Working on a Visual Vocabulary

February 14, 2014


Above: Squirrel sketch made with a fine-point, dye-based Pentel Colorbrush on inexpensive primary school paper. Washi tape used to add additional paper (Piecemeal Style) when sketch went off the edge.

I talk to my students all the time about a "visual vocabulary." I'm not advocating the use of symbols, or lapses in observation. I'm encouraging students to discover ways to apply media to different papers (or surfaces) to create marks that stand in for what they are observing. This is essential when you are transforming the 3-dimensional subject into a 2-dimensional rendering.

Some pastel artists create a series of straight hatching marks that blend visually when the eye takes in the whole. This approach allows them to capture anything that they want. Watercolorists work at blending paints to create realistic gradations and color that lend a sense of three dimensions to something. Anyone working in color may elect to employ alternate, non-realistic color schemes to reach a variety of emotional effects.

When you work in black ink regardless of whether you're using a brush or a nib, you have to "come up with” strokes that convey the realm of gradation black and white don't contain. This can be accomplished by various hatching techniques—typically by placing lines of black next to each other thus creating something that is not white, but by virtue of the amount of white paper still showing through is also not black, but is a middle value.

There's more to think about—the nature of your strokes, their individual quality. I've seen masters with brushes drop great globs of black ink on a drawing and when they are finished they have you believing that a world of nuance and fine detail exists in that dark blob. (I have in mind Rembrandt’s etchings and many great Japanese masters.)

If you already sketch with a particular style most of these issues may have been resolved by you. But if you are just starting out you need to work out how to handle what the world throws up at you. Also if you are not a slave to style or work in many media and are continuously observing, you will meet new issues.

How you ultimately render something is a little bit about the techniques you learned or observed (through your analysis of great works), your own eye, your own analysis, and your own conviction.

There isn't one way to do something. There are a million ways to do something. I think of these ways as a vocabulary used in the dialog between you and your subject and the paper, and then between your drawing and the audience.

To say there is a vocabulary is not to suggest that there are only set ways to create certain effects so that you can stop observing. 

In fact I believe that by encouraging people to create a vocabulary of strokes and approaches I'm actually insisting that you look harder, that you see more clearly, and that you know your medium intimately so that you can turn it to your chore.

Vocabulary exists. How you string it together in a sentence will determine how effective you are in communication.

A visual vocabulary doesn't just spring up in your mind. You have to expose yourself to art you admire. You have to involve yourself in a dialog with that artist's work to understand what he or she was up to and why and how they made the decisions they made. You have to filter all that through your own mind and hand until you develop your own "speech patterns" using the vocabulary you've been gathering.

So I don't believe you can sit down and do 30 blocks of different types of hatch marks and then go out and sketch something convincingly using one or all of those approaches. 

I believe that such practice gives you exactly one thing: eye and hand control, with, if you're careful, value control.

With that type of control you can then go out and try to apply those various methods to real-world subjects. And in that moment your own eye and understanding steps in and you search for ways to use those approaches to communicate what you see.

If you don't do the practice you don't have the control.

If you don't move beyond the practice exercises to view the world you don't have to decide on the fly what you're seeing—you never make a statement.

I think the process of developing a unique, personal visual vocabulary is one of the most exciting things about art. You are constantly learning, experimenting, testing, trying. Just as sometimes you make a verbal statement that falls flat, so sometimes a visual one might. And then you can look at it and approach again from a different angle. Select a different vocabulary and try again.

This might seem daunting to new artists who don't know where to begin. That's why I wrote that it's important to learn skills, to get control. The more of that you have, the more fun the testing and experimenting will be. And the more quickly unique responses to a given situation will appear to you.

Today's image is an example of me working on my vocabulary building, with the brush pen—in this case a fine-point, dye-based (fugitive) Pentel Colorbrush—which is a dream to move across this cheap primary school paper. (And you can see from the tape showing through under the pink top tab, that it's also a thin paper through which the black ink is going to show. But that doesn't diminish the fun factor of using that pen on this paper.)

For me the starkness of black and white is appealing and convenient (you don’t have to carry a lot of materials around with you). However, you do have to tap dance around the substantiality of the universe surrounding you when you only have an on and an off stroke.

Transparency then is something that interests me—especially the transparency as well as the merle coat of a squirrel.

Squirrels are frustrating subjects for me to sketch. Here, close to the pizza-filled garbage cans of the University students, we call squirrels “rats.” They are everywhere, but not charming in the way that pigeons can be to me. (It’s all personal preference.) They move quickly. They can be quite a blur.

Relying on sketches made from taxidermy at local park reserves and historical societies, I thought I’d have another go at the issue of transparency. I picked up an Aquash pen (with light black ink) by mistake, and you can see its strokes in the eye and near ear where I started the sketch. But I quickly switched and picked up the black ink brush pen and began to think in terms of on and off, dark and light, and beyond white, which is transparency, but in this drawing has to be rendered as white because if I add more strokes, even light ones, it will become muddied. So I’ve asked myself to see clearly, and then I’ve allowed myself to step off and say, no, I have to stretch the use of the paper in this way (here the white areas around the outside of the tail).

This sketch isn’t totally successful, but it is the best squirrel sketch I’ve ever made—and the most thoughtful. I refused to lose myself in tired random strokes but required myself to wait until shape was somewhat in place. I listened to what was most important to myself (in other words I was focusing).

I know that I will continue looking for ways to say what it is I want to say about a squirrel’s tail my entire sketching life. Tomorrow I might come up with a totally different tack.

That’s exciting to me because it tells me that I’m going to increase my vocabulary. It tells me I’m still engaged. It confirms for me that there are still things I can learn from a squirrel’s tail.

All this extra work ahead of me is an invitation, not a homework assignment.

When things don’t go well I can learn from them and decide where to go next, even if I only have a vague idea that I simply want to go away from the general direction of my last solution.

You understand something by working out how to draw it.

When things do go well there’s a happy feeling, like that of writing a clear sentence, and of knowing what I’ve done before has been made useful in this moment.

There is also the sense that I’m building a visual vocabulary useful not just for squirrels, but at the ready when some unimagined subject pops into view and presents a new visual puzzle for me to work out.

    • Miss T
    • February 14, 2014

    Roz, I thought I was the only one who liked that silly school paper!!

    • Miss T
    • February 14, 2014

    Roz, I have some with both red and blue. I’ll sneak you some next time I see you!

  1. Reply

    Wherever did you find it? Office Depot in HarMar is where I always found my composition books containing it and now they only have the blue lines. Sigh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest