This is the first in a series of posts which will go through my current approach to copying a portrait drawing. I’m doing it in theform of an exercise, which I hope will be useful to people, and so I’ll be going into some detail as I go through it -even more than usual. Thelimitations of written content on the web as a medium might make for some long-ish explanations, but until I get hold of a webcam or a half decentvideo camera I’ll do the best I can with words and pictures.
Drawing is Thinking
What I want to make clear throughout this exercise is what I believe to be the fundamentals of representational drawing. Ourgoal is to produce a good copy of the original drawing. But that’s secondary to what we’re (hopefully) goingto learn along the way – how to judge shapes, create a feeling of form, and relate values to one another in order to createa convincing drawing. This process can be the same whether we’re copying a drawing or working from life.
Drawing is thinking. We could simply copy the original mark for mark, but that’s unlikely to helpus to draw much better than we already do. We’ll just get better at copying. By thinking about what we’re drawing as werecreate the original, we can deepen our understanding of drawing in general and learn lessons which can apply equally to drawingreal, living subjects. We can learn a little more about how we see, and howwe can translate what we see into strong drawing.
I believe that there are a handful of basic principles which form the foundation of being able to translate what we see into adrawing. I’ll be stressing these fundamentals as I work through this drawing:
- Accurate judging of size and shape. I’ll be doing this copy the same size as the original, with them side by side. This is borrowedfrom the sight size technique and will help me to judge the shapes more accurately. For this initial stage of the drawing, I’ll beconcentrating on the two dimensional shapes only.
- Appreciation of three dimensional form. This stage is about imagining the forms and recreating them in a kind of wire-frame.I’ll start to think about the drawing in three dimensions. I call this feeling the form and see it as a different way of thinkingthan the first stage. It’s more akin to sculpting, and in fact, I’ll be doing a little sculpting when I get to that stage.
- Value relationships. This is the key to creating a feeling of light in the drawing, and is the stage when the formsreally start to come alive, when a sense of three dimensionality and depth becomes established. Value is a deep and complex subject,requiring an understanding of how light affects the local value of a surface depending on its angle to the light source. I won’t bedoing more than touching on that here, but there’s more on that in previous Munsell tone studies I’ve posted.
I’ve split these three stages very clearly here, but in practice I find that there’s a lot of overlap between them. Consideringthem separately like this is useful though, because it gives me a road map, a process to follow, which gives me a way into the drawing.As with any process, it doesn’t do toadhere to it too rigidly, especially if we’re trying to produce an expressive piece of work. But in an exercise like this it certainlyhelps to clarify the lessons we can learn.
Part 1: Establishing The Anchor Points
In the first stage of the copy, the main thing is to establish the big shapes. For this stage of the drawing, it’s useful to forgetabout what you’re drawing I think. Forget about trying to get a likeness, forget about the fact that you’redrawing a head at all. If we allow ourselves to become distracted by what we’re drawing, what kind of a thing it is, ourability to judge relative size and shape becomes clouded by our preconceptions. We tend towards producing a schematic, internalised,symbolic version of what we see rather than the particular instance of it that we have in front of us. We don’t want to start gettinghung up on how good a drawing we’re going to do either. All we want to do is to get the big two-dimensional shapes in as accuratelyas we can.
Why does this happen? Well, recent research in neuroscience, and in particular on the different functions of various parts ofthe brain, show that our assessment of spatial relationships is centered in the right half of our brains. Betty Edward’s book,Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, is largely based on this. The left side of our brains deal with, among other things,language and classification. At this point of the drawing, our left-brain classification system will tend to override what we seeby concentrating on the classification of our subject, a head. This particular head, Lady Spencer’s in this case, belongs to thewider classification of heads in general. Our left brain imposes a schematic notion of the head which gets in the way of accurate judgementof the spacial characteristics of this head. We don’t want that.
Whilst I do think that there’s is much useful information in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I also think that the bookplaces too much emphasis on right brain spatial awareness, to its detriment. I believe that there’s also a place for left brain, analyticalthinking in drawing, and that the best results come from a harmonious operation of the two. But at this stage, the initial laying out or’block in,’ the most important brain function is spatial awareness. So I try to forget that I’m drawing a head and concentrate only on it’stwo dimensional shape.
Representational drawing, from a technical point of view, is all about relationships. We want tomake sure that our first marks are carefully placed, and reasonably accurate. Once we’ve placed our first few marks,everything else we put down will be judged in relation to them. So if we don’t place them well we’re going to get intoreal trouble very quickly, lose the drawing and possibly become demoralised. That would be bad.
I’m going to use elements of the sight size technique in this exercise to help me get the first stage well established. Theway I want to use the technique here is a little more loose than you might have read about on atelier web sites or in booksthat teach neo-classical drawing. The reason for this is that I believe too rigorous an application of a set method canultimately be constricting. I want to use the really helpful parts of the sight size approach without getting into a kind of brand loyaltyabout the technique itself. A while ago I put up a post about what I believe the relative advantages anddisadvantages of sight size are which sparked an interesting discussion in the comments.
The short version of the post linked above is that I believe that there’s a danger of becoming dependent on a particular set oftechniques or particular studioconditions in order to be able to draw. I try to use what I believe are the best aspects of thesight size technique without locking myself into it. So throughout this exercise, I’ll be relating what I’m doingto how I’d handle the same thing if I were drawing from a live subject (which perhaps I’ll do for the next series of posts).
Let’s get started.
The first thing I’ve done is to tape some soft card to the drawing board, to give a more sympathetic surface to draw on. I usethe backs of sketch pads for this.
Then I’ve opened a book of Sargent portrait drawings to the one I’ve decided to copy (Lady Sarah Spencer), and taped it open with the paper taped up beside it.
Sargent drawings are great for this exercise because he has such a strong feeling for form, and because he simplifies and strengthens his forms. I believe a lot of the attraction of Sargent’s work lies in this simplification and clarity rather than the bravura strokes which get so much more attention. To me, that’s the window dressing. The real strength is in the forms and the design. All the expression in world won’t amount to anything more than random squiggles if the underlying structure isn’t strong and descriptive and there’s no design.
For this exercise I’m using an A5 sheet from sketch pad. It has some tooth, and is probably about 100 gsm. The type of paper doesn’t matter too much though.
The drawing board is on an easel, set up so that my drawing will be at about eye height when I’m standing up. You can do this justas well sitting down, but you’ll need a chair on wheels so you can scoot back a few feet from the drawing to check your work. Standingwell back to check is an integral part of sight size, but as you’ll see I’m not recommending that we use that method too strictly. Mostof the judging and drawing will be done up at the easel, moving back to check on the results and adjust if necessary.
The First Marks
Drawing is about relationships. What we need now is something to relate our first marks to. I think the best way to start is to mark outa vertical line on the original, and then a corresponding vertical line on our drawing. The placement of every mark from then on will bejudged by it’s relation to this vertical line.
The line needn’t necessarily be in the centre of the drawing. You want to find a line that will be intersected by important parts of thedrawing. In this case, the line is pretty much central, but I’ve placed it there because it crosses the chin, the top of the head and thecorner of the eye. This gives me three strong intersecting points to work from: The line also crosses very near to the bottom edge ofthe nose, and crosses the mouth.
All these crossing points will make it much easierto judge the distance between the features. It also crosses the intersection of two folds on the frill on the front of the dress, which willprove useful when I’m laying in that part of the drawing too.
In The Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed talks about laying in a scaffolding over which to draw. This centre lineis the first part of my scaffolding and provides me with a constant reference point. I’ll use it to measure the relative heights ofvarious parts of the drawing, and also be able to judge horizontal distances from it. You may eventually get to a stage when you nolonger need a scaffolding actuallydrawn onto the paper, but you can still use an imaginary one. When you’re working from life, you can hold your pencil or the handle of yourbrush up in front of your subject to give you a working version of what I’ve got here. The process is essentially the same, but thescaffolding must be visualised rather than explicitly drawn.
I find I’mgetting to a stage now where I rely less and less on an explicit scaffolding like this. Undoubtedly, I draw more accurately with one, butit’s not something I’d want to become dependent on. See comments above about sight size. However, having a scaffolding undoubtedly helpsyou to think visually in two dimensions and to break away from symbolic thinking. Although my scaffolding tends to be more simplified now, Istill always use a centre line (and in fact I always have.) If you’re learning to draw and have trouble with accuracy, I think you’ll findit an invaluable tool which you can reduce your reliance on later.
I’ve done this exercise in a way that I hope will be most useful for people who are learning. For that reason, I’m using a quiteextensive scaffolding of lines to measure from, and I’ve used a ruler here to draw those lines. There’s no need if you can draw reliablevertical lines, but if you have a bit of trouble with that, use a ruler. There’s no shame in it. When I get onto laying out the mainshapes, there’ll be a lot of difficult judging to do by eye, and that’s when you start to stretch your ability to judge distancesand shapes. What I’m doing here is making sure that I have an accurate foundation against which to make those judgements.
Oh, and don’t listen to people who tell you that tools like this are a crutch. They’re just tools to help you to learn. I can’t recall a singleinstance of anyone who draws really well taking that rather biased position on the use of tools. It’s a view held (in my opinion)largely by amateur artists who are more concerned with the romantic aura they attach to drawing and painting than it’s practice. I’d advise leaving suchnotions to those who like to cling to them, for whatever misguided reasons, whilst you get on with learning to draw.
Now I’ve got my main vertical line in, I can start to mark out what I call the ‘anchor points’ of the drawing.
First, I want to mark out the top and bottom of the head. I need it to be accurate, so I’ll use the ruler to sight across horizontallyfrom the original to my drawing. If I were working strictly sight size, I’d be standing back from the drawingto do this. I think that’s an excellent exercise and it does help to stretch your ability to judge distances, but this will give me an accurateresult more quickly, and I’ll only be using for my initial marks. Personally, I believe an over reliance on exact measuring can actually slowthe development of the ability to judge distances once you get passed a certain stage. You stretch that skill more by doing it by eye I think,but that’s very hard to do with any level of accuracy in the beginning. If you want to climb a mountain you’re best off starting in the foothills.
In the picture above, I’ve lined up the ruler with the top of the head on the original where it crosses the centre line.This is important, the measurements will be much more accurate this way. Holding the ruler as near horizontallyas I can judge it, I’ve marked the corresponding markon my drawing, where the ruler crosses the centre line.
Now I do the same with the bottom of the head…
…and then with the next most important point, the corner of the eye:
Now I have my centre line and my main anchor points in, I can get drawing and start laying in the main shapes.
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