Preparing Like the Masters

Great paintings don’t happen by accident—they’re planned. And for hundreds of years, artists have been working out their designs through preliminary sketches done in pencil, charcoal or other drawing media. For example, Renaissance master Palma Il Giovane created this sketch for Presentation in the Temple in ink to arrange his major elements, weave gesture into his individual shapes and choose the perfect details for bringing depth to key areas—all before touching brush to canvas. By taking a look at his preliminary sketching methods, you can learn to enhance your own compositions.

Making a Map
Good design—a pleasing arrangement of shapes—is essential to every work of art. And mapping out shapes is one of the main purposes behind a preliminary sketch. Palma started his sketch by arranging the figures into three clusters across the paper. Not only do the groupings draw our attention to the central image, the focal point, but the variety in heights and numbers adds a sense of movement. He also gave the shadowed architectural form in the background an important role. Its straight edges and primarily horizontal thrust provide a healthy balance to the vertical, organic shapes of the figures. Palma’s design demonstrates how shapes can be used to create a foundation for an entire work. The stronger your foundation is, the stronger your piece will be. So start by dividing your surface into a few powerful, basic shapes—perhaps six or seven large shapes, some geometric and some organic—that add up to an in-teresting design. Then divide a few of your large shapes into smaller shapes so you have a variety of sizes. At this point, you only want to create an interesting, balanced design of abstract shapes so you don’t get caught up in the subject or details too soon.

The great thing about a preliminary sketch is that you don’t have to be totally accurate on the first try. In fact, you can test other options and make adjustments right over your original lines. For example, look at the seated figure on the far left. Initially, Palma drew this figure as shorter and leaning in toward the center, but then he decided that it would be a stronger counterweight if it were taller and more vertical. This is a perfect example of the design decisions you can make when doing preliminary sketches.

Expressing Through Gesture
Once you’ve worked out the general placement of your shapes, you can refine them with gestural lines. When captured effectively, gesture provides a sense of movement by suggesting where an object has been and where it’s going. To get this on paper, notice the way your eye moves as you look at the subject. Then pick up your pencil and, without looking at your paper, let your hand follow the direction of your eye as you draw. Notice how Palma used gesture to bring his figures to life. For example, the priest’s body forms an “S” while the Virgin Mary’s body describes a backward “S.” Taken together, they create a frame for the baby Jesus. Through small adjustments in direction, Palma integrated each figure into the action.

Look also at his smaller elements of gestural body language such as the pointing finger, the craning neck and the one head twisting away. The adult and child figures on the far right, with their uplifted arms, are wonderful examples of using gesture to direct our attention, once again, to the focal point. But note that these gestures aren’t clearly defined, only suggested with vague shapes.

As you become more attuned to the nuances of gesture, you’ll discover that even inanimate objects, such as trees in a landscape, possess a sense of direction and movement. To re-create this kind of gesture in your work, look for the thrust that moves your eye across a scene and transfer this movement to your paper.

Entering the Final Stages With the shapes arranged and refined, it’s time to turn your attention to other principles that will polish your final painting, especially in terms of showing off your center of interest. One of the ways you can do this in your sketch is to vary your line weights. Whether you’re drawing with a pencil, charcoal stick or quill pen filled with ink, as Palma probably did, you can strengthen the lines in and around your key areas to draw attention to them.

You might want to experiment with your drawing tool to get a feel for adjusting line weights by using a light, quick hand or a slow, heavy hand. Of course, you probably won’t outline the objects in your final painting, but you can still use these line techniques to determine which areas to emphasize when you get there.

Likewise, you can use your sketch to decide where your light source will come from, and how you’ll use shading and cast shadows to bring volume and depth to your piece. You should also plan to put your most extreme value contrasts in the center of interest, while leaving the less important areas fairly even in value. In Palma’s sketch, for example, he used a wider range of values in the central figures and background than he did along the edges. Again, you can learn to indicate values with any drawing medium, even with ink washes.

And although it’s not necessary to put details into a preliminary sketch, you may want to use this opportunity to decide where you’ll add them in your final creation. As you can see from Palma’s sketch, detailed areas have a tendency to make your eyes pause as they flow over a scene, so strategically place details wherever you want to focus your viewer’s attention. Even a few dots of line and value, such as those found in Mary’s face, are sufficient for testing the best places for detail.

Playing On Potential As you study Palma’s approach, notice how it follows the best steps for creating a painting: blocking in the arrangement of major shapes, refining the individual shapes, mapping out values and finishing with texture and details. By consistently working through these issues in an orderly fashion when drawing your preliminary sketches, you’ll ensure a solid structural foundation for every finished piece you do.

Hot Springs, Arkansas-based Carole Katchen is a Master Pastelist member of the Pastel Society of America. She’s written numerous books, including 200 Great Painting Ideas for Artists (North Light Books).

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