10 Ways to Kickstart Your Art – #3: Make Drawing Part of the Process

In three weeks I will be holding my 5-Day “Kickstart Your Art: Oil Painting Bootcamp” here in Bozeman Montana and I will soon be launching an online version, so to lead up to both workshops I’m writing a 10-part blog series!

(If you missed the previous blogs, here is Post #1 on Value, and Post #2 on Abstract Design)

These are ten of the things that have helped my own work the most, and that I see make the biggest improvements to my students’ work. The actual workshops will cover a lot more than these ten things of course, so join us in August or sign up for my workshop newsletter to learn more about my online class.

This Week: Make Drawing Part of the Process

There seems to be a lot of resistance to – or at least avoidance of – spending time drawing before painting, but I’ve found that one of the biggest ways to make my paintings better is to spend much more time drawing. A big reason I feel there’s hesitation to spend more time doing it is that we see the process as separate from painting, but I want us to re-think how we see drawing!

Do I Have to Know How to Draw to Paint?”:

This is probably the most common question I get from beginning artists. I usually shake my head and say, “Oh not at all.” …then, the first day in class, I teach them to draw with a brush. 😉

Why do we all think we dislike drawing so much? I think a lot of the problem comes from a misconception of what drawing is. We all think back to using one of those horrible yellow school pencils to doodle and being frustrated when our drawings don’t look how we want them to look. Or, we think of an illustration class with tedious (though valuable to learn!) perspective drawing, or a “right side of the brain” class where we do a contour drawing that helps us to see differently, but doesn’t really lend itself to creating a painting with depth.*

Lets Re-Think Drawing:

The problem with our first experiences of drawing is that we don’t learn the bridge between drawing and painting, and therefore see drawing as an unsatisfying struggle before we get to the fun part. Another problem with drawing is that we see it in strict terms of “lines,” and unless you really train your eye it’s almost impossible to see volume and scale and proportion in a collection of flat lines. The faster we can transition line into shape, the faster we can judge everything in our painting and the less likely we are to be badly surprised when we start adding paint.

Use the Right Stuff:

Lots of people are beautifully accomplished at drawing with hard pencils or ink pens…and lots of people are very accomplished at riding unicycles. Start with something more forgiving! Look for a drawing tool that can give you a good variety of lines and tones – a charcoal stick or pencil, a soft lead or colored pencil, a chalk or oil pastel, or a brush full of thinned paint. Also, choose something that feels good in your hands and that you like the smell and sound of. If you hate the squeak of willow charcoal sticks (like I do), use compressed charcoal. If you hate dirty hands, use soft pencils or brushes.

Drawing isn't just for HB pencils! Try oil crayons, charcoal pencils, compressed or powdered charcoal, colored pencils, soft graphite, or wide flat brushes and rags to experiment with line and tone.

Drawing isn’t just for HB pencils! Try oil crayons, charcoal pencils, compressed or powdered charcoal, colored pencils, soft graphite, or wide flat brushes and rags to experiment with line and tone. Download my Resource Guide for a full list of my favorite tools!

Think Big:

The faster you can get big masses of value on your canvas, the sooner you can really judge your shapes. Use a big brush full of thinned paint, a chamois coated in charcoal, or a pastel on it’s side and establish large, sweeping areas of mid-tones. Get your whole arm into it! Wipe back to the white of the canvas for lights, build up layers for darks. Draw on top of and around the tones to establish edges. Smudge bad lines and draw better lines. Don’t fall into the trap of erasing! Think of it as a process of taking a lump of clay and molding it into your painting – there’s no right and wrong, only more accurate and less accurate.

I roughly sketched the buck in oil crayon, then used a few values of warm colors (red for mid tone, yellow and brown for lighter and darker tones) to scribble in larger areas to plan my values and make sure I liked the composition. Some of the sketch shows through in the final.

I roughly sketched the buck in oil crayon, then used a few values of warm colors (red for mid tone, yellow and brown for lighter and darker tones) to refine my anatomy, and also scribble in larger areas to plan my values and check that I like the composition. Some of the sketch shows through in the final.

Draw Through:

Most children intuitively start with contour drawing, and it’s an art form in itself – but it’s not the most efficient method drawing for under a painting. It’s much harder to judge all of the elements of a painting when you’re only drawing the flat outline. Think in terms of volume and proportion, shape and depth, rhythm and balance. Make sweeping lines to capture the movement of a pose before worrying about proportion. Use construction lines to find where eyes line up on a face, think of trees as boxes to imagine where they fit in space, draw the horizon through your subject to make sure it’s even. Use straight lines whenever possible, they’re easier to judge and control than curved lines. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, there will be a painting on top!

Here's an example of a monochrome drawing done with paint and thinner. By quickly rubbing paint on a white canvas before I start, I can "pick-out" my whites with a brush or rag as I move from shapes to values. Notice that I progress from line to shape to value with an eye toward massing, but don't worry about making each area perfect - and I fix incorrect lines with better ones!

Here’s an example of a “pick-out” monochrome drawing done with paint and thinner. By quickly rubbing paint on a white canvas before I start, I can “pick-out” my whites with a brush or rag as I move from shapes to values. Notice that I progress from line to shape to value with an eye toward massing, but don’t worry about making each area perfect – and I fix incorrect lines with better ones!

Cross the Bridge:

The secret is, painting is drawing and drawing is painting. All of it is a way of converting what we see in a 3D world onto a 2D surface using values, shapes, and (eventually) colors. Each step of the painting process should move smoothly into the next. Once you establish a basic sketch, use thinner to spread the colored pencil or charcoal or oil pastel around on your panel. Start “drawing” with a brush full of paint and more right into your underpainting. As you move from line to shape to value, keep working on your masses, your values, your edges, the sizes and proportion of your shapes – before you know it, you’re painting!

Conclusion:

Seeing drawing as part of the process can give you a much stronger start, and help you keep your shapes and proportions accurate before you add the complexity of color. Have you struggled before with the transition between your drawing and your painting? Please comment with your story!

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* I have nothing wrong with contour drawing and perspective drawing! They are both very useful techniques in many parts of art, and they are both their own art forms. However, when students learn them at the beginning of their art studies but never learn a drawing method for painting (whether it’s constructive drawing, barque drawing, straight line block-in, etc), it can be like learning transitive verbs for Spanish without knowing conversational sentence structure.

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