Welcome to another monthly drawing practice update.
In these updates, I’m sharing with you what I’ve been up to in my daily practice sessions for the previous month.
I also want to share with you some of the elements of these drawing practice sessions, some of the environment I’ve created to try and make sticking to my daily drawing habit easier.
The main aspect of this environment I want to tell you about today is the time at which I do my drawing.
“Be Willing to be a beginner every single morning” – Meister Eckhart
These drawing sessions always happen in the early morning. I’m a great believer in routine and the power of regular practice to grow drawing skills, and also to develop creativity.
Although the idea of a set routine might fly in the face of our culturally-based belief that creativity is spontaneous, unfettered, I’ve found the opposite to be the case.
I find that creativity is at it’s most potent when I’m drawing regularly, and when I stick to a routine.
Routine as a route to Creativity
So first thing in the morning I exercise, then go for a run in the local park. It’s very early so I usually have the park to myself, not counting the ducks and the single heron I often see standing as still as a sculpture at the side of the little lake.
If the weather is nice, and it’s light, it’s beautiful.
After the run, I shower and then meditate for 15 minutes using headspace (which I can’t recommend highly enough).
Then it’s time for drawing practice.
By now I’m relaxed. No matter what I’m preoccupied with, stressed about in my daily life, in this part of the day I’m feeling completely calm. I find that I’m often at my most creative when I’m in this state of mind.
For me, drawing regularly is fairly easy since I never need to think about what I’m going to draw. I find that’s one of the strongest barriers to getting started, even if you have a routine established.
At Creative Triggers (my drawing practice community) we always have a monthly drawing challenge.
The subject varies. In May, we spent the month drawing mandalas. It was one of the most enjoyable challenges we’ve done so far, and I’m sure it helped develop our creativity (you start without knowing where you’ll end up – very liberating) and also our sensitivity to design and proportion.
In June, we took some of the mandala designs we produced in May and made them into notan designs.
The word notan is Japanese.
We don’t have a literal translation of it in our own language – perhaps because western artists have never thought it sufficiently important to warrant it’s very own bit of painterly jargon. A mistake in my view. A reasonable translation of the idea might be “the creation of beauty through the balance of light and dark”.
How to do it
First, create a simple line design in a circle or square. This is one of my mandalas from the drawing challenge we had in May:
To create my line design, I simply traced this with a fine drawing pen. Here’s the tracing of it – a pure line design version:
Once you have a line design to work with, make a few tracings of it.
Now take a pen, sharpie, or (if you’re feeling brave) Chinese brush and ink, and ink in each design differently, using only two flat values, something like this:
Then, with your other tracings, make more variations, changing which parts are black and which white:
When you run out of variations for the design you’re working on, create a new one. Simple.
A few words of advice on the approach
- Work slowly! Take your time to think about each design carefully, to feel the balance and harmony you’re creating as you go.
- Do multiple versions making small changes if you like, that’s a great way to build facility and skill, and means you won’t need to create quite so many designs.
- Don’t expect to do a bunch of designs in a single day. The first day, you might just create the line design, or even just some ideas for it.
- Try to make sure that the line design you’re going to work with is already nicely balanced before you trace it and start making variations.
This idea comes from the book Composition (legal free download) by Arthur Wesley Dow. Here’s a few examples of notan designs from the book itself:
What does this teach us?
This exercise is valuable because it teaches us to see our drawings and paintings in terms of notan design – something very often lacking in contemporary realist work I find. The element of design often seems secondary to the realism, and value balance is one of the most important elements of composition.
As with all drawing practice – in fact, any practice at all – the real benefit comes from repeating the exercise many times.
If you could open up the top of your head as you were learning something and peek inside with a microscope (don’t try this at home) what you’d see is little connections being formed between neurons.
These connections build up into a network, a little “mind map” that represents the skill you’re learning. This is actual physical change in your brain. That’s what all learning is.
The more often you repeat something, the more quickly your little mind map strengthens and grows. That’s why it’s more important to practice little and often than a lot intermittently.
With this exercise, and some practice, you’ll be able to create beautiful harmonies of dark and light that will make your compositions sing.
Here’s a few more examples of the little designs I worked on through June as part of my regular drawing practice:
So if you fancy giving this exercise a go, bear in mind that the more often you do it, the more your facility with design of light and dark will develop. Whilst it’s a thoroughly enjoyable exercise if you only do it a few times, it will take some repetition before you really start to notice a change in your work.
But when you do, it will be in all your work, not just little designs like this.
If you’re painting a still life, your little mind map for value design will fire up and help you, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. The same will happen if you’re painting a landscape, or even doing small, simple pencil sketches.
That’s the real value of regular practice. The skills that you develop become yours, automatic, coming into play whenever you do anything that fires up that part of your brain.
All that’s required is a little time every day. And your full attention.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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