On Drawing, and Drawing as an Element in Painting.

I might know what’s wrong with your drawing.

Not a particular drawing, but your drawing in general. What you are doing. When something is wrong with my drawing, this is what it is. I’ve been drawing my entire life, and teaching drawing for over ten years, and when there’s a problem, it is nearly always this.

Let me back up a little bit, first. After all, if I just tell you now, you’ll stop reading.


This first picture is a girl in one of my classes (please excuse my bad phone photo. It’s the only picture I have, and I gave her the drawing). She’s got great hair, and that’s why I drew her while she was working on her project yesterday. She didn’t know that I was drawing her, which was perfect. Instead of posing, she was actually drawing, and telling me about a drawing she had done a long time ago.

She told me how, when she was in second grade, she drew a picture that was great. She told me that it was a drawing of McDonalds, and I can’t even fault her for her choice of subject matter, because what she said about drawing it was so perfect. She told me how, when she was doing it, that she just KNEW it, that the drawing had everything in it, and that she just knew exactly how it went when she was doing it, and it came out just right.

You hit the nail on the head, girl with awesome hair.

The whole reason that I insist on teaching drawing without any formulas or the use of photographs is that those things make can for lazy imaginations. I’m not talking about imagining things that don’t exist, like the Tooth Fairy or Trickle Down Economics, but our ability to imagine the things that we can actually see.


The problem with your drawing (if you are having one), is probably that: a problem with imagining it. And while a formula might help you some, it’s no substitute. After all, what good is knowing that a figure is seven heads tall if you are trying to paint the woman that is balled up on the floor, weeping, in a fetal position? A photograph might work as a substitute, but I see artists that have learned how to copy a photograph without ever having to understand what it is that they are seeing. These people typically turn their reference photo upside down, like they learned to do in Drawing On The Right Side Of the Drain, and never once consider WHY the woman is naked, balled up on the floor and weeping. Worse yet, they never even consider why they might want to do a drawing or painting of her like that. The work is simply an exercise in doing by hand what Kinkos does better, for about 25 cents.


At this point, someone might be asking what the difference between copying a photo and working directly from life is. Good question. Those that have done both may have noticed that the photo is easier, because you can ignore the weeping woman, what you did to make her act like that, and…something else. Something that is not quite as easy to put one’s finger on.

The thing that makes it difficult is also the thing that makes it better, once we learn to do it. It’s the way you imagine it.

We have to understand more than is in the painting, even if we know that it is not all going to be depicted. Knowing where her other knee is, even though we cannot see it. We have to know it the same way we understand that she is crying, even though all we see of that is her shoulders shaking ever so slightly. In life, we see more than is in the drawing, and if we can learn to work with that, it could be the difference between a drawing that is ok and making art.

While we were drawing, did we KNOW how it went, like my young student knew McDonalds? If the woman suddenly regained composure, and stood naked, all seven heads of her, in front of us and asked for a tissue, would we still know how she looked a moment earlier? If we really saw it to begin with, if we knew exactly why and how the scene had unfolded, and had truly SEEN her curl up at our feet, then we would know exactly how the drawing or painting went. We would just KNOW it. We would move our pencil not like what we think a picture looks like, but as if it was moving over her body. Not just left and right, up and down, but in depth, in three dimensional space that exists in our understanding of the woman, but not on a piece of paper. As we drew the line between her body and the floor, we aren’t just copying a shape; if we are really imagining what we draw, it will feel like our pencil has actually fallen into the topography of her body and our hand is just pulling along that shadowy groove, as if we could separate her from the cold floor. Maybe she will show us her face and we can ask her what’s wrong. As if we didn’t know…


Now that our model has pulled herself together, and we have talked, everything is better. Even the weather. It’s spring, and time to go outside and paint landscapes. So, instead of taking your camera, take your sketchbook. Take an extra hour and walk through the area you plan to paint. Look at everything so well that you could draw a map of it. Break into the abandoned building and see where you will stand in the field to paint it from the inside of the building. Talk to someone that used to work there. And send your model flowers or something. Shame on you for treating her that way.


4 thoughts on “On Drawing, and Drawing as an Element in Painting.

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