Different Drawing Approaches for the Same Subject

July 5, 2021
I started this sketch of contour outlines by first drawing that eye on the left. Brush pen on drawing paper with some scribbled shading—in a Hahnemühle Travel Book.

Just this week I was asked by nine people how I start my drawings. I use different approaches to start my drawings depending on what pen I’m using, the paper size, and even just how I feel my eyes are doing on any given day.

For a more detailed response I explain that I have a habit of starting with one of the eyes,  usually the one on my left. And that I then use that eye I’ve drawn as the unit of measure in the drawing.

Next looking at the real eye on my subject I use it as a unit of measure on the actual subject. I can transpose that real eye’s height 3 or 2 1/2 times up or down the face to some other feature. I then look down at my page and move the height of my drawn eye (which is now my unit of scale) 3 or 2 1/2 times up or down the face to where I want to put the next feature I’ve been focusing on.

Brush pen, working from the inside out.

If its width I do the same thing. But a lot of the time when I’m looking at a subject and judging small distances I use relationships to other widths elsewhere on the face. So on one side of the face the space from the eye’s edge to the near edge of the ear might be 3 times the space from the other side’s ear to the corresponding edge of the eye. Then I keep those spaces in proportion with each other on my page, though in the scale I’m using on the page, and I’m good to go.

I do this all in my head, hence some of the time I’m distracted and way off.

I know some people like to put little tick marks on their paper as they count the spaces up and down before they make that ink mark or stroke. I just like to make the ink mark and live with it. I can always do another drawing—as long as I review the piece when I’m finished and take note of where I was off.

Sometimes I start with a circle or oval for the shape and put in marks for the location of the features and then when those are lightly placed I rework in darker strokes for details.

You can see this in the second sketch in today’s post and in the third sketch which follows.

Making a loose shape lightly, and then building outward from the inside; then going over the details and values. (Color pencil on drawing paper.)

With drawings like these it’s important to begin lines with light pressure and feel around a little until you commit to the placement of a feature.

I admit that even taking time to feel around lightly isn’t going to keep me from being impatient and committing to an incorrect placement or detail. 

It’s still important, and vital, when you finish the sketch to compare and notice where you were off. Even without seeing my model for the third drawing in today’s post (red color pencil) you can see that is a problem with placement and size of eye on our right. I need to notice that in my review of my work so I remember to check for that before I go in for final detail.

Brush pen and ink wash. I began with contour lines and followed up with the ink wash.

If my goal is to quickly capture a light effect, or even something simple like a notation of how certain features are catching the light, I will do a quick contour sketch (or sometimes a gesture sketch) and go right into value washes with ink or watercolor.

In the fourth sketch in today’s post I do that.

I think it’s important that when you sit down you have a goal or intention—you want to capture a likeness or a scene? You want to use a particular pen for a particular handling of line? You want to practice building from the inside out or vice versa? You want to make a quick note about something you observed?

It doesn’t matter if you’re sketching a face, or a still life, or something you see out of the corner of your eye. You need to recognize what your goal or intention is when you start the drawing, so you have something to aim for.

This allows you to assess the result at the end and look for where you need to take more time, more care, or more practice (e.g., in judging proportions). In that way you’ll continue to improve over time.

But having an intention and goal also allows you to change in mid-stroke and improvise if another idea occurs to you or if you want to experiment in a different way. You’ll realize you’re changing your goal and intention and you’ll be able to assess the result against that new direction. In that sort of practice your unique style can be discovered.

The rest is aimless repetition and you’d be better off doing something else.

Ask yourself questions about your process, learn what it is, learn where its holes are and what more you still have to learn. Use this knowledge to discover new approaches that might work better for you.

Happy experimenting.

Update 7.5.21, 11:37 a.m. CDT  

I just remembered when checking to see that this post had posted (and to correct a couple typos or clarify a couple sentences) that there is a fourth way that I do a drawing—direct brush painting.

I am drawing initially with the brush so I think of it as drawing method. You can see an example of this in this post.

I just start in with very light values of ink wash and build up the values and refine the shapes as I work. (You can see a videos of me working this way on my Patreon site. Subscribers gain access to past posts so there are numerous examples of this way of working as well as the other approaches I’ve mentioned on that site.)

I find that working with direct brush painting (in ink wash or watercolor, use this blog’s search engine to find finished examples of watercolor used this way) is a great way for me to work on refining how I see value shapes and cast shadows and work to make a sketch without line.

Sometimes if I’m working on a non-wet media paper I’ll do a small gesture sketch or a few rough shapes as mentioned in one method above, before I start painting. That’s typically done to keep me tied to outer most boundaries, on paper that isn’t going to do well with a lot of reworking. 

I love working directly with ink pens or ink brush pens as you can see from my blog. And work with the Pentel Brush Pen in particular has probably predisposed me to like sketching directly with brushes (in ink or watercolor). But it also seems to me that the approach has a different focus that I enjoy examining—looking at the relationships of all those values and how they form the dimensions of your subject.

It can take your eye time to adjust to that approach if you come at it from the stance of always starting with ink lines and then working in watercolor. To transition you might want to do a week of sketching where you use a graphite or color pencil to create contour lines such as you might have done in ink, and then add watercolor or ink values.

Your eye will adjust to the absence of the bold ink lines and start focusing on the washes.

The next week you can draw using only a light gesture of pencil to start, as described in my methods above. But instead of then trying to feel for shapes and mark them in ink you would look for those value shapes and start to lay them in, building their values and refining their shapes until you get to a finish level you enjoy.

By the time you reached week three of daily sketching your eye will have adjusted to working directly with the brush with no ink or pencil. You’ll be focused immediately on the values and will work on how the connections between those layers of value create three dimensional form.

In this sketch from my 2018 International Fake Journal sketches I worked in direct brush layering values of ink wash—you can still see my original outward strokes of ink on the left side, and right side of the face. (This paper, an inexpensive, recycled watercolor paper did not allow lifting of even the lightest of ink washes. That’s something to be aware of—if you want to lift ink or watercolor washes use a very smooth and forgiving paper.) I like showing these early marks in my work as much as I enjoy hiding them at other times. Play with it and find out what delights your eye. You can see more examples of direct brush sketching in the gallery of my 2018 International Fake Journal here.

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