Monday, March 30, 2009

Resources for beginning sketchers

It's spring break in my world, which means I have a few moments to myself. Right now that means answering a question someone posted about drawing books in a forum I occasionally visit. The post was a query for recommendations for books to help one learn to draw, which caught my eye because I'm always on the lookout for good resources. I was gratified to see that several of the ones offered where books I've already got. But I wanted to offer another title, which made me think, why don't I share this info on my blog, too. So, here is the text of my post (with slight revisions to stand alone), for anyone who is interested in learning to draw.

I teach K-12 art and have looked at hundreds of art books. The first book I would recommend is "Start to Draw" by Robert Capitolo and Ken Schwab. The first section covers some basic techniques that can be quite helpful: recognizing shapes and forms as understructure (something my students are currently struggling with), grid drawing, creating depth through shading techniques, proper lighting. The rest of the book gives various step-by-step projects to practice, but also covers such fundamentals as composition, using source material (see below for my thoughts on this topic) and basic proportions of the human face. "Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner", by Claire Watson Garcia, is another one that offers some of the same techniques, but she gives more explanations and goes a little more in-depth in places. She also discusses contour drawing, which has value as a practice exercise, but I think is more important in terms of teaching the eye to really observe what is being drawn. She also explains sighting and spends time teaching values, which are crucial to good art.

Also recommended by other people were Bert Dodson's "Keys to Drawing" and Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". I have both, along with the workbook for the Edwards book. Dodson's book has good information, but I have to confess to not liking his drawing style very much. A couple things I do like are the summaries and checklists at the end of each chapter to help keep the things learned in mind. I also like how he points out what artists from the past have done. Since I incorporate art history into my classes, this is a big bonus for me. "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is a standard for many people, but I find it to be very cerebral (while usually being on the lookout for witticisms, I have to say no pun intended here!). I rather felt like I was reading a psychology book, which must appeal to many people, but wasn't very helpful to me. The work book helped, because it's obviously designed with exercises to make one draw, which put into practice much of what she taught in the regular title.

Another standard is Mona Brooks' "Drawing with Children". This book gives some good step-by-step chapters and I found the breaking objects down into smaller parts advice very helpful. Children especially benefit from this concept, because it can be very overwhelming to look at a complete subject and try to draw it. By taking said subject as smaller, easy to draw bites, students have an easier time not becoming discouraged. Which reminds me that any youngster who likes to draw will enjoy the books by Ed Emberley, where he draws hundreds of people, animals, buildings, vehicles, etc. using a handful of basic shapes.

Someone on the forum suggested going to the library to check out some of the books before buying them and I would second their thought. I have saved myself tons of money by using my local library. Art instruction books (especially painting books) tend to fall into two basic categories: the ones that start from the most basic (pencils, paper, setting up a place to work, etc.) and the ones that take you from blank support to finished art in 3-5 steps. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. There are only so many times you need to read about paper surfaces, and going from beginning to end in three steps can be less than satisfactory. There are books that manage to avoid these two extremes and are extremely helpful--but the best way to discover what's what is to check them out at the library first. If you're not a regular library user, don't forget that most libraries can borrow from all around the country through their inter-library loan programs. Once you find something that is helpful you might try looking it up online and seeing if the author has published anything else or if the book site can recommend another similar book--I've found some great books that way.

Another comment on the forum was that the best way to learn is to do, and really that's the most important step. My seventh grade students focus on drawing and anytime a student has completed an assignment and is in need of something to do I give them another assignment to keep them drawing--practice, practice, practice. We work in the classical style, where we use old master drawings as our source material (copying), just like the art schools of old. I highly recommend this method to master the basics, then move on to being creative. Sometimes the biggest challenge in art is not knowing what to create and this method helps remove that obstacle, as well as helping you see things you might not have seen before: what is the angle on that roofline and how did the artist shade the wall to create the most depth? Copying from a painting or drawing also has the advantage that the artist has done some of the work for you already in terms of translating a dimensional subject to a flat surface and using methods of perspective and shading to create depth. These are techniques that you will want to learn, so copying an old master also gives the opportunity to study what they did to create the effect of the finished piece. Some of my favorite places to find art are Web Gallery of Art for Medieval to Romantic-age paintings and drawings (they also have sculpture, engravings, etc.), Art Renewal Center for 18th-20th century academic and classical art, Artcyclopedia for all ages and links to other places and The Athenaeum for many images not posted elsewhere. Copying has a long, respected history in the art world, but please be mindful of copyright issues.

Even if you are not interested in copying from an old painting, I would still encourage you to use some kind of source material to look at: find an object to draw or a photo to work from (preferably your own to avoid copyright issues). Having something to look at helps with proportions and lends a higher level of realism to the final result. You can also compare and find the places where you drawing goes wrong more easily when you actually have something you are looking at and comparing to. I know that most of my students, if given the assignment to just draw something, typically default to whatever they have always drawn, which doesn't help them improve.

A final reason to use source material is that most artists do, although many people don't realize this fact. There is a stereotype of the artist pulling a subject out of mind and putting it to canvas quickly and perfectly, and yes, this is done sometimes I'm sure (usually after a lifetime of looking at source materials!). However, most artists do quite a bit of research on a subject, including quick sketches, more in-depth studies and possibly several versions of the finished subject. Does every project need this much effort? Of course not, but the point is that artists do research and keep files of research. Even old masters had props and plaster casts to observe and work from. And don't forget the fine tradition of modeling for the artist. Source material is invaluable.

A couple last tips: if you are working on a picture and it just isn't going right for you there are a couple things you might try. One, try converting your source to black and white, which will help you see the values (this tip is especially helpful in painting). Two, turn it upside down and look at it from a new angle. Sometimes wrong proportions or off angles are more obvious upside down because we're not so focused on what the elements are: rather than seeing the town, we see a collection of lines. Look for relationships, line things up using your pencil and then compare it to your drawing. Are the relationships the same? Looking upside down will make these things easier to see.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. I would say best of luck, but it would probably be more fruitful to say, practice, practice, practice!

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