Monday, October 08, 2012

Drawing tip of the day


Draw the shadows.

A lot of people approach drawing the same way they did as kids. Our first instinct is to draw "outlines" of objects, and fill in the "shading" later, as more or less an afterthought and a nod to "making it look real".

A great deal of the work of developing drawing skill, as I've banged on about endlessly, is overcoming your instincts. We unthinkingly assume that a head, for example, is done by drawing a big oval shape, eyes are almonds, a nose is a kind of inverted triangle. A cat is two connected oblongs, one big and one little, with a tail at the bottom, all topped with a pair of triangles for ears. Trees are bulbous green blobs atop a brown stick for a trunk (or in my case, having grown up in a coniferous rainforest, flounced green triangles with a little stub of trunk at the bottom). Seagulls are represented by flying Ms...etc.

But the quick little demonstration above will surprise people stuck in the outline mode of thinking. She didn't draw anything but the shadows. Particularly, she didn't draw anything of the nose except the tiny bit of shading under the end of it. And she tells you straight out not to draw the lower lip, but only the dark place under the lip where the shadow falls. And the thing she ended up with, in that fifteen seconds of drawing with the watercolour, is something that looks much more like a real human face than an outline and iconic symbols we habitually use.

This is because, in truth, everything we see is actually just shadows. Darks and lights in juxtaposition with colour added. There aren't any outlines. Look at a photo of a human face up close. Click on the Page Tab at the top of the blog and the first photo will be of my friend Anna whose portrait I've been working on. Where is the outline of her face? Of her nose? Where are the edges? There aren't any. Edges and lines are optical illusions, landmarks filled in by our brains to try to interpret what we are looking at. The illusion is created by transitions, sometimes abrupt transitions, from dark to light. The "edge" of Anna's jaw isn't an edge. It's a fast transition.


As an experiment, a good way to teach yourself, or to teach your brain to notice that you're seeing this, sit down some day with a photo of a statue and draw only the shadows. A marble statue will eliminate for you the extra complication of colour, leaving only darks and lights. So you would look at this Bernini statue of St. Teresa and approach it by looking only at first the darkest forms. The broad dark shadow under her chin, the darkest shadow shapes under her nose, the shadow under her eyebrow ridge that defines the ocular cavity.

When you draw something, you are asking, Where are the three darkests parts? How are they placed in relation to each other? Where do the very darkest parts end and the middle darks begin? Where is the lightest part?

Go ahead and give it a try right now. Get a piece of paper and an ordinary HB pencil and draw St. Teresa's face. The one on the left. Start by drawing outlines of the dark and light shapes around her eyes. Focus on them carefully, noting where they start, how they connect together. Entirely ignore the outline of the face and features. Tell yourself that you are not drawing a face and features or drapery. You are drawing only the darks and lights in relation to each other.

You might be surprised that your assumption that you "can't draw a straight line" has been incorrect all along. Your problem is not that you cannot draw, but that you haven't been taught to see.

One of the things I find myself doing now, even when I'm not drawing with a pencil, is to look at objects, scenes, people, buildings, etc, and mentally draw them. I pinpoint where the darkest shadows are, how they connect each object together with the shadows next to them. Where the differences between darks and lights, the transitions, create the illusion of lines and edges.

Even if you don't learn to draw, you will find it amazingly different if you really concentrate on what you are looking at, how you identify objects, their edges, their depth, their size and weight, by automatically interpreting these juxtapositions into meanings. Right now I'm looking at Winnie sleeping on the armchair opposite the sofa. I can look at it in the regular way, and it's Winnie sleeping on the armchair, with a bunch of cushions. Then I turn on the Drawing Brain, and I can see it in terms of a little corner of shadow under the pillow, that reaches up the side of the arm of the chair in a curve to articulate the curve of the chair's upholstery. I can see all the little regimented lattice of shadows that create the pattern of the crocheted pillow cover that then creates a darker shadow on the chair back. Winnie herself, being conveniently a black, white and grey cat, is a series of dark markings on top of white fur, with a few fainter shadows indicating the curve of her muscles where she is curled up.

Try it right now with some object in the room. Don't draw the thing itself. Draw it's shadows.


We all love cartooning, of course, and I will write at some point about the huge influence of children's book illustration that uses cartoony and iconic/symbolic approach to help us create indelible images in our minds at very early ages that forever shape our inner imaginary landscapes.


There's no question that these simplified forms hold a greatly underrated place in western art. But the people who do this know how to draw. They don't come to this ability to create timeless images without great facility with these principles of value, tone, line etc.

It's a bit like my mother's Good Grammar Rule: you can break any grammar rule you like in your writing, but in order to do so judiciously and to good effect, you have to know what they all are.



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