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How to silence the critic and get back to drawing basics

August 29, 2008
Provided by Borealis Color
“I’m not creative!”

“I have no talent!”

At Borealis Color in Saranac Lake, we hear these statements more often than we can count. It frustrates us to hear people say these things. The first statement is simply untrue: Everyone, by virtue of being human, is creative. It is an inherent part of the human condition. As to the second, talent is highly overrated: Any successful artist must rely on technique and practice.

Of course creativity can be expressed in any number of ways. Whether you cook, or explain something to a child, or garden, or arrange furniture, you are being creative. But for the purposes of this article, let us discuss drawing.

The first step in drawing is probably the hardest, and one with which we all struggle: Trust yourself. Silence the inner critic that says, “That’s no good,” or “I can’t do this.” Although there is a place for critical evaluation, we all know the desire to crumple our efforts in despair, and this is never helpful. As the artist Jeff Koons says, “Art really starts with acceptance, self trust. Wherever you come to with art, it’s perfect. You don’t have to come with anything. What you bring to something is the art. That’s where it’s found. It’s found within you.”

When you feel ready to let yourself be yourself (or at least ready to try), the next step is to trick yourself. The great challenge is to see what really IS, not what you THINK there is. For example, say you want to draw flowers in a vase. Your brain will tell you something like, “That is a flower and flowers look like this,” thereby short-circuiting your ability to perceive what a particular flower really looks like. This brain activity is very powerful and persistent and is difficult to override, but a few tricks can help.

If you are drawing from a reference picture, one helpful technique is to turn it upside down. Suddenly, an image that your brain told you was a specific thing is now just shapes, lines and colors. You can examine these without as much interference from your own mind. Looking at your subject in a mirror can also change its appearance enough to help you see without preconception. A further good trick is to combine these: Look at your reference picture upside down in a mirror.

Another useful technique of seeing is to look, not at your subject per se, but at the space around it. This is called “negative space,” and, again, if you focus on that, your brain has a harder time telling you what manner of thing you are seeing. One helpful exercise is to drape a chair with a cloth, tie the cloth snug and draw the wall behind.

As you work to trick yourself with these techniques, take your drawing tool in hand and sketch the broadest shapes of your subject. For example, flowers in a vase can often be rendered as a variety of ovals and cylinders. At this stage, it can be useful to squint, which obscures distracting details and helps make larger patterns evident. Do not try to indicate detail yet — first, get the largest contours and spaces. Also, keep it simple — rather than trying to draw a whole bouquet, for example, initially focus on one bloom. After you have the broadest shapes, then begin to add detail.

Remember: Accept what you produce as worthwhile, even if it does not please you at first. You will learn at least as much from the things you decide to change.

Next, study areas of light and dark. This can give your drawing depth. Many artists will reduce their subject to three basic tones: Very dark, medium dark and light. It can be helpful to look for specific shapes within your subject — say, the shape of a shadow on a flower petal, rather than looking at the whole petal. Examine your subject carefully, drawing the shapes and shades bit by bit, occasionally pausing to look at the whole effect.

A word on materials. Nothing fancy is needed to start with. Any stray pencil and piece of computer paper will get you going. However, different types of drawing tools and surfaces can expand your creative options. In general, drawing pencils are made of either graphite or charcoal.

As most people know, average pencil “lead” is actually graphite, and graphite pencils can vary from soft to hard. The softer a pencil’s graphite, the darker a mark it will make. The standard No. 2 pencil most of us used in school is a slightly soft graphite, but other types are available and will produce different effects. Some are extremely soft, and make dramatically dark marks, while others are quite hard and make very faint marks. Which to use? That depends on what you like best and what you want to do. Many artists like to have several different graphite pencils on hand.

The other common drawing material is charcoal. Again, the softer your charcoal, the darker a mark it will make, but even hard charcoal is darker than most graphite. It also smudges much more easily — which can be useful or troublesome, depending on your purposes. Because it is so soft, charcoal does not work well on plain computer paper. Rather, textured paper is preferable, because the texture will catch and hold the charcoal grains. There are many kinds of textured paper available, some made specifically for charcoal, and I always recommend that my customers try several before making a purchase if they are not sure what they like.

To learn more about drawing materials and techniques and to sample different types of drawing tools and papers, come to Borealis Color. You will find graphite and charcoal in several forms and degrees of hardness, and a wide range of papers. We are always glad to answer questions to the best of our knowledge, and we encourage experimentation and discovery. Most drawing products are available for sampling, which is the best way to decide what works for you. If you take yourself out of the pigeonhole of “not creative” or “not talented,” you will be surprised at what you can achieve!



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