A Mental Triumph
Creating a successful piece of artwork is a mental triumph, not a feat achieved solely by the hands. Sure, some degree of dexterity is necessary to complete a well-done drawing, but I would argue that the physical component of drawing comprises less than 15% of the process. A simple attitude adjustment about your own ability will do wonders for your artwork. It sounds cheesy, but an optimistic attitude about artistic self-improvement really will yield tangible results.
Drawing begins with sight. In fact, seeing is the most important part to the drawing process. In my earlier years of sketching, I would find myself getting frustrated by a lack of true resemblance between the real life object I was attempting to draw and the sketch I had done in my sketchbook. It wasn’t until high school that I realized what was hindering my ability to produce accurate images: I wasn’t truly seeing my subject. Take a portrait for example. People are often tempted to jump into the sketching process of a portrait prematurely because their subject is something familiar. We know that our subject has a nose, two eyes and a mouth, and we know we will be drawing these body parts, so we spend less time seeing what we’re drawing. We tend fall into autopilot and draw what we know, not what we see. It is not enough to arbitrarily draw out what we know an eye looks like, what we know a nose looks like, and what we know a mouth looks like. This technique will result in an inaccurate representation of our subject and a discouraged artist. Instead, it is infinitely more effective to focus on transferring the exact image that our eyes perceive from our brains to the paper. It is not enough to trust our knowledge of what a face looks like, or even what our subject specifically looks like; we must rely on our eyes and actively see our subject in order to replicate a precise image.
It’s All About Shapes
In my opinion, shape is the most important element of art. It seems that artists focus too much on lines, and as a result, shapes don’t get the recognition they deserve. Paying attention to the shapes created by both negative and positive spaces and highlights and shadows can make the difference between mediocre work and a masterpiece. Going back to my example of portraits, a large part of seeing your subject is being able to break down the image your eye is capturing into shapes. An eye isn’t simply “eye-shaped;” it is made up of many tinier shapes that vary from eye to eye. Because the shapes in a face perceived by the eye differ from person to person and change depending on the viewer’s perspective, it is critical that the artist takes note of the exact shape she sees rather than flipping autopilot on and drawing the shape she knows any eye to be made up of. It may feel unnatural to portray an eye or nose or mouth in the odd shapes you’ve mentally broken your subject down to, but if you are true to your eye’s perception and draw with honesty, you will be pleased with the final result.
Drawings Are 2-Dimensional
No matter how much you would like your drawing to “come to life” and take on a third dimension, it will only ever be 2-dimensional. Even when drawing from life, your portrayal of 3-dimensional objects can only be done in two dimensions as long as you’re working on the flat surface of paper. That being said, it is important to train your eye to see your subject as a 2-dimensional image in order to make the transition from the real life 3-dimensional object into a 2-dimensional drawing happen more smoothly. As someone who typically uses photographs as a reference when drawing, I used to struggle with drawing 3-dimensional objects from life. Once I began to treat real life objects the same way I treated photographs by taking a "mental snapshot" of my subject before me, I began to see the object the way I needed to. It wasn't until I mentally removed myself from my environment and started treating my view of my subject as a "photo" that I was able to produce a successful life drawing. The process of seeing your subject that I mentioned previously has two parts: mentally registering the object as a 2-dimensional image, then breaking down that 2-dimensional image into shapes the way I just explained. This is where many people, including myself, make a mistake. Rather than slowing down and trying to view their subject in the format that they will be drawing it in (two dimensions), they jump to the sketching step with a 3-D object still in mind. When you begin sketching with a 3-D object in mind, you can only break the object down into smaller 3-D shapes, and you end up with a difficult drawing task and a headache. By mentally flattening out what you are seeing before beginning to sketch, like observing a photograph, you will save yourself a lot of stress during the physical drawing process.
In A Nutshell
Here is how I would sum up the steps of drawing:
- Observe your subject.
- Mentally flatten out your 3-dimensional subject into a 2-dimensional image or "snapshot."
- Break down that 2-dimensional image into shapes.
- Draw these shapes, frequently checking your subject for accuracy.
In addition, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind during your drawing endeavors:
- Have a positive and optimistic attitude. This stuff is supposed to be fun! Enjoy the process, be proud of your progress, and use your mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Slow down; be patient with both the drawing process and yourself.
- Break down the subject (and process) into pieces that are easy to digest.
- Draw what you see, not what you know.
- Don’t get discouraged; understand that improvement takes time but is a rewarding process if you invest time and effort. Everyone has to start somewhere, but the people who truly flourish are the ones that don't let themselves get caught up in their frustration and instead channel that energy towards their desire to improve the next time around.
- Similarly, and like most things in life, however much you put into drawing is how much you’ll get out of it. Fully immerse yourself in the process. You'll be surprised at how fulfilling each step of the way can be if you only let it, and you will feel so rewarded when you look back at how far you've come.