’s it for life drawing for a while, these life drawing posts are always the least popular which is a little sad as I would always encourage any painter to regularly challenge themselves with attempting the seemingly impossible. As you can see from the images above only very rarely will you get a result that could be chalked up as a success, but the striving will teach you a tremendous amount that will help in any other painting you attempt whether observational or abstract.

February 17, 2017

How to Cheat at Perspective pt1

Filed under: Drawing,How to do,Perspective,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Rob Adams @ 3:43 pm

This post and the forthcoming ones are for anyone who has had perspective explained to them, but found that their brain started to close down causing them to feel an irresistible urge to get as far away from the person explaining as possible and have a quiet coffee and read OK magazine because it is certain there will be no article on perspective in it. Every now and again I am in the position of the abandoned explainee when I have to explain some of the finer points of perspective to a fellow painter. It starts off fine when I say, “Hold up your brush as close as you can and as level as you can, right in front of your eyes.” They do this and I pronounce. “You see where it cuts across your vision, that is always the Horizon line.” Over the years I have mastered the skill of saying horizon with a capital ‘H’.

They mostly just accept this, but some say, “What about if you are up a mountain, won’t it be lower?”

Fixing an irritatingly patronising smirk on my features I reply,”No, if you hold up your brush when you are on the very top of mount Everest it will still mark the horizon.”

“What about in space?” The smart-arses come back.

My smirk slightly morphs into a pout at this point…”When exactly are you going to paint in space…?” I enquire.

“So it doesn’t always work! What is the use of that then?”

So there we are, the rules of perspective are rules that don’t always look right on the page when you follow them. In actuality, as I have written in other posts, the whole business of linear perspective is a crude approximation of what and how we actually see. It is convenient I suppose that one point perspective is fairly easy to explain, with railway tracks meeting at the horizon etc. However once you are in the territory of 2 and 3 point perspective and quite wide angles of view your explanations gain an ever increasing degree of complexity which are going to glaze over most painter’s eyes. Also linear perspective assumes you only have one eye and a flat retina. Also it is taken for granted that neither your head or your peepers can swivel. I don’t know about you, but when I paint something I do a fair amount of swivelling and general rubbernecking!

Many artists avoid the whole thing by never doing town or cityscapes at all, or if they do they look way off into the distance which is where linear flattens out into cardboard cutouts. Most of us who don’t avoid such subjects stick to the safe territory of one point perspective and a tight view. Where it all falls apart though is when we take that slightly wider view.

Time for one of those diagrams, but don’t click away, there will be no equations or hyperbolic geometry.

Perspective drawing

Here we are in a town with mostly one point perspective, there are only a few bits of sticky-out shop and rooflines that don’t recede from us. The rest tapers off to meet at the point on the horizon in the middle of the street. I’ve gone quite wide too and all seems well. I have cheated a bit though. If I had stuck to the constructed rules of perspective the shop on the far right would be sort of stretched out; indeed in a photo that is just what happens. So a skinny man standing in the middle of a photograph will look like a fat man if he goes to the far side of the frame. We are so used to this effect in photos we no longer notice the distortion. Just for fun below is an image where those perspective rules that you have never quite understood start falling apart.

perspective drawing

The wide-angleness of this image is not far off a point and click camera or your phone. As you see we have a straight row of perfectly identical computer generated men. Well call me picky, but to my eye the chap on the far right has had a few more iced buns in the last month than his friend in the middle… but they are identical models just duplicated, the distortion is purely caused by using the rules of linear perspective. To make it worse the chap on the right is about twice as far away from you the as chap in the middle… now I always thought the “rules” said things got smaller as they got further away. The blimps in the sky, by the way,  are all perfect spheres… it is a property of spheres that they always have a circular outline wherever they are in your field of view. These appear to break that rule with enthusiasm. To recap, if you got a set of bald grey elevenplets (rarer that triplets I hear) and stood them in a line in front of your point and snap this is how they would look in your photo.

perspective drawing

Here we are back in our city. We have stepped back a bit and widened the view. This is version one. At first glance this looks sort of OK. However the building on the far left has a corner that should be closer to you than the point at which it leaves the picture on the left of the frame. Yet following the rules of linear perspective it causes that face of the building to get taller as it gets more distant. The very opposite of what our eyes see in reality. Below is my guestimate fix.

perspective drawing

Take a moment to compare versions one and two. I have made two simple adjustments one quite obvious, one less so. Firstly can you see that this looks more likely than the first version? If not can I suggest a quick coffee and a copy of OK? Ahem… the big change is on the left. The vanishing point has flipped from right to left so the building goes away from you as it should, you might also notice that the chimney stacks and the zebra crossing make more sense and the corner feels properly square. The other change is to the shop corner to the right of the picture. I have slightly curved and flattened the angle of the perspective as the lines reach the square corner. This helps the building on the left fit in better, though beware if you over do it things start to look bendy!

Linear perspective is fine as a starting point, but you do have to make subtle corrections to make up for its considerable deficiencies. Essentially you need to make some straight lines a bit bendy in order to get things to make better sense. My own take is to not over do it and get into fisheye territory, but to do the least possible to reduce any inconsistencies. I do get asked, “How can straight lines be bendy?” they will often hold their ruler against the offending roofline and go, “See it’s straight.” Instead of telling them the unwelcome fact that they are seeing their ruler bendy too, I usually suggest a coffee…

I am doing these little tutorials in small bites to make them a bit more digestible. If people have perspective questions post them below and I will try and cover them in future posts.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress

error: Content is protected !!