What follows is the text of a handout that I give to my Figure Drawing students at the end of the semester. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me and I will respond when possible. This is copyrighted information and may not be reproduced for profit. If you wish to use it in a classroom environment, please email me for permission.
Please realize when reading through these comments that they are 100% opinion. Anything within has and will be contradicted by somebody. I suspect I will cringe reading this in twenty years but that’s the way it goes. See # 9 below.
This text is from a handout that came about from people asking me how they could continue to improve beyond my figure drawing class. These comments are what I believe at this moment. This is what worked, and what continues to work for me. Find what works for you. I hope this helps you get started.
You can do more harm than good by practicing the wrong way. I’m reluctant to mention this because almost any kind of drawing is good for you. Improvement in art, and in your drawing skills is largely attributable to mileage. However, at the same time, you can greatly impair or even halt your progress by developing bad habits, habits that develop easily when not consciously avoided. The good news is they are easily avoided, provided you keep an eye on them. More on these later.
Style is the most overvalued and over examined aspect of art; particularly among art students. Art students are always looking to get one, not realizing they already have one, everyone does, it’s called a personality. If you don’t believe me, look at your handwriting. This is your "style" expressed in line. The reason it isn’t as visible in your artwork is you are still mastering the technical aspects of drawing and painting. Take a look at a sample of your cursive handwriting from around 5th grade. You’ll notice that even though you had been writing in cursive for two to three years, the strokes aren’t as deliberate or as confident as they are now. They may be more readable, but that is a different matter all together.
Eleven Suggestions for Practicing
Copyright © 2005 John Clapp
1. Seek out instruction, advice and criticism.
Most of you are already doing this to some degree. Be aggressive about it. Ask questions. Most successful artists can name at least a half-dozen people who had a major influence on their career, and another couple dozen who were important in some way. These artists have been on the other side of the conversation and will usually respond generously to someone who sincerely wants to learn.
Occasionally, you may run into someone who refuses to share some piece of information with you. There is one of three explanations for this. Either the person doesn’t know and is afraid to admit it, or they are very insecure about their abilities because they depend on some sort of technical "trick". This is the most pathetic of situations; any trick one artist knows about, is also known or decipherable to other artists who simply choose not to use it the same way. In short, if this type of artist is guarding their secret this jealously, it isn’t worth knowing, and eventually you’ll be able to figure it out on your own.
The only acceptable reason for hiding information from someone occurs when an experienced artist realizes that someone has their priorities backwards, and is trying to learn a new technique thinking that it will correct all their faults. This never works and does more damage to someone than they realize. There are no techniques or methods that will make bad drawing good. Conversely, there aren’t any techniques or methods that won’t work with good draftsmanship.
Good instruction can save you years of struggling. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, that would be like everyone trying to learn how to read on their own. It might work, but if someone has come up with a good way to learn about it why not avail yourself of it. It won’t impair your "creativity" anymore than learning how to conjugate a verb impairs your creative writing. All it will do is make possible the communication of your ideas in a way people understand.
2. Set goals
Imagine where you want to be, when you want to be there. Write it down in as much detail as possible. Figure out what skills you need. Write these down as well. Now schedule when you’re going to acquire these skills and get to work on it. Be ambitious but realistic. Maybe it’s a copy of a master painting a month, a filled sketchbook every four months. Write it down and stick to it. Keep all this written information where you will see it often.
You will be as good as your practicing habits. This is where the rigor of any skill is. Don’t go through the motions. Arrange your environment so it doesn’t distract you and WORK. We’ve all heard that voice that wants to go check the mail, or run errands. Ignore it and keep working. Soon you won’t hear it any more. You have all achieved the "flow" state, where you lose track of what you’re doing and time flies by. This is when you do your breakthrough work. Strive for this state of mind when you practice. If you find your mind wandering, stop yourself and refocus your thoughts. The energy in a piece is a transcription of the concentration involved.
The concentration described above is intense, but it should be pursued in a relaxed state of mind. Meditation is the only thing I can compare it to. You can’t force art, you can only let it flow through you. Consciously try to relax before every drawing. Unclench those teeth, take a few deep breaths and laugh a little. Try to imprint how this feels on your brain and it will get easier to do each time. Stop worrying what it’s going to be like. Let it be. I can’t stress enough how important this point is to your progress.
5. Practice what you can’t do!
This is the dumbest, and most preventable mistake people make while trying to improve. Psychologically, we like to practice what were good at because it makes us feel cool. The problem is we gloss over all our weak points unless we have a coach or instructor who makes us work on them. Reverse your habits. Practice the thing that frustrates you the most. Try to pare down a problem to focus on your weakness. Example: If your linework isn’t very expressive try one of the following: a line drawing of a pine cone, a line drawing of organic and inorganic objects focusing on making them feel that way, a drawing with a very large brush, a drawing made with a stick, etc.
6. Invest yourself
Sit up and be interested. Every day you are slowly reinventing yourself into the person/artist you’re going to be in ten years. Keep this in mind. You have to give yourself over to the subject and immerse yourself. This doesn’t mean your every thought and action has to be spent on art. It means that when you are working on it, you’re giving everything you can. If you had an investment that promised to double your money every year without fail, you’d put in a lot of money. Art amplifies exponentially the effort you invest. Take advantage of it.
7. Don’t be too hard on yourself
You will do ten times as many bad drawings as good ones in your life. Doing a bad drawing is not the end of the world. You can do everything right and that still doesn’t guarantee that your drawing will be any good. There is some degree of luck involved, but you’ll find that the more you work the luckier you’ll get. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. This will help you relax which in turn will help your drawings.
8. Don’t show off
Wynton Marsalis’s father once told him, "Those who play for applause, that’s all they get.". When you’re showing off you’re wearing your ego on your sleeve. Egotism is a very self-conscious state, the one place you can’t be and still expect to make great art. If you can avoid being egotistical during the making of your work, you can be as egotistical as you want later, because it will be good work. All art is a relation of egotism, but it isn’t created by it. The creation of art actually seems to bleed your ego away from you. Besides all that, when you show off all the more experienced artists will think you look ridiculous. Egotism is a very selfish emotion that can help an artist in many ways, but art isn’t a selfish thing. When you turn your thoughts inward, you turn away from all the inspiration around you. That’s where the art is.
This is where a little bit of egotism can be helpful. I don’t think I need to stress that you think for yourself, you already do. What I would stress is that you begin to trust those thoughts a little more. Everyone has opinions they question when an authority figure, or even a peer publicly contradicts them. You don’t have to say anything, but don’t accept it as fact without checking it out first.
I mention this because I think the average quality of art instruction nationwide is pathetic. At every school, at every level, mediocrity flourishes. You have to seek out instructors you respect, instructors who you believe can help you. Trust your gut instinct, but try to be fair as well. Don’t mistake difficult for mean, entertaining for good. When I was in school I had instructors I suspected were terrible, I now realize I was right but I didn’t trust myself to say so.
At the same time, be aware of how much you can learn from the opinions of others, particularly a good instructor. Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean disregarding the knowledge of another, it means trying it with an open mind, not a blind eye. Test the information, question it, make use of it anyway you can.
Generally speaking, if you are young and male, trust your opinions about your work a little less, you aren’t as good as you think. If you are a woman of any age, you’re usually a little better than you give yourself credit for. This isn’t an exact thing, but psychologically, this seems to be how it works.
10. Be optimistic
Every time you make a mark on a piece of paper, you are expressing how you feel about the world around you. Even when art is dealing with negative or disturbing subjects, it is a positive process. I sincerely believe it to be one of the healthiest activities someone can engage in. In my experience, it’s akin to how you feel when you’re falling in love, but it happens all the time. You feel alive, everything is right in the world, and you never seem to get tired. Something about the optimism seems to fuel the process. I can’t explain it.
11. Find what inspires you and use it
No matter how well intentioned you are, there will be moments when you will be feeling lazy, uninspired, or simply tired. The last thing you will feel like doing is dragging out your art supplies and doing a painting. Trust me, it doesn’t matter whether someone’s paying you or not. Even if you can force yourself to sit down and work, maybe you just can’t get it going on a particular day. For these situations you need to pull out the big guns.
For me, it means reading about an artist, looking at great work, listening to a certain CD, watching an interview with some sort of creative person, anything that makes me think about creativity. These are the things that I know from experience inspire me the most. At most it takes about an hour, usually much less until I am dying to get to work. This kind of process is very personal but I thought I would include some of the things that help me get to work on the rough days:
Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity by Howard Gardner
Genius- The Life and Times of Richard Feynmann by James Gleick
For improving your powers of focus and concentration, blind contour, semi-blind, and negative space drawing simply can’t be beat. Also excellent for developing your powers of observation. You will never outgrow these exercises. Use them when you "can’t seem to get into it".
One of the quickest ways to improve your drawing ability because you can do it anywhere and it simply gets your pencil moving, lots of mileage.
Balance a lot of gesture drawing with the occasional 20-50 hour rendering. Rendering really helps you see tone in all it’s subtlety. When you understand tone, you will really improve your "form".
In order of importance, these are the skills you need to be good at to be a superb draftsman. #1. Light. #2. Perspective. #3. Anatomy
If you had to you could get by with just the first two. "Light" is stressed in many programs. Perspective is barely taught at all and very few people have a decent understanding of it. As a result, there aren’t as many good draftsman around as there used to be.
If you are going on into painting classes, the best preparation for it would be a combination of tonal drawings and monoprinting with brushes. The first as a sustained value study, the monoprints for technical familiarity with moving the paint around.
Start a Library
Most of you know the names of more guitarists or athletes than you know artists in your field of study. You can learn more from books than you can from classes. Imagine how many art books you could buy with one semester’s tuition at your average art school! The reason people don’t do this is they aren’t disciplined enough to use the books once they buy them. My art school training was invaluable to me, but partly because I was able to put my prior book knowledge to good use. The finest instructors of the last 120 years have books in print. If a book costs you $25 and you learn one thing that you use the rest of your career,... was it worth it? Include book study in your education. See my Booklist for suggestions.
Work from Life
If I could set up an ideal art education for someone working on their own, it would be working from life as much as possible, nude if it can be arranged, clothed otherwise. Also, carry your sketchbook around with you and do gesture drawings whenever you have a spare moment on public transit, etc. These two activities will improve your abilities quickly. Every month or so, throw in a rigorous full-value rendering of some type, from a photograph with excellent lighting. The occasional master copy might be substituted for the photograph.
When working on your own to improve as in the paragraph above, I would suggest keeping the materials as simple as possible. Example: If you want to learn about oil painting, start off with one color plus black and white. Use maybe three brushes, and do a simple, monochromatic value painting. Set up your "problems" as simply as possible to keep the focus on the work, not the methods. Learn how one tool, how one brush works, before you complicate matters.
Value is everything in representational drawing. Tools don’t matter. It’s the marks you make with the tools, not how you make the marks.
Honest observation is what creates interesting art. Keep an eye out for more complex symbols in your work. Look through your drawings at all the noses, eyes or ears. We are more inclined to simplify and symbolize the most complex objects. Are all of your fingers looking alike? Try to draw an object as if you’ve never seen it before. See it all over again every time. Try drawing the same object ten times without repeating yourself.
Drawing vs. Painting
As a last comment, I would stress how important drawing is. Painting is an extension of drawing. If you don’t draw well, you will not paint well. Master drawing and you can do anything you want with it. It is the most fundamental skill in all the visual arts and is an asset to every visual artist. You won't regret it.