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  1. #1
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    Jeff's Observations on Drawing from Life

    There have been a lot of good discussions and questions about the "hows" and "whys" of drawing from life recently so I thought I would share my own personal experiences and observations. This thread is inspired by my friend Dpaint's excellent "Drawing from Life Survival Guide" (http://www.conceptart.org/forums/sho...p?t=178075)and I hope it will complement his thoughts. For many this will be familiar, but for others just beginning their journey I hope it provides some insight.

    1: It's hard...
    But, what's harder is not being able to do it. What I mean is yes, it is super frustrating sometimes, very challenging, very humbling, a hassle - all that stuff. But you just have to get through that. Every figurative artist down through history has those same frustrations and humbling experiences in common. Cool to think that if you could sit down with Rembrandt or Sargent at the pub you could trade stories about how agonizing it all is. It gets easier...but still no less humbling.

    2: It is still the best way.
    As challenging and difficult as it is at first, it is still the best way to go about developing your skills as an artist. It's hard to see that at first because the progress is agonizingly slow...but once you begin to see improvement you begin to develop some confidence and at least awareness that you're on the right track. That reinforces itself and pretty soon you're tearing it up...

    3: Why is it the best way?
    When you work from life your entire being, focus, whatever, goes into the process of observation and translation. As the artist you are making all of the decisions, measurements and marks that go into making or translating what you see and feel into two dimensions. That is an entirely different experience from copying an image/photo that has all of those decisions and observations already made for you. It might be like the difference between learning to play the guitar, trying to get that A-minor chord change, twisting your fingers all around in painful ways...practicing that chord over and over - then building it into a progression...as opposed to playing Guitar Hero. Eventually you can work quite well from photo reference - but not until you know what you're doing.

    4: So what is it?
    Drawing from life simply means observing and drawing anything that isn't already translated into two dimensions. So drawing from life includes still life, landscape and architecture sketching, etc. The term "life drawing" refers more specifically to studying the figure - usually the familiar nude in a studio setting, but can include the portrait, drawing animals at the zoo, people in public, etc.

    5: Shift awareness
    Try to shift your awareness to the deeper or more "core" aspects of art and away from just subject. Oddly enough the deeper aspects are also the fundamental principles (at least from a technical point of view - I'm not talking about deeper meaning, allegory, symbology, etc.). If you can learn to see and depict visual fundamentals well from life - then you have the ability to do the same in your more fantastic visions - if yo ucan't do it from life I don't know how you would do it from imagination. Basically if your ideas and visions are important to you then learn how to execute them well.

    6: Fundamentals...what should you be looking for
    These are the fundamentals that I feel are important:
    Composition - this is the foundation of your piece
    Drawing - accurate shape, form, perspective, proportion, angle, curve, etc.
    Value - good value range and pattern with careful observation of form vs cast shadow and reflected light
    Texture - surface quality of the subject or element within the subject
    Edges - what is the quality of the edge you are observing/drawing - is is hard/crisp - soft/fuzzy - high contrast - gentle in transition of form, etc.
    Balance - by this I mean a balance of all the variety of elements you have to work with - one of my mentors called it the "dialog of opposites" - some rich detail here but not everywhere - bold line vs. soft or lost - curve vs. straight, etc.
    Color - but that gets into painting so another time...

    7: Correct drawing
    There is a reason that any time you see a studio class or people painting in the field they are standing at easels (sitting at an easel or drawing bench is ok too - but not quite as good). There are a few reasons this is the best approach: 1) it allows you the freedom of movement to be expressive and to draw from the shoulder; 2) it allows you to step a good distance away from your work to analyze composition, massing, value structure, etc.

    8: Sight Measuring...how to compare and translate
    This is the real key to working from life - sight measuring. It is simple but it isn't discussed much - basically you hold your pencil or a thin stick out at arms length, sight with one eye closed and using your thumb as a mark measure how tall/wide something is in comparison to something else. Translate that same scale information to your drawing. This is how you judge proportion, height, scale, etc. For angles you can hold your pencil in line with the angle (but keep it flat to the picture plane) and just move your hand over to your drawing to get teh right angle.

    9: Still Life practice
    You can really improve by practicing the still life on your own. Set up a small space somewhere that you can set a few objects on - light it with a strong light and try to minimize secondary or ambient light. I like to have students start with one object - draw it for one hour - the next session add one object - draw this for one hour - add a third object - and so on. Still life is fun because you have the most control over it and you can do all kinds of creative things with it - use objects you're interested in or provide a challenge you want to observe. You can practice drapery/folds the same way.

    10: Recommended books and resources
    I recommend these all the time:
    "Drawing Essentials" by Deborah Rockman - best book on observational drawing and not terribly expensive
    "Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes" by Jack Hamm - great book on composition and "environments"
    "Imaginitive Realism" by James Gurney - not a technique book but a great book on professional, creative illustration practice
    Jim Gurney's blog: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/ Jim created Dinotopia and is a National Geographic illustrator

    I hope this helps answer a few questions on the "hows and whys" of drawing from life.

    This is just some personal background stuff about why I'm so passionate about working from life...feel free to ignore...

    A: Why do people push it so hard?
    Well, I know I do, as does dpaint and most pros you talk to or read. For me the reason is simple: I wasted far too many years thinking I didn't need to draw or paint from life and I want to try to help others avoid my mistake. Here's why I avoided it: when I first tried "life drawing" in college I sucked. Hard. I was embarassed. So I avoided it for years - after all, I was a "fantasy and science fiction" artist. I drew and painted fantastic, imaginary people, places and things. The problem was I did it quite poorly.

    B: Eventually...
    I began to realize that I needed to get really serious about becoming the artist I had always wanted to be. The first step for me was to list and analyze all my favorite artists/illustrators. I broke them down into groups mainly around the media they use and the genre they paint in. Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters. So I knew there must be something about painting in oil that allowed them to work in a way that spoke to me. They were all over the place as far as technique - but they were all oil painters. They were also all very traditional in their approach and they worked from life.

    C: Now I knew...
    What I had to do - I had to work from life and figure out how to paint in oil.
    Remember #1? It's hard? And #5? How I sucked? Repeat. Only a lot worse.
    I'm trying to work through it...

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  4. #2
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    I know we talked about our respective takes on life drawing suggestions for people interested in getting started. Thanks for posting this; it is always good to get back to the why and how of it. These are great tips and a well organized thoughtful approach to tackling one of the most diffecult artistic endeavors.

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    Excellent post, Jeff. Very comprehensive but there's still I question I have:

    Have any of you professionals ever done life drawings digitally(tablet)? If you have, how exactly?

    If you haven't, why not?

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    When I was working inhouse I did it a couple of times. Just used my laptop and wacom. I have a portable collapsable drawing bench and I just set it on the bench like I would a pad of paper or canvas. You just need to make sure you have a place to plugin or a couple of batteries. My laptop would only go for a couple of hours on battery power. Nothing beats a sketchbook and pencil for ease of use and portablity though.

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    Thanks dZ-ero - I've never tried it myself - probably the main reason is it isn't practical yet. Other reasons are the average tablets aren't very large - maybe if you got one of the really big ones and could set it up so it was vertical and you drew directly on the screen it would work pretty well - it will probably get there (and be affordable) but not now.

    I think there are some people that have done plein-air work with a laptop though - Craig Mullins comes to mind but I don't remember if he was working plein air or just from reference.

    My other real reason to be honest is I really like the physical part of drawing and painting. I do digital stuff too but it is more in line with Android's kind of digital aesthetic.

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    Well, thanks for your replies.

    I guess I need to do my life-drawings the old way.

    I've drawn a few times in public but it just feels so awkward and I get distracted a lot.



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    I'm really interested in this stuff and diving back into fundamentals right now with observation and learning from nature. It's amazing that all the information you need to learn to draw is basically sitting there in front of you all the time. Learn to translate nature and the toolset you have to create anything you want is enormous.

    Can anyone comment on which fundamentals or aspects are best trained and honed by which type of study. Why am I doing a still life?
    Are there any techniques to use when studying (what to think about) from life that are beneficial to learning certain fundamentals?

    I find quick color studies do more for my color sense than longer drawn out detailed studies. Those are better suited to working on texture and modeling and other qualities. What about landscape for example, what are the most beneficial studies for each quality or fundamental I want to develop?

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    Quote Originally Posted by fersteger View Post
    It's amazing that all the information you need to learn to draw is basically sitting there in front of you all the time. Learn to translate nature and the toolset you have to create anything you want is enormous.
    Really well said - thanks! Good questions too...
    Most of the fundamentals can be studied and learned through drawing so that's why it is so important. So often people jump into painting and color because they want to get those finished pieces out there - but if they can't draw then it becomes a big, discouraging mess.

    Anyway, still life is great because you have everything working for you: you control the setup, the lighting and how much time you want to spend. Through still life study you can learn composition, proportion, foreshortening, texture, balance, values, etc. Pretty much all the fundamentals - the fundamentals are the same whether you are drawing the figure, the landscape or the still life. About the only thing different with the figure is the dynamic gesture quality which is so critical.

    I think the best thing to keep in mind while drawing from life is trying to see things not as things but as shapes, edges, angles, intersections, value transitions, etc. Drawing from life is all about two things: analyziing and comparing things within the subject you're looking at - translating that information to your drawing and then comparing everything within your drawing.

    Also - just try to work on one thing at a time, shadows for example - read about that aspect/fundamental every night - then practice it the next day or drawing session. It doesn't really take that long to get this stuff - it just takes what one of my mentors called "diligent study".

    Personally I think color is best learned by painting the landscape - but that's what I like. If you want to do figurative work that is quite a bit different. Color is actually the most variable of the fundamentals in my opinion, because it is very subjective.

    I hope that helps - good luck to you!

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    Quote Originally Posted by dZ-ero View Post
    Well, thanks for your replies.

    I guess I need to do my life-drawings the old way.

    I've drawn a few times in public but it just feels so awkward and I get distracted a lot.

    Yeah - I hear ya - everyone's been there. Try not to be too self-conscious about it though - most people think it's interesting if they even bother to acknowledge you. And people are way more forgiving and understanding than you think - we're usually our own worst critics which can keep us from trying.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Anyway, still life is great because you have everything working for you: you control the setup, the lighting and how much time you want to spend. Through still life study you can learn composition, proportion, foreshortening, texture, balance, values, etc. Pretty much all the fundamentals - the fundamentals are the same whether you are drawing the figure, the landscape or the still life. About the only thing different with the figure is the dynamic gesture quality which is so critical.
    This is cool, because I dread studying out of books - especially when it's the fundamentals.

    But to do life drawing of the figure, comprehension of how everything underneath works (joints, muscle, tendons) would be extremely helpful. Only books and pictures have that information. Or, is it possible to become just as proficient at drawing the figure only drawing from life?

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    I think a mix is the best way to go. The old european schools started with copy work like the Bargue course then moved to casts from life then to the model from life. Each has drawbacks if you stay with it too long. Remember the ultimate goal for all of this is making a picture. Good paintings have an idea to them they are not just studies no matter how beautiful those can be.

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    Absolutely - sometimes I forget to emphasize that most important of all factors - the whole point of studying so hard, from both life, books and master's works is to be able to express your ideas to their fullest. I think I tend to assume that is what we're all after so I take it for granted. But you're right - I mean, look at how many incredible life drawing artists the academies (and today's ateliers) produce - but they don't really have anything to say (not always - I'm just generalizing to make the point).

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters.
    This may be too obvious, but, is it possible there were all old guys who predate the computer by some number of decades or centuries?

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