Physical Therapy for Your Art Practice

January 6, 2020
A short day out at Como Zoo. I went with a friend to a talk and we stayed to sketch the animals. Because it was late fall the ostriches were on view in the barns and I was able to stand about 3 feet away from them. Instead of looking down into a field enclosure I was able to do detailed diagrams of their interesting feet! Always be observing. (Field Artist sketch book—non-matching facing pages surface texture)

I suggest to my Drawing Practice students that they do a six-week plan and goal setting session at the end of class; and that they repeat that every six weeks for the rest of their lives.

Knowing what our goals are, and seeing how we executed our plans, helps us realign our strategy for going forward.

But I think it is most important to do a self evaluation at longer intervals, mostly to savor the work you’ve created and see the value in it. It can be done at any time, but it’s easiest in our culture to do it at the beginning of the year. It’s a time when people typically stop to set some goals and make resolutions.

This was actually my warm up painting on the day. We were there to listen to a talk about the sculptures in the Conservatory, so while we waited I used the time to sketch a palm tree.

Because of this my students have been posting their end-of-year evaluations in the Facebook group I share with them post-class. 

First I have to say again what extraordinary students I’ve been privileged to work with over the years. These are people who show up for their drawing practice and try to look honestly at that drawing practice. I see over the years the real changes that happen in their work. And as important, I see the growth in the way they talk about their art and understand its place in their lives. They making progress in a healthy way. I’m grateful to work with them.

At the end of 2019 one woman wrote about her practice and some issues she’d had. Below is my comment back to her, explaining my view of Drawing Practice as a physical regimen, and related aspects to that. I’ve rewritten a few of the sentences so it reads better to those of you not part of this group.

Most of my students in this group have now worked exclusively from life for the first year past their class session with me (which is something I advise them to do), and some have kept up that practice for a good deal longer. The practice of drawing from life shows in a thousand positive ways that sometimes they don’t even realize, in part because their goals aren’t fully aligned with their art actions yet, and in part because they think people are off having tons of fun sketching from photos and they are distracted by that notion. 

I hope you’ll find something in my comments to them that will help you seek balance in your own drawing practice.

More on Roz’s Reasons It’s Important You Draw from Life

(written to her Drawing Practice Facebook Group Students, and edited slightly for general consumption)

——————–While you all know I wouldn’t open the  group to posting of work sketched from reference photos I do hope that even those of you working with photo references, but who are having difficulty, would consider posting a text message detailing your situation so we could weigh in and offer some help—or a kick in the butt as sometimes is needed.

I don’t find reviewing work from photos interesting or useful, since I find that students often get defensive. During discussion they respond with “that’s the way it looked.” Instead of comprehending the questions I’m asking them about the nature of the rendering, or even understanding that it was their job to correct the way the subject looked and overcome the photo reference based on their actual observance of the subject in life; they are trapped by the “glare” of difference between photo reference and sketch. I think drawing from photos causes more problems then it solves,  in general, but also specifically in a class.

But I also know that there are times in everyone’s life (including my own in 2019 when I’ve hardly been out of the house except to see an eye doctor) that photo reference is what we have to work with.

I think when something like that happens in life and the things you want to draw are not available, and you do use photo reference, you have to spend AS MUCH TIME drawing from life as from photos in order to counteract the use of photo reference. Hence all the pears, peppers, and squash that I sketch each day to get my mind set back to life drawing.

So if you are drawing from photo or video reference PLEASE end your drawing session or at least your day with a healthy dose of drawing something from life that is dimensional (not something lying flat like pens and such on your desk or cutlery on your table, but 3-d standing up stuff like your dinos or fruit or vegetables, etc.).

This may seem like, “UGH, here’s another thing that Roz wants us to do,” but I only mention this because of all the students I’ve worked with and all the difficulties I’ve seen them get into, AND my own understanding of my process when I can’t get out and about.

Several of you who have been sketching from photos this past year admit to having hit a wall, or stalled in your Drawing Practice.

Drawing from photo reference can bring on an ennui and worse, a complete lack of interest in drawing because the focus is NOT on your interpretation of the live specimen, but on your ability to make something match the photo.

And that’s not the goal of drawing in general, and practice in specific. The goal of drawing is always to interpret.

Even worse, when you work from photo reference the natural inclination of everyone (and believe me I have had countless classroom critique sessions where I have had to open students eyes to this) is to compare the sketch to the photo, as opposed to judging the sketch on sketch’s qualities. Even the artist whose work is under examination buys into that mental construct which means you suddenly have a whole body of people feeding their individual and collective internal critics.

And you can guess, from knowing me, how much that makes me crazy to see that.

Drawing is a physical act as well as an emotional and intellectual one. Whether you like it or not, because it is built on practice (and it is) it is like an EXERCISE REGIMEN.

The problem with a regimen is that if you focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others you get an imbalance in your artistic body just as you would in your physical body doing all sit-ups and no back extensions.

Then you need physical therapy (PT)—and the only PT for photo reference imbalance is LIVE SUBJECT sketching.

I really recommend that everyone look at his or her practice over the past year, now that the year is winding down, and see where he or she has gone off the rails on these issues.

You’re not a bad person for drawing from photos. Sometimes it’s the only thing we have.

If I had not been drawing from TV for the first six months of the year I would have gone insane. It was EXACTLY as if I was at a sub-station in Antarctica all by myself, doing video chat with Dick to repair things remotely if he was at work—the exception being the food supply was better thanks to Dick.

So put aside notions of guilt or shame, that’s not what my points are about. Look at what you’ve been doing and look at how and in which ways you feel your drawing practice is off kilter. Then set up a new PT regimen for yourself that sets out to fix this imbalance.

This means changing up what you use for subjects—something live has to come back in. My recommendation is to learn to love peppers. Man oh man those stems and crevices—there are lots of fun angles to draw. And your internal critic (i.c.) can’t blast you because the pepper still going to be recognizable as a pepper. All you want is to feel the shape on the paper.

And then you need to look at how your i.c. is running the show and set something up to counter that as well. Maybe it is going to life drawing co-op again and learning on site what the i.c. says so you can come up with quippy responses. Maybe it’s simply going out and sketching people in the street so you can get that engagement with live subjects, and then shut him down.

Realize you’re going to need to shut him down through the way you talk about your art to others as well. So come up with a strategy for that. (Remember from class—always find something you love and enjoyed in every drawing you do. Always listen to your editing eye who will tell you in specific terms something that you can fix—he will never tell you your drawing sucks, but instead explain that the proportions are off, or the angles…specific things you can look at, check, and work on next time.)

Then don’t forget that you also have to have the supportive bits in your life, like people you can chat with about art, trips to the museums, art books you read, art research you do—all the stuff we go over in Drawing Practice. Life elements that support your drawing practice and interest in art have to be in place.

It’s your way of protecting yourself and your art habit.

And then and only then can you set goals SPECIFIC goals, and ferret out ways to implement those goals, e.g., whether you need additional classes, a week off from household duties to focus on your art stuff, a week off from work to focus on your art stuff. (Remember these are short periods of time when you can focus and recharge—you are not setting up your drawing practice to take place only on the weekend in one supercharged 48 hour period. That’s a recipe for disaster. You are using specific focus times to recharge your momentum to make it easier to keep that momentum.)

I found it was helpful to give up designer ice cream and use the money to hire a house cleaning crew two times a month—yes I ate a lot of designer ice cream), because then I could focus on my work (both my clients and my private work).

Look hard for where your individual Achilles heel is. Then set up your life to bolster what you want bolstered.

Write it all down, fill up your calendar with art appointments, and get going.

If you falter, that’s when you FORGIVE yourself, and start again IMMEDIATELY. You don’t wait.

And if you need some help PLEASE speak up. [Non-Drawing Practice students need to find art buddies and mentors to whom they can speak up to for help.]

It is hard for us to know that you are drowning when you have put gaffer tape on your mouth and jumped into a pond 100 miles away. The splashes aren’t even noticeable.

I hope there’s one thing you have all known from working with me. I’m don’t judge people who try and stumble. You may still be trying and stumbling for the next 20 years so there is little point in that. It’s the fact that you’re still trying that is important.

People don’t ask for help because 1. the internal critic is shaming them or has another subtle strangle hold on them (which sometimes masquerades as confidence or a belief that they are too advanced for any help). Or 2. because they think people are too busy to help them.

The first is always a problem. The second is often a reality, but at least in this group if you’re having a problem someone will be able to jump in and give you a suggestion that will be specific and helpful until someone else can join in and so on—because it’s going to take more than one answer because everyone is individual.

And when in doubt, setting up a side project that is just for you is always important.

In my page about the Patreon start up I actually wrote about my side project, filming myself drawing after surgery. It was that side project which led me to an epiphany about life, about sketching, and about balance.

Side projects have NEVER failed me. They lead me to the next creative thing, the next skill I need to acquire, or the new dialogue I need to have with myself.

What would be a side project for you I don’t know, again because we are all different.

Do not confuse side projects with your drawing practice.

All the time I was videotaping myself sketching as a side project I was doing other sketching as well—since I was trying to come to grips with what was happening, and shutting down my business, and burying my father-in-law—see life NEVER stops until it does, and then that’s it. So we can’t wait for things to calm down before we take action, we have to always be in action mode.

If you are working on a project you still need to have your drawing practice (and maybe it’s a pepper every day to balance things off). Sometimes a practice will turn into a project and it’s difficult to distinguish, e.g., my Daily Dots. They were a project because I set guidelines and limits and “rules” for myself as well as designed the format within which I would work. But they were also a bit of drawing practice each day, ensuring I would draw from life everyday, in case I couldn’t get away from the computer and client work.

Throughout those 4.5 years I was still doing all my studio work for clients (drawing time involved) and doing my other private sketching, and keeping a visual journal.

Can you jump into something like that right away, NOPE, that’s the result of four (at the time) decades of practice. All those things were already going on, I had built them all into my life based on my self-evaluations and specific goals. But you need to be developing those aspects of your life so that all that goes on all the time.

This doesn’t mean that you are going to be come a professional illustrator. We aren’t talking about that type of goal, we’re just talking about making a space in  your life where you work towards mastery in one area—just as you would make time for your practice if you were learning the piano or another instrument.

How much time you give of your life to all this is the individual part. I was all in because that was my life. You can do all those facets but instead of taking up a good portion of your day it all happens in 90 minutes and sometimes less. It’s about SCALE.

Don’t be overwhelmed; be realistic.

And please remember we can’t hear you splashing in that pond miles away.

Start today and lay this all out for yourself as it relates to your life and make an action plan.

I know you can all do this because we’ve been through this together. Get out your notes. —————————-

I Haven’t Been Through Drawing Practice Class, What Can I Do?

Don’t worry if you haven’t been through DP and don’t have notes to refer to. If you see the logic in the above, and the need to keep a balance in your own drawing practice then look around and find artists with whom you can talk on a meaningful level about your art. The way the internet is these days you would even be able to do a “remote” group with video conferencing.

Set ground rules for this group’s discussions so the group doesn’t devolve into a mutual admiration society.

If you haven’t been taught how to talk about your art in a healthy and balanced way I recommend you check out Liz Lerman’s “Critical Response.”

In the late 1990s I was one of a large group of artists selected to be trained to provide artist residencies in the schools. Lerman visited twice while she was developing “Critical Response,” and we all got to participate in the process and observe the process. Many of my friends in W.A.R.M (Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota) have continued to use this process in the mentoring portions of that group.

Whether or not you have a moderator/facilitator who has been through the process I feel confident that you will be able to learn together on the fly, as a group, if you show up willing to work diligently. Your art is worth it.

Additionally, take time to do a thorough self-evaluation, a realistic analysis of the internal critic in your life, and make a six-week plan when you have your daily art practice built into each day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day.

I’ve written about all those topics and actions numerous times on this blog. You can find those discussions using this blog’s search engine.

This is something that you can do: you can restore the balance to your drawing practice.

You can start today.

    • Melanie
    • January 6, 2020

    This is an eye opening and useful revelation. The power of drawing daily from life!
    Would drawing from videos or TV be a step up from drawing from reference photos or would it befalling into the same pitfall? Where would drawing from imagination fit in?

    I am excited to be starting to learn about thumbnail sketches TODAY in By Design.
    I need to educate my editing eye which I think thumbnails will be useful for.
    If your Drawing Practice class is offered again I would like to take it.

    1. Reply

      Glad you found the post useful Melanie.

      I write quite a bit on the blog about drawing from TV because my students see that I’m doing that. Here’s a post
      You can find more by looking at my blog’s Television category or using that as a search word.

      Video flattens life just as photos do, so if you’re sketching from video that you have paused it’s just the same, no difference from sketching from photos.

      I encourage people to leave the TV running.

      LIVE-CAMS of nesting birds is actually better than photos because there is constant movement. You are constantly having to readjust your view and how you want the line on the page. This is a useful (i.e. additional) practice for drawing live animals in other situations. BUT also, because the video is running you’re exercising your ability to relate spatially the subject to its surroundings and exercising your visual memory and the amount of time you can hold a line in your mind before you get it down on paper.

      My hierarchy goes this way
      1. BEST: Drawing live subjects
      2. Better: Drawing from Taxidermy or still life—fruits, vegetables, 3-d objects, accurate dino replicas (not stylized).
      3. Good: Drawing from MOVING video
      4. Mediocre: Drawing from photos and still video (paused) as they are essentially the same thing.

      As for drawing from imagination, I’ve always been someone who draws real things.There’s a whole psychology to this I can’t explain here, but it comes from what was the first impulse to journal and observe.

      Others don’t have the same attitude and love to draw from their imaginations.

      The only people I know who do this successfully however are people who already draw at an exceptional level when drawing realistically—because they already have observed actual things. They know how actual things work and rely on that knowledge, as well as drawing references, and often photo reference, to draw something imaginary. This would be the group of fantasy illustrators for instance, drawing dragons based on their working knowledge of lizards etc.

      Another type of drawing from imagination would be sketching imaginary faces and people doing things, anything along the continuum from cartoons to realistic representations. Again, the only people I know who do this convincingly are those who already have exceptional skill drawing from life.

      You need to develop a visual vocabulary by drawing real things before you can draw from imagination.

      We have a friend who is a sculptor and years ago he was sculpting wolf pups for a piece that would be cast in bronze. All the pups are in different poses. At one point he was heard to say “that’s not right” and he ran out of the house into the neighborhood and found a cat to use as reference for how the back legs would bend (because they were similar enough to the dog’s). That’s an example of someone with a huge visual vocabulary from working realistically, who can sit and make something from his imagination that looks real, and who knows when to go and check a live model as needed.

      And if that’s not what you meant by drawing from imagination then the only thing else I can think of is doodling, and as a reader of my blog you know that I don’t do a lot of that. I’d rather be observing something real.

      Thanks for the interest in DP. It will be offered again this year but the schedule isn’t sorted out. Please check my class listings after January ends.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Reply

    Drawing from life is very important, indeed. It helps you feel objects “in the round” and gives you a better sense of depth of field compared to drawing from a photo. Aerial perspective is very important if you are drawing or painting a landscape – i.e. objects off toward the horizon have less contrast.

    1. Reply

      Richard, that’s exactly right. I think the idea of feeling around something in the 3-d is what we need to aim for. When I had Dottie and Emma to sketch it was as if I was actually feeling their fur as I drew, the same kind of connection triggers released in the brain. Drawing everything else it seems to me it is still feeling around, but more about exploring and understanding how something is shaped.

      And aerial perspective needs to be observed in life as you suggest not from photographs. I know some landscape painters who paint from photos but the only ones who do it convincingly are those who have spent time outside doing it from life first, and therefore aren’t painting what the photo is telling them.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Tina Koyama
    • January 7, 2020

    This is so excellent… I don’t even know where to begin! I am always trying to articulate to others why learning from drawing from life is so much better than drawing from photos, but I can’t always explain why. Coming from the Urban Sketchers mindset and therefore drawing from life since Day 1, I hardly ever draw from photos. (Which makes it hard during the bad-weather months… I draw a lot of produce, too.) The hardest class I ever took was a landscape class in graphite — we drew only from photos (and not even my own photos but the instructor’s photos, so I had no connection to the content). While I learned more than I’ve ever learned in a drawing class, and while I understand that it’s nearly impossible to teach landscape drawing from life (except maybe one or two months out of the year around here), it was so hard for me… I just couldn’t “see” stuff in the photos. I felt like all I was doing was trying my best to “copy” them. I finally realized that even if I’m not necessarily interested in the subject matter, it is still more informative to draw from life. This quarter I’m taking a class in botanical drawing because we are drawing from real plants (indoors). Though I’m not particularly interested in plants, I will probably gain more interest in plants as I draw them more. The important thing, though, is that all the principles of drawing — values, volume, perspective — apply to all subject matter, so whatever I learn from drawing plants can be put to use with anything else I draw.

    1. Reply

      Tina, I’m glad this post gave you some more ammunition to explain why drawing from life matters.

      I do know that lots of people teach landscape from photos, but up here in MN I know several people who teach it only on site and all through the year. There is something very fun about sketching in the snow!

      But in photos of landscapes there is so much that you can’t “see” as you say in the photos.

      I think you’ll love botanical drawing, it’s lots of fun. I used to teach color pencil drawing to botanical illustration students and I still recommend sketching flowers from life for my drawing practice students when they can’t get out and find live models.

      I think you do come to love a subject the more you sketch it. And many plants are like mini landscapes. All in all I think it’s a good use of anyone’s time. I look forward to seeing your journal pages with flowers everywhere!

    • Jeanne
    • January 15, 2020

    After your drawing class last year, I purchased John Ruskin’s book “The Elements of Drawing” that you highly recommended. It’s very dense reading, but it’s opening my world of seeing and appreciating the natural world as well as how to sketch it properly (at least as Mr. Ruskin taught). At first, I was planning to follow every exercise as I came to it, but it overwhelmed me. So next, I decided to read through the entire book first taking on a few exercises that I could handle (exercises #1 and 2 and the smooth stone exercise). I’ve started reading his chapter 2, but I wanted to ask you for any advice on get the most out of his teachings without getting overwhelmed and frustrated.

    1. Reply

      Jeanne, I’m so glad you gave it a shot! Disclosure—I find Ruskin very easy to read, and not dense at all, but I spent my childhood reading Victorian literature, and then later studying it so I don’t know that I’m the right person to discuss that particular aspect with.

      I would ask yourself what you think your skill level is and why doing all the exercises are overwhelming. If for instance you took a class with someone you would do all their exercises right? Maybe you are just trying to do all the exercises in too condensed a time frame?

      Also ask yourself how you deal with other art instruction books. Do you pick and choose exercises from them, then do that with this book as well.

      I think it’s best if you start at the beginning and work your way through. Have a good reason for skipping an exercise because it is all about practice. He’s teaching an approach which he used and he’s being very specific because he’s teaching to the home reader who won’t have him to weigh in, and he wants to be clear.

      Perhaps you can have it as an exercise-a-day thing, where you read something in the a.m. and just let it percolate during the day and then spend 25 minutes on it at night.

      Ask also what is frustrating you about it. Is it your internal critic telling you it’s daunting, you don’t need to start at square one, it’s too much, whatever?

      Think of it like learning the piano, you need to do your scales and Hannon practice as well as your regular painting each day.

      And READ IT ALOUD to yourself! If you’re finding it dense you need to say and feel the words in your mouth so that their rhythm and meaning emerge for you. (I’m sure Dick is really tired of me running up to him on odd days to read things out to him—typically when I’m preparing to give a lecture and want to include my favorite bits from Ruskin. But then he didn’t get Jane Austin until I started reading that aloud to him. And how many people totally miss what is happening on the first page of Huck Finn because they don’t read it aloud to themselves?)

      Ultimately there will come a moment when you won’t be able to do more with it because you already have frustration. And at that point you’re going to walk away.

      If that happens don’t beat yourself up about it. I suggest that you go out and practice more with watercolor and drawing in any ways you have available to you (any techniques you already have, approaches you’ve gathered from taking other classes from still living teachers).

      Keep looking at light in the world and in the work of other artists. Look at values and color temperature shifts. Keep looking hungrily just as Ruskin suggests.

      Then when you’ve done that for awhile and the frustration is a distant memory, or you feel simply ready to try again return to this book begin again. That practice and experience you gained while away, will feed your second reading.

      My point is, Ruskin isn’t something to be got through, He’s something to live with and you just haven’t found a way to do that yet. And that’s very individual. What worked for me because of my past and inclination isn’t going to work for you if you’re finding the text dense.

      I met him when I already had watercolor experience (playing around mostly) but also a background of reading about Victorian watercolor art (which was something I did even as a young child because I was exposed to it in the museums we went to), so it was: let’s practice this, let’s get this before we move on, OH yeah, I’ve seen that in so-and-so’s work, and so on.

      So I’m thinking you’re just trying to digest it too quickly.

      I find that every time I pick it up I understand something different, more. And I also find that valuable, but it wouldn’t happen without those other trips through it.

      I hope these comments give you a different way to think about approaching the book.

    • Jeanne
    • January 18, 2020

    Thank you very much, Roz; my ICS (inner common sense) agrees with everything you wrote. Even as I wrote the request, I realized that I was rushing the book and needed to give it time for me to understand the goals and objectives of each of the exercises. In addition, as I got further along in the book, earlier passages and comments resurfaced and made a little more sense. The sparse and few demonstrations intidated me who was used to You Tube and more extensive photographs and step-by-step diagrams. I wasn’t sure if I was understanding him accurately or doing the exercises correctly. In addition, it was serious work that needed to be carried out to improve the craft and eventually the art. However, the more I practiced each exercise, I understood a little more of what was expected. Thank you again for spending your time in advising how best to learn from this provocative and educational book.

    1. Reply

      Jeanne, glad to hear back that you’re going to take some time with Ruskin. As with anything the more you practice the more all sorts of things become clear. And then we do more practice!

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