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 email
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
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 thatís 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. Iím 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,
itís called a personality. If you donít believe me, look at your
handwriting. This is your "style" expressed in line. The reason it
isnít 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. Youíll notice that even though you had
been writing in cursive for two to three years, the strokes arenít as
deliberate or as confident as they are now. They may be more readable, but
that is a different matter all together.
E l e v en S u g
g e s t i o n s
f o r P r a c t i c i n g
Copyright © 1997-2002 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 doesnít 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
isnít worth knowing, and eventually youíll be able to figure it out on
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 arenít any
techniques or methods that wonít work with good draftsmanship.
Good instruction can save you
years of struggling. Donít 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 wonít 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.
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 youíre going
to acquire these skills and get to work on it. Be ambitious but realistic.
Maybe itís 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. Donít go through the motions.
Arrange your environment so it doesnít distract you and WORK. Weíve all
heard that voice that wants to go check the mail, or run errands. Ignore it
and keep working. Soon you wonít hear it any more. You have all achieved
the "flow" state, where you lose track of what youíre 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 canít 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 itís going to be like. Let it be. I canít stress enough how
important this point is to your progress.
Practice what you canít 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 isnít 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.
Sit up and be interested. Every day you are
slowly reinventing yourself into the person/artist youíre going to be in
ten years. Keep this in mind. You have to give yourself over to the subject
and immerse yourself. This doesnít mean your every thought and action has
to be spent on art. It means that when you are working on it, youíre
giving everything you can. If you had an investment that promised to double
your money every year without fail, youíd put in a lot of money. Art
amplifies exponentially the effort you invest. Take advantage of it.
Donít 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 doesnít guarantee that your drawing
will be any good. There is some degree of luck involved, but youíll find
that the more you work the luckier youíll get. Give yourself permission to
make mistakes. This will help you relax which in turn will help your
Donít show off
Wynton Marsalisís father once told him,
"Those who play for applause, thatís all they get.". When
youíre showing off youíre wearing your ego on your sleeve. Egotism is a
very self-conscious state, the one place you canít 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 isnít 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 isnít a selfish thing. When you turn your thoughts
inward, you turn away from all the inspiration around you. Thatís where
the art is.
Think for yourself
This is where a little bit of egotism can be
helpful. I donít 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 donít have to say anything,
but donít 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. Donít 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 didnít 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 doesnít 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
arenít as good as you think. If you are a woman of any age, youíre
usually a little better than you give yourself credit for. This isnít an
exact thing, but psychologically, this seems to be how it works.
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, itís akin to how you feel when youíre
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 canít explain it.
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 doesnít matter whether someoneís
paying you or not. Even if you can force yourself to sit down and work,
maybe you just canít 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
"The Creators" &
"The Discoverers"-both by Daniel Boorstin
"Passion" - the
soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ -by Peter Gabriel
"Genius- The Life and Times
of Richard Feynmann"- by James Gleick
"The Charlie Rose
Program" on public television. (When he interviews creative
Any of my personal Favorite
Artists. (Make your own list, and buy books about them.)
T e c
h n i c a l C o m m e n t s
For improving your powers of focus and
concentration, blind contour, semi-blind, and negative space drawing simply
canít be beat. Also excellent for developing your powers of observation.
You will never outgrow these exercises. Use them when you "canít 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
itís subtlety. When you understand tone, you will really improve your
In order of importance, these are the skills you
need to be good at to be a superb draftsman. #1. Light. #2. Perspective. #3.
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 arenít 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.
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 semesterís tuition at your average art school! The reason
people donít do this is they arenít 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
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 donít matter. Itís 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 youíve never seen it before.
See it all over again every time. Try drawing the same object ten times
without repeating yourself.
As a last comment, I would stress how important
drawing is. Painting is an extension of drawing. If you donít 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 wonít regret it.
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