This is the third post in a series devoted to a copy of a Sargent portrait drawing.
This is more than an exercise in copying,however. Whilst I do hope to finish with a good copy of the portrait, I’m not looking for an exact copy, mark for mark.In fact, I’m much more interested in the lessons I can learn along the way than the end result. These lessons centre aroundwhat I believe to be the three fundamental principles we need to learn in order to make a convincing translation of what wesee onto paper:
- Accurate judging of shape
- An appreciation of form in three dimensions
- A sound understanding of value relationships
These fundamentals are the same whether we’re working from a flat copy – a copy of a drawing like this one – or from life.I don’t believe the process should be fundamentally any different. There are, of course, many other considerations which go intoa really good piece of drawing. Expression and design are at least as important as the three I’ve listed. To many artists,they are both more important and might be paramount, the first three not figuring at all. But that’s a rather different kindof drawing to the kind I’m interested in – representational drawing.
I also believe that, as important as expression and design are, they’re best approached after at least a basic level of skillin the fundamentals of representation has been achieved. This exercise is one way of working towards achieving that level skill.Based on my own experience, I think it’s a pretty good way and I hope it might help you too.
In the first and second posts of this series, I’d got asfar as laying in the main shape of the head on the paper with what I hope is a fair degree of accuracy. In that stage, I wasconcerned only with the two dimensional shape of the head. In this second stage, I’m going to be thinking much more in threedimensions, and am going to attempt to develop the form of the head and face.
Whilst it would be perfectly possible to doa decent copy of the Sargent drawing without considering this at all, we might find we’d be a bit stuck when we tried to dothe same thing with a real subject. And by trying to get a feeling for the three dimensional form of the subject, I’ll produce,I believe, a more convincing sense of depth and form in the copy. I’ll also stretch a skill that will be a big help when I’mworking from life.
First, I’m going to mark in the positions of the eyes, nose and mouth. The picture below shows the drawing with theposition of the eyes, nose and mouth already placed.
For the eyes, I’ve drawn a line from the outside cornerto the inside corner of each eye. For the right eye, I already have the inside corner of the eye marked since it wasone of my initialanchor points put down in the first post. I just need to mark a point for the outside cornerand join them up.
Already at this stage though, I’m thinking about the form of the eye, its overall shape, so I’m starting to switch from twodimensional thinking to three dimensional. In an ordinary two dimensionalcopy, you might not consider the form that much. It might be enough just to copy the pattern of the lights and darks in the originaldrawing. But that won’t teach me much about form and would miss the point of this exercise. I want to use this exercise tolearn more about the form and construction of the head, and how that form can be translated into light and shadow in a drawing.Specifically, I want to learn someting about how Sargent achieved that translation in this drawing.
I think this is one of the reasons why working from photographs can be an ill advised approach for beginners. The tendency is toproduce a piece that might be superficially fairly accurate to the photo, but will be lacking in form and depth, lacking an understandingof the underlying structure. I think that’s important. One of thereasons I find Sargent drawings to be such good models for an exercise like this is that he deliberately simplifies and strengthensthe forms in his drawings, he doesn’t draw exactly what he sees. We’re working with a two-dimensional medium in drawing, and we needall the help we can get in creating a convincing illusion of three dimensions – a feeling of form. An approach that emphasisesplanes and form at the expense of small detail will go a long way towards achieving that.
For the next part of the drawing, I’ve decided that I want to block in the eye on the left. So let’s think about eyes for aminute. In its most basic form, an eye is a ball in a socket. Most of the ball of the eye itself is hidden in the socket, and drawnover the ball are the eye-lids. We only see about a sixth or less of the actual eye. I’m not an anatomy obsessive by any means, butI’m going to take a short diversion through the construction of the eye at this point because it’ll help me understand exactly whatI’m trying to draw here and help me avoid some common errors.
If you asked someone who hasn’t drawn since they were a kid (which is most people) and asked them to draw an eye, it wouldprobably look something like this:
That’s an eye, right? Pretty much everyone would recognise that that’s an eye. It’s almond shaped, like eyes are, and you can see theiris and the pupil, and we’ve even got some eyelashes. Astounding level of detail.
You could describe that with words, have someone copy itfrom your description and they’d end up with something like that, and tell you it’s an eye you’ve just described. Very handy when we wantto communicate the idea of an eye to someone, or to give ourselves as a generic symbol, a concept of an eye from which all other eyesare derived. Bloody useless in a drawing however (unless you fancy yourself as Picasso and you’re deliberately drawing like a child for the effect).I’m pretty sure that’s not what Sargent did though. Let’s try it:
Hmmm. Pretty sure that’s not what Sargent did. Might pass for a piece by Terry Gilliam though.
As obvious as all this might seem, I believe that that generic, schematic eye symbol is so strongly fixed in our minds that itcan impose itself to some extent on what we draw, even if we’re trying to draw what we see as closely as we can. It can happen withanything, a mouth, nose or hand. You see it allthe time in beginners’ drawings. They’ll be a mixture of observed visual fact and schematic ideas.
And if you don’t watch it, thatevil schematic eye will creep into your drawing even when you’re pretty good and distort your work. Always our brains are trying toforce us into schematic renderings of what we see, away from visual fact and towards generic, categorised symbols.
This is a detail of a plate from Drawing the Head and Hands by Andrew Loomis.
He’s describing the same effect here in pictures, and although I think it’s a pretty good illustration, our head shape that our eyesfit into is no more a flat block (as he has it here) than eyes are flat almond shapes. So let’s have a look at how the eye is reallyconstructed and how it fits into the skull:
Not pretty. But clever. I found this image on this interesting page of3D graphics models of eyes. Cool.
It’s pretty clear from this picture how the eye is suspended in the eye-socket by fleshy bits and muscles. If youreally wanted to you could learn the names of all those muscles and fleshy bits, and of the parts of the skull around the eyesocket. Personally I’m not that bothered about that as long as I’ve got a good idea of the real shape and construction of an eye.You can get too obsessed about these things I think.
For further reading, you might want to have a look atHuman anatomy for artists: the elements of form By Eliot Goldfingeron Google Books, and this page, alsoon Google books, from the Atlas of human anatomy for the artist By Stephen Rogers Peck.
All very interesting. Now I’ve got a much clearer idea of how the eye is constructed, and that’s going to help me when I’m thinkingabout the form of Lady Sarah Spencer’s right eye. If I look at the 3D model of the eye, and feel around my own eye with my fingers, Ican feel which parts are hard bone and which are soft flesh. I can feel the edges of the eye socket and the ball suspended within it. Itmakes a tremendous difference to actually feel the form beneath your fingers, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do next.
Some time ago, when I was learning about the planes of the head, I sculpted a full size head out of clay which emphasised the formof the head in simplified planes. I won’t go into too much detail about that here, but it had a profound effect on how I appreciatedform in drawing and helped me to think in three dimensions. If you want to read about what I felt I learned from that, see the previouspost on the planes of the head.
Having convinced myself of the effectiveness of sculpting as a learning tool in drawing, I did the same thing with Lady Spencer’sleft eye. I made a model of it:
This isn’t going to be winning any sculpture competitions any time soon, but it did help me to understand how the variousforms around Lady Spencer’s right eye fit together. In this pic, the light is coming from the opposite side, but nonetheless it alsohelps me understand how those shadows in the drawing are created by the forms.
After playing about with a lump of Plasticine for afew hours, I now have a three dimensional mental model of the eye area. When I come to draw that part of the face, I’ll beturning this model around in my mind and that seems to go a long way towards helping to overcome the schematic, 2D, concept eyeand also having a more developed appreciation of the form. All I can tell you is that I think this method makes a huge differenceto drawing and you should try it.
So now I’ve got a better mental model of the form around the eye, I’ll start putting it into the drawing. I’m firmly into threedimensional thinking mode at this point.
I still need to make sure that the ball of the eye is placed correctly in the head, but sinceI’ve already got accurate points for the corner of each eye and a dividing line across the eye between them, the going is much easier.Building up a fairly accurate two dimensional scaffolding to hang the three dimensional forms on is really paying dividends at this point,I shouldn’t have to do too much correcting of the positions of things.
Things are moving on now and I’ve blocked in the ball of the left eye and the eyelids of the right eye. The right eye is looking alot like my little sculpture now. Hopefully it should be pretty obvious now that I’m not copying the marks I see in the original drawing,I’m conceptualising the form.
To the left of the drawing, I’ve done a more realised version of the planes of the forms of the right eye and how they fit together.That’s helping me envision the smaller forms within the main drawing, but also letting me think about how the light will be falling oneach of those planes. I’ve often thought it would be an interesting exercise to take one of these drawings and copy it as if the lightwas coming from the opposite side. I wonder if I could still get a likeness? It should be possible if the large forms are right.
Here’s the last pic for this post. After a bit more work, I’ve got most of the main planes established and some of the smaller formsare beginning to take shape. Excuse the pun. It would be possible to keep on working and refining this stage I guess, but at this pointI decided to start adding some tone, some light and shadow, and to move on to the next stage.
In The Practice and Science of Drawing (as anyone who’s been here before will know is one of my favourite books on drawing)Harold Speed talks a lot about building a two dimensional scaffolding on which to hang the drawing. Mostly, the point of thisscaffolding is to get measurements and proportions right. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing in the prior stage to this one.You could look at what I’m doing here as a three dimensional scaffolding.I’m less concerned with how the drawings looks at this point than I am with how much an appreciation I’ve got of the planes and forms,in simplified, large blocks.
So far, I’ve tried to establish the first two fundamentals I was talking about at the beginning of this post: accurate shape and anappreciation of the forms in three dimensions. In the next (and probably last) post in this series, I’ll move onto establishing a soundunderstanding of the value relationships. At that point, the drawing will be all but finished and hopefully the benefits of putting allthis work in at the start will show dividends.
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