Studying Other Artists, Or Dealing with a Plateau in Artistic DevelopmentDecember 5, 2018
Recently one of my Drawing Practice students mentioned that she’d been discouraged to see the “before” and “after” artwork someone had posted on Facebook. Some of the artists included showed art from childhood and adulthood. Others posted work that was only a couple of years apart, yet showed great development of representational facility. All were representational artists (though some were digital).
I wrote the following [which I’ve edited slightly for public consumption] to the student Facebook Group for my Drawing Practice students because I thought it raised some interesting issues that all artists need to think about:
One of the chief things I noticed with students at SketchKon was the desire of so many of them to have a style of drawing rather than to learn to draw. And when people focus on style before they have an ability to draw this slows the learning process down.
Throughout my time at SketchKon I had scheduled meetings and informal meetings with students who asked for a review of their work. All of them expressed a variation of the “what’s my style?” question. Yet all of them also had other drawing skills to learn. Each of them, with their comments, expressed the thought that the way through their current situation was to find a style, not work on foundational stuff.
In the limited time I had with them it wasn’t possible to stress that the first order of business is to learn to see accurately and get things down on paper, and that style comes after that is achieved. It’s not just my opinion. Hundreds of years of art and art education have shown this to be the case. Look at J. M. Turner’s early work, Van Gogh’s early work, etc. (Look at Picasso’s early work and cry because that was when he was the best draftsman of the age and created works so exquisite, sigh…)
Anyway, all of those famous artists I just mentioned went from that position of massive amounts of practice and development of a foundation, as a place of strength, to the development of an individualistic approach to their visual response to the world.
I encourage you, when you find yourself at a plateau to come at the “issue” differently. It may be time for another series on which you focus on accurate contours; you may need to learn and practice perspective, color theory, or some other skill you currently lack.
Many people bust through a plateau in skill level on their own through observation and diligent practice. Others do it by taking a class or reading a book. Everyone who does it successfully does it through practice of that thing which is eluding them.
Wil Freeborn is a watercolorist and urban sketcher whose work I love. I wrote a blog post about his book on watercolor painting.
After students have been working for a while on doing contours, gestures, angles, negative space, whatever—and they admit to hitting a plateau I look for books to recommend to them that they can use for DAILY practice, to really master that thing which is stumping them.
Since Freeborn’s book came out I’ve been recommending it as something people should work through if they are interested in watercolor.
It will help people understand how to lay in washes and create certain effects, and in the process they will then be able to apply that in their daily sketching.
Sometimes in order to practice you have to remember that it’s important to understand something and how it’s put together before you can extrapolate it to something else.
This might mean that you work through a book like this one and copy his paintings each step of the way to understand what is being done. At the end of 50 paintings you’ll have a lot of practice under your belt and can start to see how to extrapolate it to your own subjects. (Or if you’ve been drawing and painting for a while you might simply use his picture examples as a suggestion of topic/subject matter.)
If some of you are thinking about doing more with watercolor this might be the time to get this book or one similar And to do exactly that.
Even if you aren’t on a plateau spending the next 50 days doing a little painting like this to see what Freeborn does with the medium of watercolor is a great practice.
It is a great way to begin to understand water in watercolor (less is needed than many people think, though sometimes more, and you only discover this by working with the paints); that some aspects of color theory are follow your nose as long as you know how your paints layer; and so on.
Giving yourself the time to really hunker down and think and work through these things is sometimes the best use of your time. The other things you’ve learned in your art life will still be there for you to return to.
One of the reasons Freeborn is such a great artist to look at for this purpose is not that he doesn’t have a style, he does, but his style is meticulous and based on representational approach. So you can mimic and learn.
Almost all of my drawing students love the loose, quirky sketchbook style of Felix Scheinberger, as do I. Yet often beginning artists don’t recognize the representational drawing skills that he has. He went through drawing foundational work to get to that skill level you now see as quirky and individual. You can see it in his earlier book illustration work.
Building skills is the only useful way to get to quirky.
I cannot tell you how many professional illustrators have come into my classes or entered mentorship arrangements with me who could not draw. They had developed a style early on in their career, without foundational skills. That style became something that they could sell to clients, but it was a dead end as far as improving their drawing skills and doing work that they found satisfying or personal. Once you get on that rodent wheel you really can’t get off, but have to run as quickly as you can to keep up.
So that’s my pitch for foundational work you build on. Go check out Freeman’s book if you’re interested in developing more skills in watercolor.
Take A Class
If you aren’t someone who works well independently and you need feedback it may be time to take a class. Find an instructor who paints in a way you admire. Look at look your local arts organizations for adult classes. Look online—several of my students agree that Shari Blaukopf’s class in landscape painting on Craftsy is worth looking at.
The point is to take action. Don’t let the plateaux stretch out in front of you and steal your momentum.
Create Your Own Independent Study Course
Besides the book I mention above here are some other books that could form the basis of a great independent study course.
Watercolor and Painting
Charles Reid, The Natural Way to Paint
In this book Reid explores his loose way of handling watercolor paintings of the figure. Again—beware, there is a lot of practice and foundational work required to achieve the looseness his work shows.
I recommend that you look also at one of his earlier books like these:
Charles Reid, Painting by Design
The paintings in this book are also loose, but there are lots of great examples of seeing values.
Charles Reid, Painting What (You Want) to See: Forty-Six Lessons, Assignments, and Painting Critiques on Watercolor and Oil
Forty-six lessons—sounds like a month and a half of lessons to keep you busy!
Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan, Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project
If you love botanical illustration this book is a course in a book. They do a nice job covering everything from a beginning pencil sketch and getting shapes and volume accurately, to color mixing, values, and detail in watercolor painting. Even if you aren’t a botanical painter, and don’t want to become one, this material will help you work with detail in your other subject matter.
Pen and Ink
One of my drawing students asked for books to study pen and ink sketching. I think one of the best things you can do to improve your ink sketching is to work from old 19th century etchings. But not everyone has the time or the stomach for that (I had lots of time when I was 10 and got my first dip pen. I also had better eyesight.) Here are some books to look at:
Alphonso Dunn, Pen and Ink Drawing: A Simple Guide
I found this book through an Amazon recommendation and was amazed. Simple? Perhaps, I would call it straightforward. I took one look at it and decided I didn’t need to spend the time video taping myself making lines and hatches to translate my six-week pen and ink sketching class into video. Now I just recommend this book. Do the work—practice!
Joseph A. Smith, The Pen and Ink Book
I got this book in the early 1990s. It was full of product information of the type you never find in books any more. (Probably because products go out of production and date a book, or just because publishers no longer like to recommend brands—whatever the reason, it’s sad. I miss books like this.) As soon as I got it I started working with color acrylic inks in my professional work. I loved it. I still love this book which is overflowing with examples, examples, examples. If you love to experiment this would be a great book for you.
Remember This Going Forward
Practice is practice. You are where you are now.
If you practice with intention, instead of blindly repeating the same mistakes and stale approaches, you’ll get across that plateau to a new land of skill level, and maybe even a new style.
Artists of all types have been practicing and practicing throughout their lives.
It is useful to remember that Ansel Adams took pictures of Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley from the 1920s until the end of his life.
He said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Developing your foundational skills through intentional practice, regardless of your field of art, enables you to make something.
Let’s go practice.
Addendum: What about Books on Drawing?
Addendum added 12.6.18 at 5:30 p.m.
A blog reader wrote in to ask about recommendations for people working in pencil. She’s already using the Nicolaides book which is an intensive drawing plan. I suggested the following to her:
Juliette Aristides has four books on the atelier drawing approach. Look her up on amazon. I’ve got one and it’s good, but I don’t recall which one it was. I think it might be the lessons book as I wanted to compare what she did to the in-person lessons going on at the Atelier I actually go to off and on. Other authors have books in a similar vein.
If figure drawing is your thing I would suggest you check out Henry Yan’s book. He also teaches classes and one of my students traveled to his class and the report was it was fabulous.
I think Rudy De Reyna, “How to Draw What You See” is useful book, but it’s been so long since I saw it that I’m not sure if it lends itself to lessons in the way the other suggestions might. Check it out at a library.
Of course you could go through Arthur Nuptial’s “Drawing and Sketching in Pencil.” In fact I would look at Dover’s Art Instruction line to see what you could pick up.
So many people tell me they learned to draw with “Keys to Drawing,” by Bert Dodson and that’s an excellent book. He wrote one on drawing with imagination too. I thought in 10 years of blogging I must have written about Dodson’s book so I did a blog search and found this post about drawing faces and a whole bunch of drawing books are mentioned there.