What Is Drawing, Anyway?

I remember, it must have been a decade ago, and I was taking part in a Cathy Johnson workshop/tutorial on pen and wash art.  It may have been the one she did for Strathmore.  Anyway, one person asked, “does this require drawing?”  I thought this was the stupidest question ever because Cathy made it clear that we were going to draw THINGS from life or photos.

Since then I’ve given little thought to that question because I have run in urban sketching circles where everyone understands that the base skill of everything urban sketching is drawing.  But now that I’m wandering in the world of oil painting, things are different.  All the instructors have to emphasize that to paint well you have to draw well and if you don’t, you won’t.

And so I ask you, what is drawing if one assumes you can paint without doing it?  I bet, as a person who draws themself, you have an answer.  I thought I did but here’s what The Primacy of Drawing, a 500+ page book on drawing has to say about it:

“It should be reasonable to expect that a book devoted to the exploration of drawing should begin with an authoritative definition of its subject.  However, my examination of many, many definitions of drawing, both contemporary and historical, has proved to me the futility of attempting such a task.  Any formula would have to encompass the indefinable status and contradictory aspects of drawing, and therefore would immediately dissolve into a web of disclaimers.”

So that’s why people don’t understand what drawing is (grin).  One of the big problems of defining drawing is that definitions should not only define the thing being defined is, but also what it is not.  We have a similar problem in modern definitions of art, which exclude nothing from being considered art, including cans of excrement contributed by the artist.

And so we’re left with “drawing” being an amorphous activity where people believe they can paint scenes or objects without drawing, all the while using a brush to define the outlines of said things.  Very confusing.

Oil Painting of biscuits

Pen and wash sketch of biscuits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so I come to the earth-shaking question.  When I draw an onion with a brush, using oil paints, is it a painting, or is it a sketch of an onion in the same way it would be if I drew it with my fountain pen?  Why is this relevant?  It isn’t really.  Only something to ponder.  But I was adding tags to my latest oil painting/sketch/drawing and I came to the choice of “Sketch” and I wondered, is it a sketch or not simply based upon the medium I used.  Yes, yes, it can be anything I want it to be.  But which is it really?

 

 

 

Oil Painting Will Get Me Through The Long Winter

Snow has arrived here in Quebec and it’s turning cold.  The first storm is always a mess because it comes mixed with temps at or just below the freezing mark and so everything turns into an ice rink.  We’re in ice rink mode right now.

This marks the switch from long walks along my river to looking out the window and wishing I weren’t such a wuss when it comes to cold.  The Arizona boy runs deep within my bones it seems and I just can’t have fun when I’m cold.

Pre-pandemic, this was the time of year I switched from sketching outdoors to sketching in museums and coffee shops.  Post-pandemic (that seems overly optimistic) I’m reluctant to do any of that.  My museum memberships have all expired and sitting in coffee shops just doesn’t appeal to me as an old, immuno-suppressed human.  And so I look out the window.

My recent interest in learning to paint and how to create art that is less reliant on line drawing looks like a fine way to get through winter.  I’m having a fun time using small still life painting as a means to learn how to manipulate oil paint.   I’ve made a tall stack of 6×8 gesso’ed panels and they’re just dandy for a winter of fun.  All I need are veggies, cups, and stuff to paint.  Here’s one where I got the bright idea to paint something glass.  I learned a lot but, it seems, I have a lot more to learn (grin)  In the end, however, I was very happy with my onion.  How could life get any better than to be pleased by an onion?

Trying Thicker Paint Applications

If you listen closely, good watercolorists will talk about beginners never using enough paint.  Insufficient paint is the cause of the pale images produced by beginning watercolorists.  This is true and I’ve been guilty of this sin.  Why do we do it?  Because we’re timid.  Pale washes are easier to control because they have a lesser impact on our sketch/painting.

A similar phenomenon exists in oil painting, but for different reasons.  If you were a 16th Century painter, it’s likely that you’ll be applying very thin coats of paint, generating very detailed paintings.  You might even be adding many layers of very thin glazes over the base paintwork.

At some point, however, some artists started using more paint.  The impressionists started working with “broken color” and the placement of thick spots of color became the order of the day and the notion of “brushwork” became a more prominent portion of the artist’s “signature.”

Fast-forward to today and we have both of those forms of painting, or maybe its best portrayed it as a continuum of thin and thick ways of applying oil paint.  For someone like me, who is trying to figure out how to use oil paints, I have found this confusing as I watch some artists use large brushes and apply thick layers of paint with a flourish while others use thin layers of paint and, typically, smaller brushes.

So, with this sort of variability, it leaves a “let’s try it” kind of guy like myself with a need to try both approaches to see what approach bests suits the kind of painting I want to do.  This last thing is important as I’m not interested in heavy impasto painting where identifying the subject is obfuscated by the brushwork.  Instead, I am trying different paint thicknesses within a narrow range in an attempt to paint fruit (or flowers).  I’m still a detail-oriented kind of guy, much to the chagrin of the painterly types who tell me to “loosen up” (grin).

Here’s an attempt at using thicker paint.  I find this approach fun but it’s so easy to muddy up the shadows while trying to turn the form.  This is a good example of this problem.  But it is a pumpkin; it’s just a slightly out of focus pumpkin.  I’m having fun with oils and learning a lot.  I feel it will improve my watercolors in the long term.

Oil Painting Of An Autumn Leaf

Maple trees are so wonderful.  They provide syrup in the spring, shade all summer, and then they produce a spectacular color display in the fall.  There is the matter of covering my lawn with a bunch of back-breaking debris but it’s a small price to pay.

I got the bright idea to paint one leaf.  “Keep it simple,” I said, “because, Larry, you do oil painting really slow.”  What I didn’t count on was how fast maple leaves begin to curl, or maybe the one I picked up was just ready to curl.  Anyways, it was a race to see whether I could paint the darn thing before the leaf rolled itself into a ball (grin).  Here are the results and I was happy with it.

 

Another Oily Baby Step

I’m continuing to slip and slide down the oil painting rabbit hole, trying to figure out how to make gesso’d panels, whether using a fabric base is a good idea, and a bunch of other stuff.  I’m spending way too much time on YouTube trying to learn how to thin oil paint, mix oil paint, etc., etc., etc.

But I’ve also been applying paint, mostly to little avail.  Switching from contour drawing to form creation with a heavy, opaque paint requires a shift in mindset that is a struggle, at least for me.

This experiment was to see if I could paint a somewhat complex object, like a squash by defining its shapes without line.  I added the knife and cup without expecting to truly paint them and so once I got the squash painted I left this one unfinished.  Right now I’m learning more from the beginnings of paintings than from spending hours trying to get details “just right” as I did with my peach painting.  So far this is lots of fun and that’s my real goal.