Some years ago, when I was asked to teach a weekly art class, I gladly accepted. I expected a class full of eager, enthusiastic students, ready to tackle the challenges of becoming fine artists. The class was full (17 students), but when they were given a simple drawing exercise, I quickly realized none of them had the slightest understanding of perspective. Desiring to actually teach them something and not just collect their money, I told them to put away their paints, we were going to concentrate on learning how to draw the cone, sphere, cube, and cylinder in perspective. The next week, one student showed up…and that was the end of that.
Having taught many workshops over the years, students are extremely excited about color and paint. They just want to get that paint on the canvas.. It is easy for them to acknowledge that their drawing skills are weak, but it’s a whole other thing entirely to see them diligently buckle down and do the hard and sometimes tedious work necessary to improve that skill.
Fortunately, the emptiness of the “modern art” movement has awakened many to the importance of drawing. After all the hype negating its importance, artists are in fact realizing that drawing is at the very heart of our ability to communicate as artists. I call it the foundation of all painting. Just as a house built on a lousy foundation will not stand, neither will our paintings hold up if the drawing foundation is unstable.
As positive as the current craze for plein air painting can be, I still say, without the foundational knowledge and ability to draw…to accurately represent on a two-dimensional surface the perspective, proportion, and values of the subject before us, well, there is no hope of adding anything of note to the fine arts.
As with the Impressionist and Expressionist Movements, the current Plein Air Movement can also become an excuse for not really confronting serious deficiencies in our drawing ability.
What is this thing we call drawing?
Jack Hines: Drawing is the basic, most pervasive element of all visual art. If an artist can’t draw, he can’t create great art. Drawing is much like handwriting. The direct, unencumbered connection between eye, brain, hand and paper constitutes the purest statement an artist can make. None of the complications of paint, surface texture, brushes, knives, solvents and color get in the way. Personality, knowledge, technique and emotion become obvious in drawing, and if an artist can’t draw, I dare say that he can’t convey personality, knowledge, technique and emotion in the artwork.
Ken Riley: Drawing demonstrates two capabilities, that of analyzing what is seen or thought, and that of recording it, and these two faculties in combination constitute the very foundation upon which art production is based.
Michael John Angel: I define drawing as the creation of (the illusion of) form, as does Harold Speed. The painter draws with color, the sculptor draws with clay or stone, etc. I call simple outline drawing either outline drawing, or the map (when it’s an underpainting).
Drawing, in its widest sense, is used to develop an exciting and personal visual vocabulary, develop mark-making skills, encourage selectivity, create compositions, and encourage closer observation.
John McCartin: Drawing can be defined in several ways: 1) A linear representation of objects. 2) Measurement – triangulating the position of points or edges relative to one another (includes drawing as applied to accuracy in painting). 3) A pictorial representation of objects rendered by graphical means. 4) Graphical methods of rendering surface qualities and textures, e.g. pen & ink, pencil, charcoal, conte, and pastel. Each have distinctly different methods of rendering the same thing. 5) A quick pictorial note akin to handwriting…a kind of shorthand.
David Gray: Drawing, as I define it, is the decisive and appropriate placement of various elements of pictorial expression (line, tone, shapes of value and color, etc.); the collective whole of which make up the picture.
Giorgio Vasari: Drawing is the necessary beginning of everything in art, though this is an important element of their value; they also facilitate the artist’s creative process by describing what is seen, visualizing what is imagined, and symbolizing ideas and concepts. Although widely used as a means for artists to conceptualize their ideas for a painting, drawing serves a variety of other functions as well. Some of these other functions include: Descriptive drawing, ornamentation and illustration. Drawing as social commentary. Drawing as a means to clarify or crystallize an idea. Drawing as a means of self-expression.
Edgar Degas: Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing; it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.
Thomas Reis: Drawing: The term is generally defined as a graphic form of delineation – representation by use of monochromatic lines. Personally, the word helps me to identify the methodical, measured aspect of the painting process from its massed, nebulous, painterly cousin. I like to think of drawing as the underlying/overarching structure of painting – so interwoven as to be inextricable. I’m not sure that good painting can exist without good drawing. I was thinking of how we generally associate the act of drawing with the use of certain tools…pencil, pen and ink, chalk, etc. Sometimes, we may even think of oil paint and brush, but the word “drawing” seems to always evoke an essentially monochromatic end product.
Richard Schmid: Line drawing is only a representation or diagram of our visual world. Painting, on the other hand attempts to create an illusion of that world. Drawing is simply measuring. In painting, drawing comes down to nothing more than figuring out the width and height of color shapes and then fitting them together.
The importance of knowing how to draw
Skip Liepke: The main thing when painting isn’t rendering photographically; it’s learning how to draw – learning about form, about how light hits an object, about how it falls across a head and reveals the planes of the face. That knowledge gives you freedom. A writer who has a good vocabulary is the same way, the writer doesn’t use all the words he or she knows, but they are always at the writer’s disposal
Camille Pissarro: It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you will discover to your surprise that you have rendered something in its true character.
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres: To draw does not simply mean to reproduce contours; the drawing does not simply consist in the idea; the drawing is even the expression, the interior form, the plan, the model. Look what remains after that! The drawing is three-fourths and a half of what constitutes painting. If I had to put a sign over the door of my atelier, I would write: School of Drawing…and I’m certain that I would create painters.
John McCartin: Drawing is important for a number of reasons: 1) Selectivity – knowing what to leave out comes with time and practice. 2) Development of hand/eye control. 3) Working out composition – arranging shapes etc. in different design formats as small thumbnail sketches. 4) Developing tonal precision – learning to see in terms of tone rather than color. 5) As preliminary studies – certainly a good way to highlight potential pitfalls. I’ve often had to backpedal on a painting simply because I was too keen to paint the picture and didn’t take the time to draw. 6) It develops accuracy in painting – drawing errors are probably the most common.
William Bouguereau: Paint as you see and be accurate in your drawing; the whole secret of your art is there.
Leonardo da Vinci: First learn perspective, then the proportions of objects. Perspective is the rein and rudder of painting.
John Ruskin: The art of drawing is of more real importance to the human race than that of writing. It should be taught to every child just as writing is.
David Gray: The importance of drawing lies in the fact that the underlying drawing of any painting gives context to the painterly expression, particularly for the realist (but also other forms of pictorial expression). Without this understanding of the importance and skillful execution of drawing, flashy brushwork, exciting color relationships and other painterly effects lack context and therefore become meaningless.
Michael John Angel: As for the importance of drawing, this depends on one’s aesthetic. The more decorative branches of painting (Art Nouveau, Art Deco, even much of French Impressionism) don’t give much importance to it, but I think that a strong illusion of form on a flat canvas has a truly emotional clout (and emotional clout is the most important aspect of painting, in my opinion).
Nicolas Poussin: Drawing is the skeleton of what you do, and color is the flash.
John Sloan: Drawing is the cornerstone of the graphic, plastic arts. Drawing is the coordination of line, tone, and color symbols into formations that express the artist’s thought.
Arshile Gorky: Drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But one who draws well can always paint.
Betty Goodwin: Drawing is the simplest way of establishing a picture vocabulary because it is an instant, personal declaration of what is important and what is not.
Ken Danby: Without good drawing, the foundation of a painting will collapse.
Alexander Creswell: Drawing is the backbone. It is no good having a lovely sense of light and color if there isn’t the firm foundation underneath.
Sir Kenneth Clark: It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well.
Sergei Bongart: Never become an artist if you can’t learn to draw.
Henry Tonks: It’s by drawing that we make our records of form. Its importance cannot be exaggerated. A school of painting in which drawing is not taught and drawing dissociated from painting is not worthy of the name of ‘school’. When a student begins to paint he will soon perceive the relation of drawing to painting.
Michelangelo: Let whoever may have attained to so much as to have the power of drawing know that he holds a great treasure.
So, how can we learn to draw?
1 – Go to a really good school that is serious about teaching drawing.
2 – Study under a great teacher that can draw.
3 – Get one of many books that teach perspective. Start at page one and don’t move on to page two until you understand everything on page one. Work through the book in this manner and do all the drawings on each page.
4 – Draw anything and everything and draw every day. Work from life and not from photos at this stage.
5 – You only learn to draw by drawing.
6 – Now, get after it.
James Gurney is a guy who really lives and breathes drawing. It won’t take very long, as you read his daily blog, to realize this is true. He’s a big inspiration to me.
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