It’s been a year and four months since I returned to drawing and painting.
For thepast few days, I’ve been doing a little painting and drawing, and a lot of mulling overmy recent experience at aTechnical Coursein the US.
One of the things that the technical course showed me was that, no matterhow diligent you are, there are some things you just cannot learn without a good teacher.I haven’t had that, with the result that my practice over the past year or so has beena somewhat haphazard affair. So I’ve been giving some thought to what I’ve been doing:What has been useful, and what hasn’t. I think it’s time nowfor a reassessment of the way I’ve been approaching learning to draw and paint, and for arefocusing based on that assessment.
It’s struck me that whilst I’ve been merrily plodding along, doing drawing after drawing,trying everything I came across and trying to improve, that I haven’t, in fact, spent thelast year and four months learning how to draw and paint. I’ve spent it learning how to learn.I have a feeling that it’s only recently that I’ve been getting a clearer idea of what thebasic principles are, which are the best resources to use to get a firm grasp of these principles,and what forms of practice are the most effective.
Throughout the last year, I’ve stressed the importance of practice. Draw everyday, paint as much as possible, and Jah will provide. But I’m no longer convinced thatsimply going at it ‘head down arse up’ is the most effective way to proceed.
Looking back over the different kinds of practice I’ve been doing, some things stand out to meas having had a more positive effect than others. Some of the techniques and exercises I triedresulted in big leaps in understanding, some were blind alleys. I’ve reached a point now where Ithink I have enough experience to be able to put together an ongoing practice schedule which willhelp me to get a stronger grasp of the basic principles of drawing and painting, and help me toprogress more quickly without wasting time on useless exercises. It’s time to push on to the nextlevel.
Here are some thoughts on thevarious types of practice I’ve done, and what I feel the benefits (or otherwise) of them were:
TheBargue drawings are probablythe most stringent drawing practice I’ve done. Primarily,I’ve seen these drawings as eye training. Sight size copying of theBargue drawings develops the ability to measure shapes and distancesby eye like nothing else I’ve tried.
But there’s also another benefit to be gained from copying these drawings. The simplifying of shape andtone is central to being able to draw and paint well, and Bargue was very adept at this.The Bargue drawings introduced me to the concept of working from the general to specific, whichI believe to be a universally useful approach to almost anything.
I think that copying the Bargue drawings has had more effect on the quality of my drawing than anyother practice I’ve done. Copying these plates is going to figure prominently in my new practiceschedule.
Tonal Studies (Drawing)
I started the series of100 tonal still life drawingsbecause I was concerned that my handling of tone in the paintings left a lot to be desired. I wasright. Iwanted to find a way to address the problem that my available tonal range was necessarily morelimited than the tonal range I saw in nature.
After about 50 of these drawings, I’d reached the conclusion that the answer was to compress thetones I saw, whilst preserving their relationships. At that point I dropped the series and started totranslate what I’d learned into paint. But I’m still making mistakes with tones, still have much to learn,and would undoubtedlybenefit from more practice with these drawings, so I plan to return to the series and complete it.
This series had an effect on almost everything I do now, and proved a fertile breeding ground for tonaland compositional ideas which translated directly into paintings. However, it’s necessary at this point toconstruct a logical series of progressive exercises designed to practice particular elements of tone. I’llbe using the tone chapter from Andrew Loomis’ excellent book, “Creative Illustration” to help me withthis.
Tonal Studies (Painting)
This series is represented by two lots of paintings, the blue and red tonal studies, and the shortseries of burnt umber and flake white studies. You can find them on thepaintings page.
For the blue and red studies, I rolled together two exercises, the blue and red still life exercisewhich Rob Howard teaches as part of his Art Boot Camp three day course, and the tonal studies whichHarold Speed recommends in his book “Oil Painting Materials and Techniques”. Harold’s exercise isprimarily concerned with the sequence of building up the painting. Rob’s blue and red exercises wereabout learning to compress the tonal range whilst still achieving a feeling of light and form.
These exercises were a turning point for me. As well as learning that I didn’t need to exactly match thetones I saw (as long as I preserved the relationships between them,) I also learned a wayof building up a painting in a logical sequence which I’m still using. TheElementary Tonal Study isthe best description I have of this method.
These exercises changed everything about the way I paint, but I don’t feel the need to repeat themad infinitum. The tonal drawings are a quicker way to make further investigations into tone, but I doplan to do some exercises in oils too.
Limited Palette Studies
Again, this series (which in many ways I’m still working on) came from Rob’s Boot Camp. Theyalso grew quite naturally out of the umber tonal studies, splitting the brown into a warm and acool colour.
Limited palette studies are something that Harold Speed recommends too, and I agree. The advantageof using only two colours is that you are forced to get to know those two colours very, very well, to getthe absolute most that you can out of them. Steaming in with a rainbow palette is the best way I knowto produce garish paintings with badly balanced colour, and distracts from the more important problem ofmastering tone.
Gradually now I’m starting to add more earth colours as the subject needs it, but still working from thelimited palette base. Again, I don’t think there’s any great need to keep rehashing these studies. Thenext investigations into colour will be based around Graydon Parrish’s approach to colour, which he bases on theMunsell system. In many ways, these will still be limited palette studies, but the addition of neutralgreys to the palette and the concept of working with value, chroma and hue together will be new to me.
Features of the Face Series
Although the series of drawings ofeyes,noses,mouths, (still unfinished),and hands were fun, Ican’t say they made me any better at portraits. I think it’s far more useful to study the featuresin the context of the skull than in isolation. General to specific. Of the four series, the hands werethe most useful Ithink since they were dealing more with describing form. I don’t plan to return to these drawings.
Loomis Head Studies
This is a new one, I haven’t posted any of these drawings yet, but will be going into them insome detail soon. Andrew Loomis’ book “Drawing the Head and Hands”is one of the best drawing instruction books I’ve yet come across, likewise, “Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth”by the same author is excellent.
A series of head studies based on the first of these books will figure in my ongoing practice schedule.Time permitting, I’ll be working through the figure drawing book too.
Only two of thesight size cast drawings have been done so far,but, like the Bargue drawings, they were excellent practicefor eye training and simplifying of shapes.The problem with these drawings is that the set up and the easel must remain stationary for long periods of time,days or even weeks. That’s difficult to do with my limited space. But I do want to get back to the castdrawings, so a clear out of my small room is planned in order to allow room for two set ups at once.
I originally returned to painting with the idea that I would work towards becoming a portrait painter. Ilove portraits, and I think that they are perhaps, along with figurative work, one of the most difficulttasks for a painter. Often I see work by people who can produce convincing still lifes or landscapes butstruggle with figures and portraits. That’s certainly true of my work. Honestly, I think that’s just because portraitsand figurative paintings are much more demanding.
Recently I’ve returned to some tentative self portrait drawings based on the Loomis approach to drawingheads, and the results have been encouraging. I plan to work more on these, since I would still like eventuallyto do both portraits and figurative work. Although the still life paintings were only intended as practice initially,I’ve fallen in love with still life now and it will still be the mainstay of my painting for some time to come,I think. But I’ll continue to do portrait drawings, if for no other reason than they constantly remind me how farI’ve got to go.
Still Life Series
As mentioned above, these paintings were started simply as practice. I never intended to become involvedin still life subjects.
Initially, I used a palette, and to some extent a method, based on Kevin McPherson’s book,”How to Fill Your Oil Paintings With Light And Colour”. This palette consisted of cadmium yellow, ultramarine,alizarin, Windsor green (pthalocyanine) and white. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned blind alleys,this was one. The paintings I produced with this palette were garish, and full of errors in tone. Throughout theearly still life paintings, I was trying to match the colours I saw as closely as I could, isolating them witha piece of grey card with holes punched in them.
Given the results, I now think that was a bad approach. Really, I should have started immediately with tonalstudies in burnt umber and white, and added colours from there. It wasn’t until I started to work with tonalstudies in one and two colours that I began to produce reasonable work. That’s a much moreeffective way to learn about colour, since tone, I’m now convinced, is the key to colour. Although that palettewas limited in terms of the number of colours, it tended, in my hands, to produce flat and garish paintings,because all of the colours are very high chroma. It’srunning before you can walk, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
Old Master Copies
Well now, here’s a series I’d completely forgotten about. I only did three of theseold master copies, really only two completeones. Although the practice is useful, I’m sure, I can’t say that it gave me anything that isn’t covered perfectlywell in other practice. If you want to work like a particular artist, then I suppose it’s a good idea, butpersonally I can’t see why you’d want to do that.
I think it’s more important to gain a solid understandingof basic principles first. The Bargue book does include a good few old master copies, but these are placed afterthe first section of cast drawings. That seems sensible to me. Once the basic principles of simplifying shapes andhandling tone are established, then I can see that copying old master drawings in order to get an ideaof how they approached these problems would be very useful, but not until. I may do more copies in the future,but right now it’s not going to be a priority.
It’s been some time since I went tocafe to sketch, and I miss it. Although I’mnot entirely convinced that this type is practice is especially useful in gaining an understanding of thebasic principles, it is a lot of fun. That can’t be a bad thing. It’s not good to spend all your timein the closed world of the studio and ignore life around you.
I’ll be returning to these sketches at some point soon.
The Next Stage
There’s already been a few times through the last year when I’ve felt the need to return to the basicsand start again from scratch. It may seem a little surprising that I’m now planning to do that again. Butwe’re always learning, and I intend to keep going back to the basics until I think I’ve got a firmgrasp of them, and I don’t believe I’m there yet. The next post I put up here will detail the new series ofexercises I’m going to set myself, and the resources I plan to use to do them. If you’re learning to drawand paint too, I hope that you’ll find it useful.
I believe that if we really want to learn something as thoroughly as we can, we need to let go of our egosand accept that we’re really not as good as we’d like to think we are. That’s the first step. After all thistime, the one thing I’m convinced of is that the most important, most useful tool you can have in your toolbox is an open mind.
Posted 19th February 2007
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