Not even for a brief moment does life hold still for you.
When sketching outdoors, the first lines placed on the page are the most important. These spontaneous marks are what I call life lines and they are vital in translating your first visual reaction to your subject onto paper.
The landscape sketches of master artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) are excellent examples on how to put life lines to work while facing the challenges of observational drawing.
You get a sense of the underlying life lines Corot used to set the tone for his landscape study at Mortefontaine, France (shown above) in 1864. His layering of darker strokes emphasizes the movement of trees growing toward the sun and their lifelong struggle against prevailing winds.
Life lines draw the connection between your mind’s eye and your drawing hand. They are impulsive marks on paper that unveil a world of movement and structure that you actually don’t see.
Drawing What We Don’t See
Corot’s masterful life lines reveal the essence of what we don’t see when drawing from observation: the invisible, abstract framework underneath the surface of all things in our field of vision. Corot’s study sketch of an Italian landscape (shown above) perfectly illustrates my notion of life lines.
His sketch stands on its own as a beautiful piece of art. But Corot’s lightly drawn abstraction serves a direct purpose—laying bare his intuitive visualization of structural elements at the core of towering trees, distant buildings, and figures standing in the foreground. Even the movement—over millions of years—of an imposing cliff is recorded.
Take a moment to study Corot’s sketch. Open your mind’s eye to the immediacy of his well placed, rhythmic life lines. Your imagination starts to fill in the spaces of his abstract framework. A finished landscape painting begins to emerge from the beautiful entanglement of lines.
There is no turning back. Your brain has made the leap from noticing a few abstract marks to visualizing a finished, detailed composition. You have discovered the secret to sketching an unseen world of movement. Your approach to drawing will be radically transformed. Minimal line work becomes bliss and abstraction becomes realism.
As a kid, I remember squirming with anticipation during the climatic moment of truth in vintage Clint Eastwood westerns. The camera zooms to a closeup of Eastwood’s eyes, followed by unbearable tension as the day of reckoning swelters beneath a desert sun. With eyes narrowly focused, the legendary Clint Squint always spelled doom for the bad guys. We sketchers can take a cue from Eastwood’s famous squinting technique in learning to draw more accurately from observation. Continue reading When the Drawing Gets Tough—Squint!→
Showing off our finished drawings to family and friends can be gratifying. Enthusiastic viewers appreciate your techniques and may even understand that you spend many hours practicing to improve your skills. But hidden to their eyes is your dedication to doing studies—a most misunderstood aspect of learning to draw from observation.
In the tradition of the Renaissance artists, Naomi (shown above) learns the importance of studying as she practices using the system of perspective drawing.
Early Egyptian, Greek, and Italian Renaissance artists and artisans used drawing to study their subjects. They made countless study sketches to solve problems, prepare artwork, and map out elaborate architecture.
By doing study sketches, students at the Scribbles Institute learn to block in dominant shapes of their subject, sketch accurate contours, and confidently work their way toward drawing final compositions.
Autumn brings us Halloween, the time of year when our thoughts are haunted by ghosts and goblins. But for those of us who are learning to draw, the zombies of perfectionism can be the most terrifying creatures—every day of the year! Continue reading Attack of the Zombies of Perfectionism→
Every time we open our urban and field sketchbooks to draw, we’re faced with the same challenge: to swiftly transform flat 2D pages into believable 3D environments the viewer can walk into. Continue reading Walking Into a Sketch→
In the opening scene of the classic comedy What About Bob, we see a perplexed Bob Wiley, played by Bill Murray, contemplating his fate of stepping outside the door of his apartment and onto the streets of New York. He quickly becomes overwhelmed by his fears of just about everything and everyone in the world.
As Bob finally meets with Dr. Leo Marvin, played by Richard Dreyfuss, he sits in awe of the prominent psychiatrist’s suggestion to start with reasonable goals. “Don’t think of everything you have to do to get out of the building, Bob. Think about what you have to do to get out of this room,” says Dr. Marvin as he hands Bob a copy of his book Baby Steps. Comedic escapades ensue as Bob applies life-transforming small habits to the bigger complexities of life.
If it’s difficult for you to set—and maintain—your goal to draw regularly, try the advice given to Bob and take baby steps toward an easy and satisfying drawing habit.
Which pencil should you use for drawing? That is the question.
During the early 17th century, as Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet first gazed upon a skull and questioned what to be in life, the country of England was busy mining a valuable carbon material. This dark, powdery material eventually became known as graphite (derived from the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’). Artists soon discovered graphite to be extremely useful for the process of drawing.
However, the big technological breakthrough for drawing came in 1795, when a French scientist named Nicholas-Jacques Conte invented the pencil. By mixing clay with graphite, Conte found ways to alter the hardness of pencil leads which produced darker and lighter shades of black. Modern-day pencils are available in a wide range of black shades—such as 2B, 2H, HB—enabling artists to achieve endless combinations of drawing techniques and styles.
How to choose the right pencil for the job at hand? Here are recommendations on basic drawing pencils I make to students that can help you get started: Continue reading 2B or Not 2B?→