Changing It Up: When Your Drawings Aren’t Working

August 29, 2011

See the post for complete details.

110723Dozer Left: A tentative colored pencil sketch of a very handsome German Shepherd Dog, Dozer, on Stonehenge paper. No dog could have sat more still for me!

Before I leave the topic of Paws on Grand which happened at the beginning of August, I wanted to share a couple more "stages" in the development of why I drew with the tools I used on the day. I think seeing the entire evolution might help you make your own drawing tool decisions.

I had intended to work with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen or the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen. (There are lots of examples up on the blog before August 7.)

But I knew I was going to be working on a  5 x 7 inch piece of Stonehenge and I would have very limited time for each portrait (aim for 6 to 8 minutes, pray it doesn't take 10). One day I got frustrated (and a little spooked) because all my practice sketches were turning out with "surprised" dogs, eyes wide open and startled.

I called my friend Ken Avidor who reminded me that dogs aren't birds ("you don't see the whole round eyeball") and, "when you get in a drawing rut look at the drawings of someone else you admire and see how he handles it."

110723EDogDetail Left: A colored pencil sketch of a dog from a photo I popped up on my computer screen. Black Grape and Black Cherry are the colors I think. Or that red might be Tuscan Red. I had the sense I wanted to use two colors, quickly, and tied it out first with a photo. But right away I knew I was doing too much detail and this wouldn't be possible in 6 to 8 minutes with a squirming dog. I was working on a drawing paper with a laid texture which I just love: see the texture coming through in the nose.

Ken isn't suggesting that you copy another artist. He means that in looking at the lines and shading and such another artist uses you can see another approach, get more verbs for your own visual vocabularly (that's my explanation). It also helps you really look at something again with fresh eyes. You see that Sargent didn't need to give detail in this shadow, but still described the features of his sitter, or you find that Turner had a trick for making mackerel scales glint in the light. Your mind and hand start to ask your brain "how can I do that?" And the next thing you know you're off with a new awareness that shows in your drawings.

My new awareness came by looking at the sketches of Charles Tunnicliffe, but since I was looking at a facsimile of his bird sketchbook I decided that I needed to look at animals. (Time is never wasted when looking at Tunnicliffe, however.)

110731ADog Left: Working small on a 7 x 7 inch piece of Stonehenge I pushed myself to get some sort of shape and density of values in only a few minutes.

I turned drawings of Victor Ambrus ("Drawing Animals"). He has a lovely loose style that is much more impressionistic (less chained to details) than my own approach. He uses charcoal and smooths his shaded areas into a fine blur. I don't work in charcoal, or anything smudgier than colored pencil (too much dust). And I wasn't going to be able to work large. I did several practice sketches from imagination, something that I don't normally do. I also made appointments with dog friends to sketch from life (like Dozer at the top of this post).

I was getting out of my rut. The dogs no longer looked startled. But I still didn't think I had a time efficient approach.

To be continued in another post…

  1. Reply

    Great reminder, Roz, why we should study those artists who have come before. The ones we love and even the ones we don’t love. There is always something to be learned and applied to our own work.

    I find that, when I’m in a rut, I get out the charcoal and newsprint and just goof around, looking for different edges, shapes, and strokes. This helps my mind slip past whatever mental blockage is in my head. Or sometimes I just splash watercolor around, without trying to make something “finished.” That helps too.

  2. Reply

    Maggiebird, burning through newsprint with charcoal is a great way for people to loosen up. I don’t use charcoal because of the dust, but I too like to splash watercolor around! Great suggestions.

    • Mary Ann Sell
    • August 29, 2011

    Roz, off topic, but do you worry about using paints that warn of cancer causing chemicals as per California?

  3. Reply

    Mary Ann
    I think
    might best explain how I feel about this.

    I don’t work with dry pigments because I don’t want to inhale them. That’s important for me.

    But since I don’t suck on my brushes or lick paint off my hands, ingestion isn’t an issue. And if I’m going to get really messy I wear plastic gloves so I don’t get any paints on my hands.

    So bascially no.

    If you do any of the things I say I don’t, then I would be very worried indeed. So stop it!

  4. Reply

    I was wondering what medium you ended up using. And why you didn’t use the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen if you didn’t.
    Also wondering how the owners kept the dog faces where you wanted them. I think this is a wonderful idea and would like to help our local shelter when I get brave enough to try it. One of my fam members suggested taking photo and sketch from that but I’d rather do it from life. Thank you so much for your blog. I look at it as soon as I get home from work even before email. You have encouraged me to actually start filling sketchbooks… and I’m hoping to go to the NY State fair to sketch because of your inspiration.
    Thank you.

    • Suzanne
    • August 30, 2011

    Roz, it doesn’t much matter to me if your sketches are “correct” or not….what I find with your dog drawings is that you always seem to capture the soul and spirit of the animal, and that’s what’s important.

  5. Reply

    Sandra, if you go to the first link in this post you will see some finished drawings and what I used. There are two more posts in this series on how I got there.

    Glad you’re filling sketchbooks! And I hope you go to the NY Fair!! Let me know.

  6. Reply

    Suzanne, you’re kind, but it does matter a lot to the folks getting the free doggie portraits!

  7. Reply

    Sandra, you also asked why I didn’t go with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen— I wrote a bit about that in one of the earlier posts in this series I think, but frankly the Fair is erasing my remaining brain cells.

    Short answer: I found as we got closer to the date that the sketches with the PPBP were too stylized and I didn’t think people would be happy enough with them. And since I had decided not to add watercolor they would have been very stark (didn’t want to use watercolor because I was worried about drying times).

    • Mary Ann Sell
    • August 30, 2011

    Roz, thanks for the quick response re cad paints and cancer. You are a sweetie, and I will take your advice and stop chewing on my paint brushes right away! : ))

  8. Reply

    Interesting post. Yes, I look at how other people work. Do I copy? I don’t think I ever have or that it’s possible. I can try a technique but it always works differently for me. I really liked how you said “You see that Sargent didn’t need to give detail in this shadow, but still described the features of his sitter, or you find that Turner had a trick for making mackerel scales glint in the light. Your mind and hand start to ask your brain “how can I do that?” And the next thing you know you’re off with a new awareness that shows in your drawings” as that is more what happens.

    I also learned that you feel 7″x7″ is small for drawing. I draw that small or even smaller which may be why I have trouble with details. See, there we go with learning from seeing someone elses work! Drawing large is scary but I think I need to try it more often. I always wondered how others got such detail with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen while I couldn’t!

  9. Reply

    Timaree, glad the bit about Sargent et. al. struck a cord.

    As for 7 x 7 feeling small for a drawing—it depends on the implement I’m using. I like to work with detail (for the most part) and making a large brush do detail, even when it has a great point, can be a problem. I’ll routinely use the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen in a journal that is 7 x 7 or smaller.

    If you go to this link
    You’ll see images from a journal that is 7x 7.5 inches (except the first image of Gert, which was in the journal I was just finishing.

    If you click on that second image in the gallery there will be an explanation about the book and the situation.

    If you click through those images you’ll get a feel for how I use the PPBP in a 7 x 7.5 inch space.

    Running right to the edge of the paper and “cropping” the image wasn’t something that was going to be possible on the day of Paws on Grand, as those with dogs would expect to be able to have a piece they could frame if desired, without covering any of it with the edge of a mat.

    If you look at the third image in the gallery you’ll see me using a Staedtler pigment liner to get detail.

    That might give you a better idea of how I work in the same space but with different tools, to get different detail effects.

    If, when you work with a fine-pointed tool of some sort, and are drawing small, and you have trouble with detail you might consider the paper you are working on. For the best chance of the most detail in a small space I would recommend that you draw with a fine pointed tool on the smoothest paper you can find (a .1 SPL on plate bristol would be a good starting point).

    What drawing larger, and drawing with a larger tool does for me, is it moves me out of the fussiness of detail (as seen in the third gallery image on the page I sent you to) and allows me to get the gesture of the thing I’m trying to capture. That’s a whole other kind of fun.

    If you look at the 7th image in the gallery page you’ll find some pickle drawings. Those were done with the PPBP but I only included a bit of detail using the pen, and added the rest of the detail with the watercolor. You think ahead as you draw with the brush pen, and in this case I did a lot of dancing on the tip of the brush pen. As you draw you think ahead to what you are going to add with the watercolor. Then you leave those details for later.

    In the 8th image of the gallery, still the same book so the same page constraints and physical size to work in, I used colored pencil, spending time to lay in the shading I wanted around the bones that interested me.

    That’s a labor intensive, but satisfying way to get detail, with a fine point tool (here a colored pencil) over a surface of any size.

    As for getting detail with the PPBP, a lot of that is practice. Knowing when to get up on the tip, when to lay down some pressure and a thick line. The more you play with it the more you get a feeling for it. Working on a larger sheet of paper (or journal page) something 9 x 12 inches for example, will free you from any sense of “claustrophobia” and give you space to get in some details. It will also have the benefit of helping you edit out a lot of details—that’s at least what I see is the fun of the PPBP.

    Have a great adventure with all this.

  10. Reply

    Mary Ann, whew, I’m relieved. Finally someone is taking my advice! You made my day. Happy painting with heavy metals!

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