Instructor Roz Stendahl on Where Art Sketches Can Start
Sometimes as artists we reach so hard for the profound we miss the obvious—that our time would be better spent in direct observation and practice. John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic and author of the first mega-hit art instruction book “The Elements of Drawing,” understood this. He told his students: “Go out into your garden, or into the road, and pick up the first round or oval stone you can find, not very white, nor very dark…”
I find that donuts make a great modern substitute. They are readily available and are three-dimensional. As a still life subject they give us an opportunity to hone our art sketches and they never walk away! Donuts are also portable, stackable, and suitable for all the drawing techniques and games I like to present to my students. And they are cheery too!
In my full-day watercolor and mixed media workshop at SketchKon 2018 we will be looking at donuts from every angle to improve our eye, hand, and brain coordination. Here are seven useful exercises and approaches you can add to your daily sketching practice right now. If you decide to register for SketchKon, I’ll look forward to seeing you with sketchbook in hand!
#1 No Photos for Now
Train your eye to work from the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional by drawing from live, moving subjects or real still life subjects whenever possible. As in, make art sketches of an actual donut on an actual plate.
This allows you to translate the three-dimensional onto the flat art surface without the intermediary of a photo. Also, because you are working from a three-dimensional subject you can engage your artistry and play with composition by moving your viewing angle, arranging your negatives space, and adjusting your lighting.
For now, put the photos away.
#2 Practice finding your focal point
By creating a few quick thumbnail sketches you can discover what caught your attention about a scene or subject in the first place. Was it the angle? The negative space? The Notan (balance and interplay of light and dark)? The story told by the relationship between several subjects?
Set up a simple still life with three or five objects (odd numbers offer more possibilities for pleasing asymmetric arrangements and surprises). Include objects of different heights and widths. Avoid flat objects. Set up a light to shine at an angle across your subjects and create interesting form and cast shadows.
Walk around your arrangement and create a series of quick (30 seconds to 2 minute) sketches from several views. Capture the impression of your subject not the detail. Squint if that helps you to not see the details.
Do at least four thumbnails before rearranging your still life. Do another series of four.
Just when you think you can’t do any more thumbnails of these items do another set of four.
Often your answer will be found in the final group of sketches because you pushed past the obvious. Art is what’s beyond the obvious…or sometimes the obvious seen in new ways.
#3 Take a break
When you’re out sketching live subjects on the move give yourself a break. Get down on paper what you can by working quickly, but then take notes if your subject walks away.
It’s the same with donuts. If you draw a blank while trying to devise a visual vocabulary for light bouncing off sugar glaze make notes. Tell yourself what you’re seeing. This focuses your brain to keep working on the puzzle.
#4 Everything has a gesture—even donuts
It’s important to spend time really observing your subject — even if it is stationary. And practice will make gesture sketches of live subjects possible. Not only do you warm up your drawing mechanism (the eye-hand-brain connection) with gesture drawings but you are discovering more information for your future efforts!
#5 Accept the messy
Work with an attitude of discovery. Be accepting of messy pages. It doesn’t matter if you have a moving subject or a still life subject, getting information down on the page and accepting that messy, creative process as necessary and good is a way to send your internal critic packing while you get your creative work done.
Accepting the mess of trying out options on the spot will allow you to discover new approaches and eventually your own favorite compositional arrangements.
#6 Look at values
More than anything else, values will give your subject dimension. Experiment with mark making that supports the values you see, either with linework or with wash.
#7 Perfect Shmerfect
Free your mind from practice staleness by changing up your media and approach. Often artists practice the same approach over and over without variation. They might focus on the idea of the “perfect sketch” to the exclusion of all else. Instead of improving they might see their goals slipping further away.
Let go of perfect. Let go of “rules” like “you must draw only in ink.” Instead pick up an orange colored pencil or marker. Quickly sketch your subject. Use light pressure for your initial lines. Don’t worry about accuracy—get marks onto the paper. Allow yourself to feel around the paper with the orange pencil or marker.
Relax knowing that you can revisit the lines when you return with the ink. You might begin with a gesture sketch and work your way up to something a bit more refined.
Next take a bold black ink pen and redraw the subject clearly or take the sketch to full color with paint. Use the early colored pencil lines as an aid helping you decide where to put your ink lines or paint.
Take time to consider contour and accuracy when laying in the ink or color. You are training your eye to see how the various angles and shapes relate to each other. You are giving yourself practice in accuracy and a “second” shot at approximating.
Remember that just when you think you’ve seen a subject completely you can always look a little deeper. Practicing a variety of exercises with donuts (or rocks if you want to go the way Ruskin recommended) prepares us for eventually working with live moving subjects. What’s more, all the drawing approaches you practice with donuts are transferable to any live subjects that catch your interest.
Remember to also keep the fun factor alive in your practice. See for yourself how fun it is to adapt by doing new and different things often. It helps you build momentum and enables you to speed up your response time when you eventually take on those live subjects…though bringing it back to a donut sketch now and again never hurts.
Join me November 1, 2018 in Pasadena at SketchKon as I lead students through a one-day watercolor and mixed media workshop that focuses on how studying the donut can bust open the creativity of your drawing practice and push your art to the next level. See my blog post about the workshop (with a supply list) and register for SketchKon now and see the schedule showing all the great presentations and events taking place at SketchKon.
Also, on the final day, after the presentations have wrapped up you can join me and other SketchKon artists on a sketch out at the L.A. Zoo. We’ll tell you more details at the event! Going out into the field is how we put all our practice to use!