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?

 

 

 

Pencil/Art Experiments

Back before blogs and such artists could decide to learn something brand new and experiment to their hearts content without anyone knowing they were doing it.  When one has a blog, however, there’s still a desire on the part of the blogger, as well as his two followers, to continue to post “results.”  This is balanced by another desire, a desire to not embarrass oneself (grin).

I’ve mentioned that I was doing lots of experiments with pencil and, as a pen driver, how disappointed I’ve been with the results.  But I’ve now had three emails asking why I wasn’t posting those experiments.  I’ll try to explain.

They are experiments.  When Edison did his proverbial 2000 attempts to develop the light bulb he didn’t report failures or even partial successes.  The modern way of looking at art these days is that we say “It’s all about the process,” but most people still believe that it’s about the product and the internet underscores that belief.

So, at the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ve scraped together a few of those experiments.  I confess that most of these things get thrown in the garbage and are done on photocopy paper.  I don’t digitize them, don’t display them, and, frankly, I don’t think much about them as most of the thinking is done while I’m doing them.  I’m learning, or trying to, how to use pointy devices that aren’t fountain pens.

Here’s the tool kit I’ve been using.  I added the large charcoal holder because I have it on my desk and sometimes do really quick sketches of something or other that’s part of a YouTube video I’m watching.  From left to right is 1) Blackwing pencil, 2) General charcoal pencil, 3) Prismacolor black, 4)&5) Abrecht-Durer watercolor pencils, 6) Derwent water-soluble pencil, 7) Monol Zero eraser, 8-11) Mars-Lumograph 3H HB 4B and 8B pencils, 9) Ticonderoga #2 soft pencil.

All the capped pencils have very long points, sharpened with a knife.  I carry small pieces of sandpaper to sharpen them.  Oh…the charcoal holder is an old Cretacolor holder that I love.  I tried to find a source to get another one but I could only find a metal one from Cretacolor.  I love the wood handle of the one I have.

Ok….as I said, I throw most of my experiments away but here’s what was laying on my desk from yesterday.

The tree sketch has nothing to do with the sketches to the left or right, the car was just an imaginary car because I picked up an Indigo pencil and wanted to see how it worked.  You might begin to see why I throw these experiments away.  Yes, I could do them on separate pages in a sketchbook but, once again, these are experiments, not products.

I was watching an artist interview and they were showing some of the artist’s work.  One was a portrait of a woman.  I picked up that big Cretacolor charcoal holder and started quickly sketching her.  I had about 2 minutes and, as you can see, I ran out of time.  Still, these quick attempts are invaluable in better training my visual cortex.

Ok…I looked in my sketchbooks, and I found these few sketches.  In a toned book I found this one.  All I can recall is that someone was doing a life-drawing portrait and I drew this one.  I worked quickly and spent no more than 15 minutes on it.  It shows 🙂

I had my Bargue book out and decided to quickly (emphasis here) draw the Bargue planar eye page.  My experiment was to see if I could “see” all the angles quickly (no measurement or analysis).  My performance was, at best, ok.

This gave me the idea to draw some real eyes and so I turned to the internet again, simply pausing videos when I got a close up image I could draw.  These two were the results of that experiment.

I do apologize for not posting more regularly but, as you can see, there isn’t much in finished products coming from my pencil drawing.  Maybe I need to get a pen out (grin).

 

 

Sketching With Graphite

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing with graphite.  Mostly this has been done in a 4×6 book I carry everywhere.  I have come to a couple conclusions:

1) I think I prefer using graphite IF I approach a sketch as a watercolor, not a line drawing.

2) I don’t have enough patience to use graphite as an end product drawing tool.

Let me explain these one at a time.  I started running down this road because Shari Blaukopf showed me what is possible if you allow watercolor and not ink pen lines to define the edges of a drawing.  Clearly she is right.  She’s Shari Blaukopf after all (grin).  Thus, I won’t throw my pens away and I’ll use them to do line drawings, but if I’m going to do color, I’ll switch to pencil so I can take advantage of the power of watercolor/gouache.

Ok…number two.  I’ve done a few drawings where I’ve used pencil work to tonally create objects.  To do it right, it just takes too darn long for sketching.  Throw on top of that the fact that the graphite gets smeared either during sketch creation or while it sits inside your sketchbook.  I don’t like it, not at all.

So, what are the alternatives?  Well, there’s not much that can be done about the second problem as long as you want to stuff your sketchbooks in a pocket or backpack but it is possible to simply be faster in the sketch creation.  This means speeding up the toning process and accepting the compromises it entails.  Everyone has their own thresholds for when these compromises are unacceptable.

Here’s one such compromised drawing where I’ve added tones more quickly in a scribble fashion.  This produces a sketch more quickly but I’m not happy with the messy results.  And yes, I know that with practice I can get better at this but, why bother when watercolor over pencil layout brings so much more to my sketching.

I can always wield the pencil the way I do my fountain pens.  In my opinion, however, the results are not as nice as if I’d done them with a fountain pen.  Not bad, not good.  But if I’m going to do a line drawing, I will pick up a fountain pen.

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.