As painters, we’re fixated on a lot of things—the mixing, the colors, the details and many more. We’re drawn to the idea that our subjects are the most important thing. However, we, as students to the craft, must remember why drawing is important in painting.
Obsessing on your subject means you have vision—undoubtedly the most important skill painters should have. To have vision means you’re competent enough to see what most people can’t and drawing heightens our visual prowess to a whole new level. I’m not just talking about how you see, but rather how capable you are in changing perspective.
The “starry sky” is a great example on how perspective can affect painters. The sky is undoubtedly the subject of the painting. If you take a look at it, in all of its glory, you will find little peculiarities that make the painting more lovable.
The Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh
Those peculiarities aren’t necessarily in the lines of realism per se, but it essentially made viewers change their perspective of how night skies look. In other words, Van Gogh’s painting idiosyncrasies and obsessiveness compelled the viewers to see what he was seeing.
So how do we use our eyes to our advantage? How do we obsess with our subject in a way that benefits us? The answer to that is simple. Composition. More accurately, in this case, drawing before painting.
Drawing is necessary in the beginning of every piece whether it be with a pencil or a brush . It’s not necessarily a prerequisite to painting, but rather we should consider it as an element of the same.
To know how to draw correlates to your ability to compose your painting. In other words, you’ll be more competent in the composition process; and since drawing is synonymous to seeing and thinking, we should consider drawing in the context of the painting process itself.
When we start making our pieces, we’d want to think of what the finished product would look like. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of painters serendipitously create masterpieces, but what we have to keep in mind is the purpose of drawing.
Drawing is essentially seeing and meticulously deciding on the pretext of your painting. It’s the middle ground between drafts and complete works of art. It’s the basic stage of observation and execution.
The thing you have to know about drawing is that it simplifies your idea and gives you the freedom to extend your imagination. It takes away all the distractions of colors and forces you to look at your approach at a new angle—the vagueness of your work that will serve as the foundation to your whole process.
Since painting is ideally slower than drawing, the latter will give you the opportunity to think ahead—albeit the paint covers the pencil or brush marks, it is still very essential.
So let’s focus more on drawing and how it can potentially make or break our paintings.
Here’s how you can improve on your drawings:
1. Sighting / Measuring
Sighting is the process of measuring a “unit” that you can use to compare and use as a basis to establish the size of an object on your drawing surface. In other words, it’s scaling your object down to size so that it can fit in your paper.
You can either use this measurement to record the object on the drawing surface or simply make comparisons to what you have already drawn. Unless you’re drawing an exact 1:1 ratio model of something, you’re more likely to use this method.
To start sighting, we can use various “tools” to measure proportions of our subject in order to improve the accuracy of what we record in our drawings—however, a pencil works surprisingly well and is recommended
Here’s how you do it:
A. First, extend your arm out toward your subject with your pencil in hand. Be sure that your arm is extended completely without any bending at the elbow. Bring your line of sight down to your shoulder and close one eye.
B. Use the end of your pencil (or the tip) and line it up with the top of the highest or widest point on the object, then your thumb to mark the bottom.
C. Afterwards, take the measurement from the reference and bring it over to the drawing surface. There’s no need to keep your arm straight or close one eye since your paper is the same size as your reference.
Some things to remember:
Sighting depends on the distance between you and the subject. In other words, the closer you are to the object, the bigger it should be on your working surface.
2. Identifying Basic Shapes
When we’re just starting to learn how to draw, the first challenge we tend to encounter are complex shapes. However, to be a great drawer doesn’t mean you can draw them instantly. Rather, to be a great drawer means you can see the most simplest shapes in a complex context.
Simple shapes are two dimensional, as opposed to those complex three dimensional ones. This process involves breaking down those three dimensional shapes, voided from the distractions of color and value, and breaking them down into simple circles and triangles.
Once we’ve established them, we can move on to the next step and create a more three dimensional drawing. And then to the next step of adding value to create depth.
When we break subjects down into basic shapes, it becomes easier to be accurate in our drawing. Instead of letting the details get in the way, we can focus on the simplified shapes and the relationships of those shapes – leading to greater accuracy in the drawing.
These shapes can be drawn vaguely and in its simplest form and as we become more confident with the shapes, we can add the details.
3. The Grid Technique
The grid technique is a great approach to drawing that breaks the subject down into smaller increments. In other words, the image is divided into small images to give the drawer a new perspective.
You can see for yourself right now! Just grab your phones and turn on the grid in your camera’s settings. This is widely available on all smartphones to assist users in capturing images in a more artistic way.
To do this draw a grid over a photo reference while a proportional grid is drawn lightly on the drawing surface. Each square within the grid on the reference corresponds to a square on the drawing surface.
Since the subject is simplified into smaller squares, the lines, shapes, and values are also simplified making it easier to focus on what you are actually seeing. (and it won’t be too overwhelming)
Another advantage to this inexpensive, drawing life-hack, is that it can help you scale your images down to size if you have a smaller surface to work with.
Some things to remember:
Draw the grid lightly so it won’t be visible when you’re finished
Don’t forget the context of your composition; it’s easy to get lost in the individual segregations of the painting.
4 . Triangular Grid Technique
This technique is an alternative to using the traditional grid technique. It uses fewer lines but it takes more skill to execute.
This grid is created by dividing the length and width and then drawing lines diagonally from each of the corners. This creates eight triangles within the grid.
With this technique, we’ll use a triangular grid on a photo and on the drawing surface. With that in mind, we can deduce that the grid is for mimicking the exact positions of lines and shapes of the photo. Once we’ve determined those lines, we can easily attempt to imitate their positions on our own surface.
5. Linear Perspective
This technique is perfect for landscapes and architectural drawings. Linear perspective is a system that uses lines to aid the artist in creating the illusion of space in a drawing. It is a structured system that uses a vanishing point/s as a reference point for drawing forms.
Depth is very important in both drawing and painting. The linear perspective is a system of depth creation on a flat surface.
The three components essential to the linear perspective system are: (1) orthogonals or parallel lines, (2) the horizontal line, and (3) the vanishing point. To appear further from the viewer’s point of view, objects in the compositions are composed increasingly smaller as they get closer to the vanishing point.
To put it in more simple terms, the three elements involved in this technique start off separate on our surface but will slowly move towards a single (usually single) vanishing point.
The vanishing point is the point furthest away from the perspective of the viewer. With that in mind, the point will create an illusion of distance and positioning for the viewer to interpret.
There you have it! Five simple tips that can help exponentially improve your drawing skills.
One more thing to remember: drawing is just as important as painting in the context of the latter’s process. As I’ve said, drawing is synonymous to observing and planning. Observation and planning is required for great compositions.
Once we’ve obsessed our subject the right amount of times, our pieces will greatly change. We’ll find that by hyper-focusing on the little things, the bigger things will come along nicely.
Drawing is a whole other challenge painters have to overcome, however, it’s one of the more accessible ones. All you need is a pencil and a paper and you can start practicing right away.