Monday, February 14, 2011

But I can't draw

st ives crop
So often I hear people saying , “but I can’t draw”. Well, I can’t draw “naturally” or “intuitively” either! 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.
If you have been, thanks for reading! Now, sharpen up the pencils and GO! Elizabeth
and I look forward to the comments!!! Is anyone out there??!!  ;)


Sandy said...

okay, this is the most helpful thing I have read in a VERY long time. I have just scanned it as I am supposed to be finishing lesson plans for teaching tonight. (well, I know what I am doing, it is putting it down in a manner that ofsted would approve of.)

So, I want to come back and read this again...print it off and try it out.

Thanks so much for spending so much time helping the 'random out there reading it when we get a chance' people that stumble across your blog.
Sandy in the UK

Sandra Wyman said...

Lots of good advice here, thanks. My late husband, a painter, was an excellent draughtsman. According to him you may learn a few tricks along the way which help, but drawing is never effortless. Though I usually work non-naturalistically I do find it useful to draw because it makes me look at things and discover what the essential features of something are - for me that makes the more abstract image more meaningful...

June said...

Fine lessons, particularly for landscape. I love my viewfinder, which is plastic and slides for different ratios of sizing. It's spattered with paint and mud, but works beautifully.

I learned to draw after age 50 and maintain that if I could do it, anyone can! Of course, I don't do it all that well, but enough to get a good start.

McIrish Annie said...

thanks for the lesson. I've never tried drawing but with these tips may give it a whirl with a photograph. we are out here! thanks for taking the time to post this good info.

Kathleen Loomis said...

if it works for you, then go for it, but I have made hundreds of quilts and maybe had sketches for three of them?? (and none of the good ones)

I like to work improvisationally -- and I work abstract -- and sketching just doesn't fit into my planning process. so the fact that I can't draw has never seemed to be a big problem.

Jane Herlihy said...

YES YES YES I'm out here!! I read all your posts, Elizabeth, and learn so much from them. Thank you for being so sharing with your knowledge and talent! I'm one of those "can't draw" people, but I'll print out your instructions and give it another shot.

Vicki W said...

Great article, thank you!

Kate Themel said...

Great article, and I can't stress enough how important it is to practice drawing - no matter what kind of artwork you make. It's like regular exercise for your creative brain. But even more importantly, it trains your eye to observe the world with focus & discipline. I'm bookmarking your outline & helpful tips. Brilliant!

Elsie Montgomery said...

I'm here too, reading but not always commenting. I started to draw as soon as my mother gave me a pencil and have never lost the love of it... and you did such a wonderful job of encouraging others to try it. This is a terrific post!

Anonymous said...

Definitely here!

I've had several drawing classes which included a live model or still life set-ups. But the most helpful thing was a requirement to turn in a sketchbook filled with drawings at the end of each class--not including the classwork. Most days I picked a photo from the sports page. Daily practice does make a huge difference

Wayne Kollinger said...


Thanks for some informative and useful thoughts.

It is often thought that drawing is about hand/eye coordination, when really it's about seeing. Almost everyone has the physical ability to draw well. What they need to develop is the ability to really see and understand what they are looking at. You can't draw shadows, highlights, or reflected light if you aren't aware of them - if you haven't seen them.

Your suggestions are, for the most part,about ways of analysing what you are seeing. Once you've done that putting it on paper is easier.

My favorite drawing exercise is to draw while looking at the subject and never while looking at the paper. You stop drawing when you look at the paper to see where you are, but you look at the subject before you start drawing again. It sounds difficult but it's not and the results are surprisingly good.

Faith said...

This has been very helpful. I hope you don't mind if I copy and put it into my notebook.


Carole M. said...

belonging to the league of "can't drawers" but would love to be, I'm really enjoying reading this post (a newbie to your blog).

Your insight is intuitive, I suspect because you're in the same space, or rather have been there at some time.

Your "less likely to be distracted by the actuality of the object, and mention of drawing in 2-D" is good reading because this is where I stumble any time I've tried to get started.

Look forard to reading more into your blog posts; thanks for sharing.

Iz said...

This is so helpful - thank you!

Living to work - working to live said...

I agree with Iz! Going to print off and have by my work table.