Monday, June 12, 2017

Drawing is Rarely a Gift

st ives crop
So often I hear people say: "Oh you're so lucky, you have such talent!"    Well......no......for nearly every skilled activity there's a background of  specific training!  Even so called "perfect pitch".   I remember reading about some famous musician -" his parents discovered he had perfect pitch at the age of three."...now how would you discover that???It's not something you stumble across your child doing!!!  you must have been testing or training in some way....

Take drawing: when I was a child, there were one or two in my class who were (apparentely)_ gifted at drawing...but as I look back I realise that they spent all their time drawing!  You do get better at things if you practice a lot.....especially if you have a few guidelines.

 I can’t draw “naturally” or “intuitively” ....in fact I can't think of anything very much (that I would want to write a blog about!) that I can do without having learned in one way or another.

 In my life I’ve only met one or two people who appeared to be able to “just do it” but even with them, on further enquiry, it was usually the case that they had been drawing for years and  also had had access to some instruction, however informal. For most of us, therefore, drawing is a skill that we can learn in the same way that we learned how to cut quarter square triangles and half square triangles and decided which we needed for any given quilt pattern. Like anything else, being able to draw involves a series of basic steps and a lot of practice. Furthermore, as I’m rapidly discovering, it requires constant practice to even maintain what little skill level one can attain!

However, I do think it is very helpful in any type of visual two dimensional art to be able to draw, not brilliantly, but adequately i.e. good enough to be able to use one’s drawing as a guide for making a quilt, or a fiber collage or a textile work (however you like to call it!).
So, here are some steps and tips I have found helpful from both books and a few drawing lessons:
black steps YSP
1. What?
The first step is to decide what you are going to draw! What is the best way of finding your composition? I think it’s helpful to use a Viewfinder or crop tools. You can actually buy cardboard frames with clear plastic in divided into 4 or 9…or you can make one – with or without the plastic..or you can simply cut two L shapes from card. I find the Ls easier when working from photographs because you can adjust the frame size. If you are working live, whether outside or in, then a Viewfinder you can hold with one hand is easier: simply move the frame (usually a rectangle, but whatever you want the shape of the piece to be) nearer or further from you. Most of us are used to doing this with a camera, so we already have helpful experience of this step. Sometimes I’ll take out my camera and just look through the lens to find an interesting composition.
2. Beginning.
On a piece of paper draw in the first four lines: the outside edges, in the same shape and ratio of sides to top/bottom as your view finder or crop tools. Then, very faintly, indicate the “horizon” line, the line that is level with your eyes as you sit or stand. For example if you’re looking at a sea scene, the level of the sea against the sky is the horizon line, the end of the street in a street scene and so on.
3. The edge connections.
Then make little marks (dashes or dots!) where the objects within the scene, whether trees or bottles or kittens,  intersect with those first four lines. This makes sure that you get everything into the drawing that you have selected in your view finder or crop tools. I know if I don’t do this I invariably run out of space!! It’s easy to see the half way mark on the view finder (vf) and the half way mark on the scene. For example if I like through the vf and see the edge of a roof. Where does that edge intersect with the frame of the vf? Is it half way up the left hand side? A quarter of the way from the top? As quilters we’re used to eyeballing these kinds of distances.
So if the roof line intersects with the vf on the left hand side, at ¼ of the way down from its top edge then I make a little mark on my paper at the same point i.e. 1/4 of the way down from the top edge.
A tip. Make sure you always hold the vf in the same place by lining it up with something. I find it easier to spot, for example, a chimney in the top right hand corner, and a Stop sign in the bottom left hand corner.
Of course it’s easier working on a flat photograph with the L shapes and that’s what nearly everyone does!! In that case I usually make a photocopy of my photograph so that I can draw on it exactly where I positioned my L shapes.
I actually use this exact same procedure of looking for half way points, intersection points etc, in cutting out shapes freehand for a piece when I assemble a quilt.
4. Two dimensions is easier than three.
If you’re working from an actual scene as opposed to a 2-d photograph, it helps to reduce the 3 dimensional scene to only two. How d’you do that? By closing one eye. Before you do that, look at an object in front of you first with just your left, then just with your right eye. See how the object jumps?? That makes it very difficult to draw, because your drawing is only in 2 dimensions. So close one eye if you find that everything keeps jumping around!! Which one to close? Your less dominant one. Actually I have found it helpful to simply wear an eye patch than to squint up at the drawing, but most people squint! You can choose!!  As an aside I used to drive down to the pub  for lunch when I was working in Easingwold, UK with a one eyed doctor in an antique car!  It was hair rising, for he had no depth vision, and no cares!!
5. Look at what you’re drawing.
As you draw, look frequently at the object you are drawing if you want it to be accurate. Though one teacher (can’t remember if it was Hans Hoffman, someone of that ilk) – used to make his students look at an object in one room for 5 minutes, then sprint back to the adjacent room to actually draw it!! He felt that that improved visual memory!! It certainly would improve one’s level of exercise!
6. Continuous assessment.
Continually assess whether you have drawn the major lines correctly…it’s like piecing a traditional quilt, if you get one triangle in backwards it throws everything off.
7. Elements (line and shape) only.
As you draw the contour lines, don’t think “boat” or “roof” or “bottle”, think instead “this line goes from ¼ of the way down the left hand side across to a point about halfway across and 3/4 of t he way down the rectangle (or square). Just think about lines going from point A to point B. Like little trails on a map.
Sometimes it’s easier to think about drawing the negative shapes – i.e. the spaces behind things, while focusing on them you are less likely to be distracted by the actuality of the object.
roofs connected 8. Angles
If the lines are angled, the easiest thing to do is to hold up your pencil against the view or the photograph and line it up with the angle…then, holding it carefully in the same position, mark that angle on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, then you could use a protractor. I like the nice big ones. Or…when working from a photograph, you can line up (i.e. make sure that the verticals and horizontals on both photo and sketch paper are all exactly vertical and horizontal!) the photograph adjacent to your sketch paper and put a long ruler on the angle on the photograph, such that it protrudes beyond and onto the correct place on the paper. I use this for cutting out correct angles too. I simply line up the sketch with my fabric and continue the angle out from my drawing to the cloth. Try it, it works!!
9. Major shapes first.
Get the big shapes and the longest lines in place first. Details are far less important, don’t even think about them until all the big stuff is in place!!! No you can’t mess about putting in all those little windows yet! This is also Very True in designing quilts. And don’t think about shading or colour yet either!
10. Light and Dark.
Before you start shading, decide where the light is coming from ….if you’re inside, set up a single light source, if working plein air the most interesting times to go out and draw are early or late on a sunny day – because of the nice long shadows! Having shadows creates depth and adds to the value range. If you take a picture of nearly any quilt, scan into photoshop and increase the contrast (Image-adjustments-contrast), it will improve it. Why? Because you increased the value range. What increases the range? Light!
If you are working from a photograph, look to see where the darkest darks and lightest lights are. What was the direction of light in the scene? You don’t have to necessarily follow this (Rembrandt didn’t always) but it’s better if you use light and shadow thoughtfully.
It’s easiest to spot the very darkest values first, so start with those. I think it’s helpful to have a little value scale (even if it’s just 5 values: light, med light, med, med dark, dark) drawn out on the side of the paper to refer to. Do the darkest darks, note where the lightest lights are and reserve those. I often put a little pencil dot in them so I know “don’t shade this!”. Then look for the mediums. Do make sure you have a good range of values. If you look at our very best art quilters you will see that in all their major works, there is a great range. And remember the Photoshop experiment!! Push the light values lighter (if you’re using a pencil simply erase) and the dark values darker.
11.Maturing on the wall.
Finally, when you feel you’ve finished the drawing, pin it up on the design wall to mature for a few days or weeks…if there’s anything untoward it will make itself known! Believe me!

So why should we bother to learn to draw? Because it is a basic skill that underlies many art mediums. If you can’t accurately put down in a pencil sketch what you want to have in your final quilt, then you have no good plan or map to follow. Without direction, no progress. Just yesterday I read in a painting magazine about the "Five Pillars" being the foundation of the Visual Arts: drawing, value, color, edges and composition.  So...begin your journey by sharpening your pencils!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth
and I look forward to the comments!!!

9 comments:

Melanie McNeil said...

Thanks for the lesson. There are quilts I want to make and I hardly know where to start. With the scene from my imagination, I can't completely follow your steps, but they will help me move in the right direction.

As far as "you are so good at this!" comments go, I agree with you completely. Though some people are naturally more or less capable, most of us can get better at almost any skill, if we make the effort. For example, I don't consider myself naturally good at math. But because I long ago DECIDED to do it anyway, and because of that I've taken more math classes than about 97% of the people in the US, I actually CAN DO almost all the math I need to. It's a decision to make, and a skill to practice, and almost anyone could do a lot more math than they think they can, if they made the effort.

Thanks.

Linda Schiffer said...

Thanks SO MUCH for this post! I have long known that drawing could be learned by good seeing and practice - when I was in graduate school (getting an MS in Plant Genetics:), my taxonomy professor insisted that we draw a plant-of-interest in each weekly lab session. When I complained that I could not draw, he said, 'Just look carefully at it." He was right!

Since then, I've been lumbering along on my own, occasionally trying my hand. Now I am thinking to take up plein air drawing for meditative purposes - and your guidelines in this post will be extremely helpful.

:) Linda

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you Melanie and Linda for your comments!Love the math example....we can so easily talk ourselves out of things can't we? You just got to put the nose down and go step by step...yes looking carefully is good! listening carefully if music....and both for dancing!!

pam in sw florida said...

thank you for this fine post. this sharing is what I love of the quilt/fiber community.

Elizabeth Barton said...

I am always so grateful when someone shares their knowledge with me...whatever the field...

Leigh said...

Yes, yes, and yes! "You're so talented, I could never do that!" is actually a bit of a pet peeve for me. It's like a compliment, but it isn't. People want to ascribe some magical intrinsic thing to me so that it excuses them from never having tried to do anything. At the same time as it excuses them for never having bothered, it diminishes the thousands of hours of practice that I've put in to get to where I am. No one whacked me with the Creativity Stick as I was born! I found something I liked, and did it. A LOT.

I'm not great at drawing, just good enough to win at Pictionary (remember that game?), but since I don't practice, I can't really complain.

I do wish I was better though, as it would help in other areas. Thanks for the steps. It's nice to have somewhere to start. :)

KAM said...

thanks for the great look at the process for drawing, practicing, focusing. I have saved your words and put them in my sketchbook for a reminder on how important process is in the development of the skill of drawing.
Kristin

Precille Boisvert said...

I was in my mid-thirties when I decided to learn to draw, and it has been a peasure, and work to do so ever since. I wish there had been a little gardian angel to tell me as a child that I could learn to draw. Thank you for this post, a good reminder of all the steps and process to go through, for both drawing and designing.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Oh yes Leigh...there's a great story about some wonderful world class virtuoso pianist to whom a fan said: I'd give an arm and a leg to play like you...and he replied: I gave 50 years of my life!!

Thank you Kam and Precille...it's so sad that art teachers don't (or didn't at least when I went to school) actually teach you how to draw! the assumption is that you can do it or you can't....so frustrating....

and yes...I so agree with you Leigh...they always say one is talented with a self satisfied look as if they know you're not really worthy of the talent you were just lucky to have it bestowed!!! and it's in so many arenas: recently friends said to me oh you're so lucky you can memorize a (v. short and easy!) piano piece....!! no not luck, I analyzed the thing, learned the theory, memorized it bar by bar...etc etc....