WHAT SHOULD I DRAW TO PRACTICE?

October 24th, 2013

As you may know, I’ve been teaching drawing at Drawspace.com for a few years, and one of my students has just asked:

“Mike, I think I would benefit from more practice of drawing things outside the realms of the course for further practice of actually looking at things. Have you got any ideas, please, as to what I could practice to try to improve my understanding?”

That’s an excellent idea! I firmly believe that you cannot successfully draw what you do not understand, so all opportunities to sketch from life, or even from photographs, are always worthwhile.

We graphite artists only have a pointed stylus to work with – no 1″ wide brushes for broad sweeps of colour – so we tend to be detail-orientated. In order for that to work well, we need a mental store of images we can draw on. Fortunately the more you draw, the more you cannot help looking closely at everything around you, and so your store grows ever larger. And we don’t have colour at our disposal – we only have texture and contrast to work with – so again we tend to study the detail in everything. As a by-product, we begin to see the world in a wonderful way that escapes almost everyone else.

When the average person sees a brown horse in a green field, they scan quickly across it and notice “horse” and “field”. But, as we don’t have colour and brown and green are tonally similar, we begin to try to work how we could make one stand out from the other. And we pick up information about the details of both at the same time, including the way, for example, we could use the light shining on its back to separate it from the darker grass behind.

Go and get a coffee…. this could be a long read :)

As I was saying… the more we draw, the more we store, appreciate and understand. So draw whatever you can, whenever you can.

Begin with things that are both simple and of interest to you. If you like plants, draw a leaf or two, but not the whole plant. You’ll learn more from one leaf than you will by repeating it over and over as you reproduce the plant, because you’ll be looking at a broad overview instead of concentrating on the understanding of one small part. If you like dogs, draw its collar – preferably not on the dog. And while you’re drawing it, look at the way the light helps us to understand its three-dimensional form.

I suspect you can draw a good resemblance of something but have problems making it look three-dimensional? That’s very common. The answers are there right in front of you once you tune yourself into looking at it in the way an artist does. Photos are excellent “frozen moments in time” in that respect too. Let’s take that collar as an example. Place it on a table and draw it, concentrating on its outline. Now you have a line drawing, hopefully fairly accurate, but line does not exist in Nature so we have to describe its edges in ways that Nature uses.

Begin to shade it and use that to describe its three-dimensional form – one small area at time, so you have time to work out and understand what that little area requires. You can see the collar and understand its shape, and see that it is not a part of the table, yet it has no line around it. The reason you can see it is due to light and shade. The way it catches the light, the areas that are hidden from the light, and the way it casts its own shadow on the table. Use those changes in tonal value to describe the edges instead of line – because that’s how we see them. And if you need to exaggerate to make it clear, do that. We’re artists, not photographers; we don’t copy, we interpret – we bend the world to suit our aims ;)

If you do that, you’ll quickly begin to understand how to construct three-dimensional believable objects in your drawing. And you’ll be storing all that knowledge so you can draw on it the next time you encounter a similar situation.

Just draw. If it interest you, that helps, but it doesn’t matter if it’s your coffee cup, the neighbour’s washing on the line, leaves from your garden, your phone, a crumpled sheet of paper… anything and everything is suitable. But, for now, steer clear of the cat on the mat… or anything else that is complex or heavily textured.

One final thought…

If you have a small camera, or a camera in your phone, carry it around with you and photograph whatever interests or pleases you. You can study it at length later, and that too will add to your store of mental images and textures. What you photograph is up to you, but I have packets full of photos of lovely old bricks and rocks, trees and weeds, old boats and tractors, rock pools and seaweed, tree bark, old weathered wood, and many many more.

DRAWING MIDGROUND TREES

July 3rd, 2013
DRAWING TREES with midground mystery

Artist Richard Devine submitted a query on my website to ask:

I thoroughly read all I could find both in your book “Drawing from Line to Life” and on the web about drawing trees. Then I tried to capture the beauty of Florida’s Champion Live Oak, the Cellon Oak. I would appreciate your honest critique of my work and how I could improve it. The suggestion of leaves was done with irregular squiggles, for the leaves are about 2″ long and 1/2″ wide. If I was to render a maple tree at the same distance, would I use a different size or shape squiggle? Perhaps angular shapes?

Richard's Cellon Oak drawing

Richard’s Cellon Oak drawing

This critique won’t take long :) For a midground tree, it does its job admirably. It has believable form, suggestions of detail, and an excellent sense of reality. Personally, I think the beauty of working with squiggles and circles is that it allows you to explore an area without a break in concentration, unlike line that has to be continuously restarted. So you very quickly slip into working directly from your mind and sculpt what you expect to see.

If I was to render a maple tree at the same distance, would I use a different size or shape squiggle? Perhaps angular shapes?

Exactly that. Consider why you know it’s a Maple from that distance and then adapt your squiggles to reflect that knowledge. In the case of the Maple, or my preference for Sycamore, the visual clue lies with the angular shapes of the leaves. Build in that clue and you send the intended message. Very often, I find, using that clue around the perimeters of each foliage mass is all that’s required. When you create the shaded side of a mass and use that to negatively create the lighter edge of the adjoining mass, use that shade to create angular “maple-like” shapes. Edges are what most attract the viewer’s attention.

The other equally important area is the outside edge of the tree itself. Here you can be quite explicit about the leaf shape. Although you described your Oak’s leaf to me, I was already aware of that, based on the shapes around the extremity of your drawing. Those are the only clues my brain needs to understand the species of the tree, the leaf size and shape, and that all suggested foliage within it should be read as being identical.

Creating midground recession

Creating midground recession

Here, no actual leaves exist, only suggestions of leaves. But the outer edge of the right-hand bush is deliberately sharp-edged and intended to suggest the scale of its foliage. The outer leaves were not drawn, or even planned, but created as negative white shapes as I drew the shaded area behind them.

Midground trees drawn with clarity

Midground trees drawn with clarity

Behind these trees is a lake with morning mist rising from it. To increase the depth, these midground trees were drawn with exaggerated sharpness and contrast. Most contain very little internal “detail” so attention is thrown onto the outer edges, which suggest the species (usually imaginary!) and its leaf shape and size.

Midground secondary element trees

Midground secondary element trees

These trees are merely a backdrop – something to contain the viewer, and to suggest locality and strength of light. Again, most of the work was concentrated on the negatively drawn edges. The interiors are simply squiggles, circles and random meandering of my pencil as it sought to reproduce the three-dimensional form and lighting that was in my mind.

I had references to assist with the drawing of the central dark tree but all the others were imaginary and created without any prior planning. The only conscious goal was to clearly differentiate between the two species.

Foreground, midground and background trees

Foreground, midground and background trees

Both the midground and background trees were drawn in the same manner applied by Richard – squiggles that sculpted what I was imagining. The distant background trees were lightly blended to soften any hard edges.

The foreground tree and bushes employ a similar approach with one exception. Here the extreme foreground leaves were outlined first to isolate them. Then the midground “leaves” were established by spontaneously and negatively creating the solid dark background between them, resulting in white silhouettes of random, partial leaf shapes. They were then darkened to variously push them back into the shade. Finally, the foreground leaves (the visual clues) were carefully drawn to make you believe that everything behind them is also foliage.

Don’t over-plan or over-think foliage. Take a long look at the Nature around you and you’ll quickly realise that it is full of mystery. Very little is clearly understandable. Even close up, you may understand the foreground leaves on a tree, but one or two layers back you simply assume that what you are seeing are more leaves. To achieve a sense of realism you need to emulate Nature and allow mystery to exist.

Then stand back at look at the overall internal shaping – the way the rounded masses of foliage form. Combine that knowledge with your feeling for the local foliage and you’ll create a tree with a true sense of reality – even if your interpretation is more abstractly suggested.

Thanks for letting me see your tree, Richard – it’s excellent in both composition and implied texture.

You can view more of Richard’s work at : RichardDevineFineArt.com.

ARTOGRAPH DB300 – BULBS and MODIFICATIONS

June 12th, 2013
ARTOGRAPH DB300 REPLACEMENT BULBS

I’m a great fan of Artograph and I’ve been using my Artograph DB300 for over 25 years. Alex Dow of Artograph Customer Services contacted me unexpectedly, as a result of one of my Artograph posts, and has generously posted links to my website, “Drawing from Line to Life” book, and my Starving Artists website on Artograph’s Facebook page. Thanks Alex!

It also reminded me that I have a Post-It note (one of many!) stuck to my monitor as a reminder to pass on the news about replacement bulbs. My DB300 use two 150 watt photofloods in screw-fitting holders. Although my bulbs very rarely fail (more about this later) one inevitably did and, of course, at just the wrong time. I Googled for a replacement only to find the screw-fitting version is no longer available. So I had to either find an alternative or source ceramic bayonet sockets to fit the available bulbs.

Fortuitously, as is often the case, I received an email from Lesley Brown who told me “It’s my husband who is the creative genius. Chris has been an illustrator for the past 30 years or so. I just get lovely jobs like searching for bulbs.” :) She needed the bulb’s code number, which I know (Phillips Photocresenta PF 605 E/51), but I warned her about the availability problem. Within a short time Lesley replied to say she’d found a possible replacement. She says “I emailed the company who say they ‘use this product to replace the old Philips code P3-4 which was the PF605E’. And I have ordered a couple to try.”

I ordered a couple too, and they work! They’re halogen, so a little cheaper to run, indistinguishable from the old E/51′s light output, and – I’m getting ahead of myself here – they’re fully dimmable.

The link you need at Easy Lightbulbs is:
www.easy-lightbulbs.com/light-bulbs/halogen-lighting/

View Chris Brown’s amazing artwork: www.ChrisBrownArtist.com

and his excellent illustrations: www.ChrisBrownIllustrator.com

ARTOGRAPH DB300 MODIFICATIONS

Lesley was pleased to report that the replacement halogen bulbs have a life of 2000 hours. That sounds good… but mine last for years! And here’s why…

I fitted my Artograph with twin dimmers because sometimes, if my source entirely covers the 10″ x 8″ copyboard, I need to reduce glare on one or even both sides. That glare can severely reduce visibility of crucial detail. For a while I would unscrew the bulb on the offending side, but that reduced the light output by a full 50%. The solution? I altered my DB300′s wring, and moved the on/off switch to make way for a pair of domestic lighting dimmers.

The re-sited on/off switch can just be seen above the dimmer box

The re-sited on/off switch can just be seen above the dimmer box

This allows me to control the lighting on one or both sides simultaneously. As a bonus, I always run both bulbs at 90% power – the reduction in light is barely noticeable and it greatly increases the lifespan of the bulbs. I’m also pleased to report that the dimmers work with the new halogen bulbs! I knew halogen bulbs are dimmable but I believed they needed dedicated dimmers – not so!

You can view and copy the original and modified wiring diagram here:
www.SibleyFineArt.com/artograph-wiring.jpg

And I’m asked so often for details of the Artograph DB300 that I put together a PDF version of the manual. You can download a copy here:
www.SibleyFineArt.com/artograph-manual.zip (2.6MB)

If you make the modification, encounter any problems, or have installed any other interesting modification, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Thanks again Alex. Thanks Lesley for finding the bulb source for us.

Getting started with Printing

May 29th, 2013

Jonas contacted me through my website’s “Ask a question” feature with this query:

I recently received my new drawing pencils and Mellotex and absolutely love it all. As soon as I finish reading your book I’m
going to begin my first new drawing that I want to sell as prints. So far, everything I’ve done has been commission work so the printing process is new to me. Do you have any advice on how to go about doing this?

This is a huge subject, Jonas, so I’ll try to stick to the basics. You’ll find more detailed information elsewhere in this blog and on my website.

Let’s first tackle a few common questions:

“Does having prints done of an image change the value of the original?”

In my opinion, no, and certainly not downwards! I’ve had a few buyers in the past use this argument to push the price down but as far as I’m concerned an original is an original whether or not a print has been taken from it. I don’t see the value of Constable’s Haywain halving just because we can all buy postcards of the image.

“If you are going to have prints made to sell, will you have to make all of them first?”

It depends on (1) the process, (2) your “sales potential” among the dealers and (3) your pre-publication promotion.

(1) If you print by giclée then you can print whatever number you need on demand and don’t have to hold unsold stock. If you print by offset-litho then you have to print the entire run in one session – and pay for it, but it’s much cheaper in the long run than giclée.

(2) If you have a known track record of sales then you will be able to take orders from the trade before you print. In time you can take them even earlier – I’d already sold the first 30 copies of my Cairn Terrier print “The Barn Patrol” before I knew what the setting was.

(3) If you can take enough forward orders then you’ll have the printing costs covered before you print. That’s what the What’s New page on your website is for – already promoting your latest drawing even if you don’t yet know what it will look like. You should be gathering email addresses of interested parties and awarding them “special” status by sending them pre-publication details.

“Does the fact that I want to make prints influence how I draw my picture?”

Yes, to some extent. First, always draw for you and never for your market, because if you don’t have anything personal to say about you subject, you can’t expect your buyers to be interested in it. The only commercial consideration I ever make is to use the most popular colouring for the dogs I include, but that doesn’t affect what they’re doing or how I see them.

From a practical viewpoint, don’t draw on paper so thick that you can’t roll it. To achieve good prints you need a good scan, so follow the lead of the printing industry and use a laser drum scanner. Source the nearest pre-press house in your area and they should have one. It’s not expensive. I pay about £15 ($23 USD) for an A3 (about 30 x 42 cm) image scanned to CD, but it has to be taped around the scanner’s drum, so don’t draw on illustration board or any very stiff paper.

Tip: Tell the scanner operator you want the paper to be read as white! The scanners are so accurate they will read an off-white paper as a value in the drawing.

Printing types – Giclée printing

Giclée would probably be a good way to start. The per-print price is high but you don’t need to print many at one time.

Giclée is inkjet printing but not all inkjet printing is giclée. It involves state of the art 6- or 8-colour printers using 200-year lightfast inks on a variety of art papers. Just do an Internet search for your nearest giclée printer – although you can do this almost as well by mail with some of them. You can often have as few as 10 prints made, the settings are stored, and you can repeat the printing as often as you need to.

Printing types – Offset-litho printing

This is much cheaper per print but you need to print an entire limited edition in one print run, or maybe 500 open edition prints, to make it viable. It also means…

Life is fine and rosy until the fateful day when you decide to print. Suddenly you find yourself talking to Printers! The dictionary definition of a printer should be “One who puts ink on paper without any reference to the source image”. I’ve had some bad experiences, as you may have guessed! :)

After a while you can train them to look at art as Art and not as just another job. They can even be trained to understand that what you want is a print that is indistinguishable from the original. They however will tell you that this is not possible. And they’re right…… printing is one long agonising fight with compromise. For example, offset-litho printing uses a pattern of dots, and four adjacent round dots will always leave a white hole between them. Hence, the most solid “black” only ever achieves 90% coverage.

I use the duotone printing process that uses two of the four-colour process plates – black and magenta I think. As long as my printer knows which plates, that’s OK! The black plate prints with black ink and the magenta plate uses a warm grey. The two combine to capture the deepest blacks to the lightest of tones.

Incidentally, giclée printing can print dense blacks, and you can print on demand instead of holding dead stock – but it is ultimately much more expensive per print. Until recently, I used giclée only for images that didn’t fit into my current market, so I’m not paying to print copies that might never sell.

In-house printing

Buying a giclée printer can, depending on sales, quickly pay for itself. If, for example, you’re paying a Giclée Printer £15 per copy and your printer costs you £600, it only takes just over forty sales to pay for it, taking your running costs into account. It’s also an ideal way to test the sales potential of new work or work that doesn’t fit your usual subject matter. I use an Epson R2400 printer that prints up to A3 size. And, of course, you have ultimate control over the appearance of the print.

Do not be tempted to purchase an old used printer that doesn’t use the K3 system of inks. Older giclée printers mixed the colours to create the greys, and that usually resulted in a colour-cast (called Metamerism). Your print might look black and grey under natural light, but green under fluorescent, and blue under yet another light. The K3 system avoids that, because you can turn off the colours and print using only the black, light black, and light light black cartridges – no colour in the mix so no colour-cast.

Costing

Spreadsheets are an ideal way of controlling your costs and profit. Set up a “what if” spreadsheet so you can alter the variables and instantly see the results. Mine allow for paper and an estimation of ink costs, plus any other costs I might encounter. If you intend to sell your work matted, for example, then factor that in too. Who are you selling to? If it’s to retail customers through your website, set the final profit to the selling price less your costs. If you’re selling to the trade (stores, print shops, galleries, etc) then assume your profit will be reduced by their 50% discount. In my case, I assume 10% will be sold at retail price and 90% wholesale to the trade. If you’re unsure of a figure, always err on the gloomy side – so assume 50% discount for trade sales even if some will accept 40%.

Sales

As your website features commissioned portraits I don’t know what subject matter you want to sell as prints. If it’s animal related you might find associated clubs with websites who might be interested in selling your work. Some may just make mention of your prints and provide a link to your own site, which is just as valuable.

Never fail to follow up a lead, however tenuous it might be. For example, in the days before the Internet, I would always answer a letter with an enquiry about local stores that might be interested in my work – even if the letter was to my Electricity Provider. And every letter and envelope still bears my website address – even if it’s to my Aunt Edith or the Taxman!

You can visit galleries personally (by appointment) or send them a detailed mailing. Visit a few galleries with your originals before you print and ask them to give you some idea of the retail price you could command. They should know – it’s their business.

Run an online search for similar artwork and note their prices. Finally, when you determine your own prices don’t be too cheap. The price reflects your own opinion of your work and “too cheap” is far more damaging that “too expensive”.

Print types

OPEN EDITION : No restriction on the number printed and the image is reprinted every time stocks run out.

LIMITED EDITION : Restricted to a set number of prints, which gives the image a rarity value. Each print in numbered – 652/850 for example – where that’s print number 652 out of an edition of 850. No more will ever be printed.

I changed from open to limited edition prints because, theoretically, the cost doesn’t really matter. When you can sell a £1 offset-litho print for £60, the cost is largely immaterial. I wanted to be able to print to a quality and not to a price, as I had to with my open edition prints.

Finally…

Finally, produce work that tells a story, however simple. Even my head studies tell a story. Before I began each one, I’d decide what the dog had just been doing and was about to do. That made it “alive” in my mind and it became built in as I worked. Each one was never a “drawing” but always a recreation of a living animal.

If your work doesn’t say something, you’ll be an illustrator and not an artist. Illustrations are not widely popular with the majority of the buying public. A botanical illustration, for example, will tell you about the shape, form and detail of a flower, but you won’t be able to feel its waxy petals or appreciate the way it bends in the wind. Illustrations tend to be too “clean” – Nature is a messy creature – so the occasional nibble by a caterpillar in a leaf adds the missing sense of reality :)

The story can be complex or simple, the drawing should be your interpretation and not a copy of a reference, and it should contain what you personally want to convey to your viewers and future customers. “Look at this” you should be saying “Look how beautiful it is. No, look closer. Really close…” and they will, and they’ll appreciate something that they only glanced at previously. As graphite artists, we can’t hide behind colour, and that’s a huge advantage – we’re detail-based and don’t have big brushes to suggest anything with a wide sweep. As a bonus, we also tend to stand out from the myriad of paintings in galleries.

If you haven’t already done so, join a good forum where you’ll receive constructive criticism and assistance Obviously I’m going to suggest www.TheDrawingForum.com run by myself and JD Hillberry – but it is the best for constructive critiques and help, and we welcome posts on business and printing issues as well as for artwork.

You can view Jonas’s work on his website at www.Galaxy-Artworks.com

GRAPHITE v CHARCOAL

March 19th, 2013

Jason, who has recently joined TheDrawingForum.com, jointly run by myself and JD Hillberry, emailed to ask:

Just a very quick question, I am thinking of taking my drawings a bit more serious to supplement my wildlife oil paintings, so I have been reading both yours and JD Hillberry’s books, websites etc so I don’t make too many novice mistakes, and I wondered why you don’t appear to have gone down the same road as JD, regarding using charcoal pencils to get the non-reflective, VERY darks that seem impossible with standard soft graphite.

A quick question but the answer might take longer :)

First, JD and I work in completely different ways. JD’s work is more planned and controlled, such as using frisket to blank out selected areas. That requires a very accurate initial drawing that probably cannot be readily altered during the drawing process. However, I love working in graphite because it offers that direct mind-to-hand-to-paper connection – you think, you draw. So I begin with a very loose set of guidelines (except where accuracy is vital) and I constantly alter or even ignore them as I draw each section. I also begin top left and work down to the bottom right-hand corner (as a generalisation). Nothing is blanked out.

“A String of Memories” by JD Hillberry

“A String of Memories” by JD Hillberry
The entire image is drawn including the background, tape, and string.

When I first began drawing seriously I did use carbon pencils for a while (never charcoal) to achieve more intense blacks. But they always looked false because they lacked the sheen of graphite. At some point I realised I had to be a graphite purist in order for my work to have the unity I wanted, and to allow the mind-to-paper flow that I so enjoy.

I also found ways around the problem of weak darks – which isn’t a problem where prints are concerned because they can be corrected. If I need very intense blacks, I complete the drawing and spray with a matt fixative – that allows me to add further layers of soft grade graphite, and I can repeat that process as many times as required. In more general use, I found that 2B would give reasonable blacks (if applied with pressure – and my Mellotex paper can withstand a lot of punishment) but I could increase the intensity by layering with a harder grade – usually HB over 2B. The harder grade breaks up and smooths the courser grains of the soft graphite and fills the tooth that the softer grade left exposed. I also discarded all grades softer than 2B, because they are too grainy and leave a lot of tooth exposed (tiny white pits that visually dilute the intended dark value).

Finally, spraying a graphite drawing on completion with a matt fixative removes much of the sheen. With the reflective surface dulled, blacks increase in intensity, three-dimensional form becomes more solid, and the drawing has more visual impact. With practice, I draw in the knowledge that the value I’m creating will later darken and increase in intensity.

You can view Jason’s wildlife and other work at www.OnlineArtDemos.co.uk

JD Hillberry’s amazing Trompe l’Oeil work at www.JDHillberry.com

and

Our new DRAWING FORUM : www.TheDrawingForum.com – everyone is welcome and it’s Free!

"Early Morn at Witton Marsh" by Mike Sibley

“Early Morn at Witton Marsh” by Mike Sibley
Drawn using graphite pencils only.