This post is aimed at anyone who knows they have solid basic sketching skills but feels they want to up their game and actually be an artist.
I started drawing seriously about 16 years ago when I was a teenager, I didn't go to a college of art (I ended up being an investment banker, as it happens) and taught myself with a HB pencil, a ton of paper, and every moment of my spare time. One day I'll get round to posting more of my stuff on my sketchbook...
So you're now at the point where you copy a lot of stuff off the internet and from books and you're posting it at conceptart.org and being told how great you are. Good. Then when you try to draw from life it looks like the kind of thing a nine year old would do. So what's going wrong?!
Well the first thing I can say, after 16 years which have given me some pretty strong abilities is that copying is both the best and worst friend of any potential artist; it teaches your brain how to spot form and and yet constant copying also prevents the dendrites in your brain attaching themselves to those areas needed for interpretation.
Let's look at this. Let's say you spend several hours a week copying sketches by Da Vinci or Bouguereau. Now you can rush up a lovely impersonation of a figure drawing by those artists. That's ok, it'll impress your friends. But do you actually know how to summon up a human form from imagination? Because that's what Da Vinci and Bouguereau were doing!
Take this sketch by Bouguereau (easily the greatest painter of the human form who ever lived - greater than Michelangelo and Da Vinci):
That sketch was done from imagination, without a model, and probably in under an hour. But what went into it was a lifetime.
Well, the basics.
Everyone who posts on this and other art forums considers himself to be a good artist. Few admit to being fakes. So if secretly you know you're not as great as you wish you were then you simply have to have the humility to start at square one, knowing you WILL be one of the best if you learn what every Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Bouguereau had to learn. And to do that I'd start with something like this:
It's rare that someone bothers to put that kind of effort into making something for free.
So what are the rich kids at the ateliers being taught that makes them so brilliant? Often, nothing. At a cost of many thousands per term.
At a lot of ateliers you get 20 year olds endlessly pumping out copies of Bargue plates (more on that later) who then can't draw a simple self portrait to save their lives. Yet again my motto - copy all you want, but it don't make you an artist! There is a user on conceptart.org (who shall remain unnamed) who attends a very expensive academy of art. Every so often this person posts his latest piece. It is always brilliant. It will contain feeling, depth, technique and beauty. It is always a copy of something. When this person then posts his own material, drawn from life etc, it is always so bad I literally cringe. The latter works are 2-D at best, whispy, messes. How is this?! Simple - he cannot draw, he can only copy.
The skills needed to become a superb sketch artist are
1) an understanding of dimension and form
2) a genius-like appreciation of value (light and dark),
4) endless practice.
I mention genes because at the end of the day, drawing or painting is no different from any other skill - you're hard-wired to be good at it or not. Edward O. Wilson got into terrible trouble some years back by suggesting we're no less governed by our genes than ants. He is now being proved correct and the liberal fascists who called him a nazi are now eating their felt hats. I can't perform long division, but I can draw...it's all genes.
But back to the basics...
So why bother drawing spheres and cubes when those won't impress the neighbours when you say "Oh yes, after football practice I'm an artist. Here, look at my still lifes of an egg and some lettuce". Ten years down the line when you don't know whether a human cheek should be sketched with deeper shade above or below the jawline you'll suddenly know "why". The basics are not beneath you!
Go through the sketchbooks on here. Look through the seemingly endless quantities of manga, spanga, cranga and other stuff all copied endlessly from comics. What purpose does it serve? Or more importantly, why do these people want to draw? Why bother drawing at all??? Is the purpose of art simply to be considered clever?!
Having thought about the replication side of these forums, the only conclusion I can draw (pun intended) is that far too many users want to simply be considered good artists. If that's all you want, then stick to that and you'll be fine. But you'll never be the guy/girl who whips out a pocketbook and captures a moment in graphite, who in a few flicks and swirls puts a moment in time on paper, who can squiggle something that everyone instantly recognising as Bob from down the street. You'll draw Akira til you're blue in the face but never your own dog.
My tips are these:
1) Buy any book by Giovanni Civardi
2) Learn Sight-size method and ignore its critics (nearly always "modern artists" who can neither draw nor paint)
3) Go through all of the document in the link above.
4) Buy a pocket sized, plain white smooth paper pad, a basic pencil range from about 5H to 5B, a bunch of erasers (kneaded putty and standard rubber types).
5) Draw everywhere you go.
6) Learn to distinguish between what needs rushing and what takes time - many a brilliant sketch is ruined by the desire to see the finished piece. Some sketches ought to take days, not hours.
7) Draw. Draw. Draw.
8 ) Get any book about 'drawing on the right side of the brain'. This technique is sheer perfection and it will set you apart. It is basically (and I don't have time to go into it here) a technique for teaching the brain how to see shape and not just detail. It is fascinating AND useful.
9) UNDER ABSOLUTELY NO CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER USE A GRAPHICS TABLET UNTIL YOU ARE A FANTASTIC GRAPHITE PENCIL ARTIST!!
10) Avoid all gradient paper, it simply makes everything you draw look 2D. Smooth white is all you need. And it shouldn't be expensive - you're not drawing for Donald Trump.
11) Draw those things you love most and you will draw best.
12) There are simple geometric shapes in the human hand and foot that once learnt will make your feet and hands look human, as opposed to the stumps you're currently drawing. Google "how to draw human feet" and check out YouTube too - it has hundreds of brilliant guides on it for free.
13) You WILL need to figure out which pencils you work best with. There is a lot of BS abou this but the simple truth is that because you and I use different pressures to draw we need different pencils. I use a 2H to sketch and then a combo of 5H to 2B to draw the finished product. Find your range by drawing one of those 'light and dark' sphere drawings you see in drawing books.
And for my final tip, I want to let you in on a little secret.
Earlier today I looked at a rake of very good sketches by a user here and saw a very familiar problem. So common that it seems to me the one characteristic separating a brilliant piece of art from a so-so sketch.
Take a look at this sketch of Jude Law I randomly selected from the internet:
It's great isn't it?
No, it's not. If you ever saw a person who looked like that you'd call the hosptal and tell them a man with cardboard lips and scratches on their face was in need of attention. The person has not paid attention to how many levels of value to use, nor is there any depth. In fact it looks like a tracing.
Now look at this by conceptart.org user wjlacey:
It goes like this - when you look at a human face your brain sees an infinite number of shades and colour variations of which you're only actively conscious of a dozen, if that. So when you look at a sketch which has 4 levels (and nearly always less, in the case of terrible copy art) of shade your brain says "Nice try, but that ain't real". And so when a sketch contains 7 or 8 or more levels of shade variation your brain says, "Gosh, if everything weren't in HB I'd think this was a photograph!"
If you think I'm wrong, take a long look through the thousands of sketchbooks and keep a mental note of the absolute best sketches compared to the absolute worst. In every case the deciding factor is the subtle variation in shade; the pupil of a human eye is blacker than black, the skin at the top of mounds in the facial shape are often completely white.
I know, you want to just draw the picture of Jude Law, be considered brilliant and move on to the next celebrity. Don't. Read Civardi's books, spend hours and hours reading sbout foreshortening, perspective, anatomy, etc and keep everything you draw.
And in whatever you draw, VALUE is king - if it has 1 level of shade (ridiculously common) it will look like a jaundiced 1D copy. If it has 7 levels of value it will be so lifelike it will look like it is walking out of the paper.
Google "Bargue plate" and start copying them until what you see is so perfect they cannot be told apart. THIS is what the atelier kids are learning at several thousand a term. Bargue plates are obsessions for good artists and they speak fondly of them ....once they're done with them! A good Bargue plate reproduction should take you a week at least of several hours a day. The point is to be subconsciously taught value and form without knowing it. If you're too good to reproduce a Bargue plate then you're either a renowned portrait artist of the classical realist school or you're not too good to reproduce a Bargue plate! It's standard artist work.
So I wish you well and hope this was helpful.
Divide a thing into shapes, sizes and depths. Then draw it.
Value. Value. Value.
You do not need to spend thousands on fees, pencils, paper and other regalia - being a brilliant artist in any media from graphite to oils is not expensive and anyone who endless harps on about how good materials cost money is full of it. At the top end, commissioned works then of course you want the best material but for the purpose of an excellent hobby artist do not kid yourself into thinking a $100 set of 10 pencils is better than your Kwikimart 10 pencil set. It just isn't.
If you aren't drawing every day...well....draw every day!
I agree with pretty much everything you've said in your post.
I do think copying is an essential tool (as you stated yourself, in reference to the Charles Bargue plates)... It's part of how we learn. It's a matter of what you're copying that makes the difference. The same is true of what we are putting into our sketchbooks. If we are doing essential studies, with the occasional (or a little more than occasional) drawing from imagination thrown in, along with examples of perspective, value study, compositional, etc., that's the stuff that will eventually propel us forward.
I'm not sure I agree with you about the use of toned paper though.
I think gray-scale studies, done on gray toned paper are a useful exercise. Likewise, I think if the tone is used for its intended purpose (middle value in gray, lightest light, in lighter colors, darkest dark in black, or as the local color of the subject in colored drawings) you should be able to do the exact same thing as using a white ground.
One problem is with colored grounds (especially grays) is they don't seem to scan, or photograph as well, flattening out subtle transitions, making them look monotone.
Although I essentially agree with you about artists supplies (cheap stuff being good enough for sketching), I will say through my experiences, if you really want to do an in-depth value study, you may want use an artist paper with some "tooth", so it will hold all those tones. A piece of A4 paper (which I use a lot of) just will not accept all of those wonderfully crafted tones after a while, leaving you with a big graphite, or charcoal mess, as the paper's surface is slowly destroyed!
As a side note, I would like to see more of your sketches!
You can view some of mine here.
That's enough of my rambling...
"Try not. Do or do not!! There is no try"
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Thanks for the information. I agree with almost everything you said. I was watching a documentary called "Lord of the Ants" about Edward O. Wilson last night actually and I think many people confuse what he really means. I don't think he means you are born with the genes that make you draw, or write or program, but we are possibly born with the genes to be curious, ambitious, etc enough to want to learn/do something, so much that we'll dedicate ourselves to doing it every waking hour. How can we be born with something that must be learned? If that was the case I wouldn't need to study anatomy, I should just be able to draw a perfect human body, wouldn't you agree?...
Anyways enough of that. I really wanted to thank you for your post, that link you provided is a wealth of information and your advice is a god-sent. I am currently reading "Drawing on the right side of the brain" and have made a checklist of books to purchase next, so I will be adding your recommendations to that list shortly. I'll also be reading the information on that website you posted after I'm done with this book. I am not that great of an artist at all...yet , but I am hoping that I will be able to someday draw from my mind.
I do have some problems with contour drawing that I don't know how to fix, but hopefully I'll be able to overcome that soon. Once again, thanks so much for the info I really appreciate it.
Lots of very useful information and resources here in this post. I do disagree with a few things though, I don't think getting good with graphite is necessary to do well with a tablet, I think if you practice on either medium you are going to improve the same way, you'll just get accustomed to one medium over the other, the only real practical reason to get good with graphite first is to see if drawing is something you want to spend a lot of money on, so you don't waste your money on a tablet first. Personally I've only just started taking art seriously after I got my tablet as a present, and it really doesn't feel much different than pencil to me with the right brush settings.
I think the genes thing is kinda bullcrap too to be honest. I say "kinda" because it definitely could have AN influence, but not a deciding factor in my opinion. Some people are born with better vision, eye hand coordination, spatial recognition ability, and imaginations for example, but those are all things that can be trained, like muscles. So in the end I think genes could possibly give some people advantages, but I think those who are born with qualities that are less useful for art just have to work harder at it than others.
Well you are entitled to your opinion but science is pretty clear - the dendrites that your brain will lever into those areas of the brain it needs for a certain skill are limited in their lifespan and strength by your genes.
This is why no amount of training will alter an IQ test score more than 10-15%. In other words, yes you can improve, but no you can't attain what you were never meant to attain.
I am horrendously bad at anything mathematical, but I can pick up a language in no time. This isn't the end of the world and it doesn't make me a dunce, it simply means I can't do what a mathematical genius can do.
The irony is I spent 5 years in investment banking.