Friday, January 5, 2007

Krebscout's Survival Tip #2 - How to draw

This post is for myself.

Roommate C (one of the three) once asked me if I would give her drawing lessons. I told her it all boiled down to one simple trick that I'd be happy to discuss with her, but we never followed through. So while I haven't quite expected a real lesson to come to fruition, I've been gathering one in my head for months.

Now, I'm certainly no pro. In my classes, I might put myself in the slightly-above-average category, as far as inherent skill goes. But honestly, some of my classmates must have strengths in other areas, because there isn't always much competition there. Anyway, I would say I've never been "the best" in any class. So take everything here, if you choose to read it, with a grain of salt. The Drawing Gospel according to a very mortal Krebscout:

1) The first step, the one simple trick I wanted to share with roommate C, is this: forget the way the world is supposed to look and see it the way it really is.

I first experienced this, honest-to-goodness, while I was watching Bob Ross. He was painting some mountain landscape, as usual, and he started to paint in the shadows. The color he used was a very vivid sky blue. I was shocked and a little bit angry - shadows are supposed to be black and grey. But the heretical thought of bright blue shadows planted a seed in me for which I felt swelling motions for weeks - I began to pay attention to what I was seeing in nature. Every shadow I encountered in natural light was either purple or blue. Realizing I'd been so wrong about shadows my whole life, I wondered that I might have other misconceptions about the visual world, and thus I began to seek them out and tear them down.

We all know that J.D. Salinger is super amazing. Let's see what he has to say on the subject -

"You know Adam?" Teddy asked him. "Do I know who?" "Adam. In the Bible." Nicholson smiled. "Not personally," he said dryly. Teddy hesitated. "Don't be angry with me," he said, "You asked me a question and I'm - " "I'm not angry with you, for heaven's sake." "Okay," Teddy said. He was sitting back in his chair, but his head was turned toward Nicholson. "You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?" he asked. "You know what was in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff. That was all that was in it. So - this is my point - what you have to do is vomit it up, then you won't have any more trouble with blocks of wood and stuff. You won't see everything stopping off all the time. And you'll know what your arm really is, if you're interested. Do you know what I mean? Do you follow me?" "I follow you," Nicholson said, rather shortly. "The trouble is," Teddy said, " most people don't want to see things the way they are. . . . I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters."

And furthermore,

"What would you do if you could change the educational system?" [Nicholson] asked ambiguously. . . . "Well - I'm not too sure what I'd do," Teddy said. "I know I'm pretty sure I wouldn't start with the things schools usually start with." He folded his arms, and reflected briefly. "I think I'd first just assemble the children together and show them how to meditate. I'd try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that . . . I guess, even before that, I'd get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant's big, I'd make them empty that out. An elephant's only big when it's next to something else - a dog or a lady, for example." Teddy thought another moment. "I wouldn't even tell them an elephant has a trunk. I might show them an elephant, if I had one handy, but I'd let them just walk up to the elephant not knowing anything more about it than the elephant knew about them. The same thing with grass, and other things. I wouldn't even tell them grass is green. Colors are only names. I mean if you tell them the grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way - your way - instead of some other way that may be just as good, and maybe much better . . . I don't know. I'd just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of . . . . I'd want them to begin with all the real ways of looking at things, not just the way all the other apple-eaters look at things."

Hooray for really long quotes. That was from Salinger's Nine Stories, by the way. The last story, called "Teddy".

So only part of that was applicable. I left the rest because I love it so much. But do you see what I mean? You and I know semantically what everything looks like - elephants are big, refrigerators are rectangular, and shadows are black or grey. But as soon as I start to draw an elephant from my knowledge of what an elephant looks like ("It has big ears shaped like Africa, it has eyes that should go on the face, it has a trunk"), people could tell what it represents (because they're apple-eaters too) but no one thinks it really looks like an elephant. If I want to make a realistic drawing, I have to stop seeing eyes and ears and trunks, I have to look at an elephant and see the "lines that aren't really there and relationships of light and dark that are" (Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime). I have to refuse to let my knowledge of the way an elephant should be get in the way of seeing the elephant the way it is.

2) Put the vision to paper. This, I suppose, is what you'd traditionally call drawing. It's really the easiest part.

There are three important factors when you're beginning to put your image down - shape, proportion, and placement. If you draw the wrong shape, it's obvious to see why that would look bad, but what about the others? For example, say you gave your elephant a really good-looking eye, but it was super huge? That wouldn't look very realistic. Or say you drew that same eye (the right size this time), but placed it in the middle of the elephant's cheek? That'd look silly, too. But it doesn't apply just to distinct features; you have to look out for vague things like the breadth of a cheek and the shape of that area between your neck and your clavicles. Every time I try to draw a human figure, it surprises me how little I know about the size and placement of features on the body. There are those semantic tricks you learn in figure drawing class (the human body is eight heads tall, the knees fall at two heads, the hips at four, and the shoulders at seven. the brow and ears are halfway between the crown and the chin, the hairline is halfway between the crown and the brow, the nose is halfway between the brow and the chin, the mouth halfway between the nose and the chin, and so on) that are useful for finding placement when you're having a hard time, but these tricks shouldn't be relied on any more than should the fact that elephants have trunks.

So how do you start? You scribble. You guess with your pencil. You take rough visual measurements and you loosely draw what you see. You'll see as you go that some parts aren't placed right or are the wrong size, and you'll change them. The key to this part is to look at the image as a whole. Once you get choked up on a tiny detail, like the eye, you're lost. You should be seeing not an eye on an elephant in front of some expendable background but an even plane of lines and shapes, all of which are treated equally. Instead of drawing the shape of the elephant, try drawing the shape between its legs, the shape of the shadow behind its ear, the shape of the highlight on its back, and the shape of the medium grey between them.

Once you get all the different parts in the right places and proportional to each other, you can start adding value (from black to white) and contrast (black vs. white). This is where most people get shy. But be honest with yourself - did you really draw that dark spot as dark as it looks in your reference? Are the whitest parts of the image the sides of the eyes and the teeth (the semantically white parts of the face), or are they the reflections of light along the ridge of the nose and on the cheekbone?

Sorry we keep switching between an elephant and a human face.

Anyway, one important thing that my composition teacher taught me is, "Don't be afraid to kill your baby." Once you've worked on a drawing a long time, it becomes your baby, and it's really hard to change it or take criticism. I hate that sinking feeling of dread you get when you're proud of a drawing and you look at it for the first time in a few days and you realize, hey, the left eye is totally askew and it looks really awful. But the worst thing you can do is not change it, even if it was the best eye you've ever done. If you did it once, you can do it again. It'll be painful, but don't be afraid to change your mistakes as soon as you spot them. That's good life advice, too.

Once you've got basic value down, you add details with crisp, dark lines where they're needed, sharper highlights, a sturdy outline where it's called for. Don't overdo it on the outline, especially on organic forms. Nothing in real life actually has an outline (except for a shadow), but sometimes it looks like it. The trick to this is line variety. Outlines and inner lines vary in mood, size, and value. One way to guarantee that you'll have good line variety is to use pencils with different lead qualities. I usually settle for one from each part of the spectrum - a super hard 6H (thin, light lines), a middle-of-the-road HB (like your standard mechanical pencil), and a super soft 6B (it will get a lot of area real dark real fast). This will push your level of drawing up five notches without actually changing anything about the way you draw.

... So that's how to draw.

In other news, sometimes I am not a very good friend.

Why did I write this entry?

How are you doing?

4 reason(s) to click here:

Whistler said...

mad props for this one.

Heather said...

I had such a hard time figuring all that out [after I decided I wanted to be able to draw]. I wish I could have had it explained to me like that!

Scarlet Flamingo said...

You explain things really well.

Thirdmango said...

If you ever need an honest art critci who has his roots in art, you can come to me for critisism. I've grown up around art, and come from an art family. I've done a lot of art and love doing art in all forms.

Another good human one to remember which was my "Bob Roos" realization moment, was when I was trying to do faces and my dad explained to me that you can fit an eye in between both eyes. I kept putting them too close together because in my mind eyes are close together. But you can fit an entire eye in between them. It was crazy and mind blowing.