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Monday, January 15, 2018

Monday Morning Art School—drawing from the inside out.

There are times when you have to dance backwards in 2-inch heels. Or at least do the equivalent in pencil. Here's how.

My soap dish and towel. These are very small drawings, by the wayabout three inches across.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I stress working from big shapes to little shapes.  We start with generalizations and move to detail. This is such a fundamental rule of drawing that it seems almost inviolable.

Yet there are times where the reverse can work brilliantly. There are artists—Albert Handell, for example—who work from their focal point outward. It’s a good trick to have in your kit. Practicing it occasionally helps you see composition differently.

Don't hate me for the state of that soap dish. At least I wash my hands!
Your assignment this week is to draw a small still life, starting from whatever detail first catches your eye. I used my grimy soap dish. For me, the most attractive thing was the elliptical shadow thrown by the bar of soap, so I started there.

The soap and its shadow. That would soon change.
When is a still life not a still life? When it’s a-travelin’, man. The soap and brush were still wet. As the towel settled down into its pose of casual insouciance, it deflated somewhat. All the pieces moved, imperceptibly at first, and then faster. The soap and brush slithered across the table and on to the floor. This happened three times before I got them to sit and stay.

Finding the arcs of the soap dish around the soap.
One of the advantages of drawing the what interests you first is that it helps you avoid losing your subject. This is particularly important if you draw people on the subway, or lobster boats in harbor. Both will leave on their schedule, not yours.

Fit the dish shapes around the soap like puzzle pieces. Note that the brush has mysteriously flipped over.
If you were drawing this big-to-small, you would start with the ellipse of the dish and its placement on the bigger shape of the towel. You would then break the dish down into its parts. Reversing that, I started with the bar of soap and its shadow. I then built the dish around those objects. To do that, I figured out how they fit around my brush and soap, like pieces of a puzzle, paying careful attention to the so-called negative shapes that resulted.

Brush and soap in their bowl.
(Remember that what you see in the photo isn’t what I saw in real life. Photos distort reality.)

After that, it’s just a question of continuing the process outward. At the end you’ll want to spend a few moments integrating everything and setting a few final, strong lines to hold the composition together.

Growing a shadow.
Where might I use this technique? If there’s one object that’s the focus of my piece, like a beautiful tree, I might start by positioning it elegantly on my canvas and working around it. I sometimes draw hanging coats from small-to-big, since it can be difficult to get the parts to flow together. I always work small-to-big when the object of my attentions is in danger of moving along soon. 

I developed the drapery from the inside out, as well, like little puzzle pieces.
This is a technique applicable to drawing, for the most part. The only time I do it when painting is when my subject is a boat and I'm concerned it will soon be off to sea. Oil paintings can’t be cropped as easily as watercolor or pastel. Making an error of placement at the beginning is a difficult mistake to work around. In oils, it makes the most sense to do a careful drawing and tuck it away against the possibility of losing your subject.

This technique works well for drapery. This is someone's jacket, draped over a chair.
I’m teaching four workshops this summer, in Rochester and Rye, New York, on the Schooner American Eagle, and at Acadia National Park. For more information on any of these, email me here, or check my website.  


Buffalo Woman said...

"Making an error of placement at the beginning is a difficult mistake to work around. In oils, it makes the most sense to do a careful drawing and tuck it away against the possibility of losing your subject". This statement hit me like a brick this morning because I finally figured this out yesterday.The piece you helped me with was drawn incorrectly in the beginning!! After correcting for the value as you showed me I could see all the other issues and the biggest was the improper position of the violin (many others but this was where the problem started). Love these exercises; such a big help to me when looking for solutions.

Carol Douglas said...

Thank you!

Anne Winthrop Cordin said...

Completely enjoying these posts! So glad I met you last summer in Castine!

Carol Douglas said...

Me too!