by Norm Nason
Throughout human history men and women have drawn. Their reasons have been as legion as their numbers, but common to all has been the desire to create:
the satisfaction that comes from making an original, an artifact that did not exist before, executed with knowledge and skill. For some, drawing is a pleasurable pastime; for others, a means
of earning a living. But for the truly smitten, drawing is nothing less than a passion, a lifelong commitment, an expression of love. At its best, drawing is a transforming experience in
which one feels like a conduit, a pipeline between the subject and its translation on paper. The best art happens when we simply open ourselves to this creative flow, get out of our own
way and allow it to happen.
In the beginning, early humans probably first drew with sticks in the sand. By 32,000 B.C. fire use was well established and charcoal twigs were employed to scratch iconic images onto the
walls of caves. These drawings preceded the invention of the written word and were our first permanent means of recording past events. They were primarily ceremonial renderings, depicting
the hunt and its significance in sustaining the life of the clan. These drawings (and later paintings) became increasingly important in ritualistic gatherings, forging a link between art
and spiritual sustenance that arguably reached its pinnacle in the High Renaissance. It is fascinating to realize that charcoalpossibly our first drawing mediumis still in use
today. Since our humble beginnings, drawing has been inextricably mingled with the human psyche and seems destined to be with us always. It has been a vehicle for introspection and self-expression;
it has helped us communicate with one another and articulate our growth as a species. Perhaps in some plain and simple manner, drawing is part of what defines us as human beings.
The best artists are keen observers of nature. But more than this, they are superb communicators. Their aesthetic sensibility acts as a bridge between the inner workings of their minds and
society at large. The job of artists is not merely to reproduce what is seen (as a camera would), but to interpret their observations, leaving something of themselves within everything they
create. If it may be said that a photographer captures the essence of a subject, one may reach an even deeper understanding through drawing.
Unlike photography, drawing requires greater sensitivity from the artist and a higher degree of participation from the viewer who looks upon the finished work. To draw well, we must not
merely glance at the subject, we must study. Through drawing, we come to understand. We gain insights into how objects occupy space, how light and shade models form, and how objects are
affected by the tug of earths gravity. In viewing a work of art we come to know something of not only the subject, but the artist as well. We are touched by his feelings and
beliefs, and the mode of communicating them.
In drawing the human figure we learn about balance, harmony, and interconnectivity. With practice we may come to view not only our human subject but the entire world in a more comprehensive,
balanced, and objective manner. Largely a process of simplification, of rendering the essential while omitting the unnecessary, drawing is rich in contrasts, truths, and insights. These
in turn may influence us far beyond the simple mastery of our craft. We may be surprised to find that while becoming sensitive artists we have quietly become better practitioners of living
The craft of drawing has traditionally been divided into two camps: linear and tonal. In broad terms, linear drawing is defined by its dominant use of line and includes the drawings of such
varied artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Alphonse Mucha, and Egon Schiele. Tonal drawing, on the other hand, is more closely related to painting, where line is subordinate to tone. Here, broad
strokes are applied as if with a wide brush, providing a unique counterpoint to line work. The great American artist John Singer Sargent drew tonally, as did the Russian Nicolai Fechin,
the French Post Impressionist Georges Seurat, and the Spaniard Ramón Casas. For our purposes it is enough to remember that line creates flat contour, while tone exploits three-dimensional
In learning to draw tonally, two rules are essential: adhere to sound fundamentals and practice with diligence. Having a firm understanding of the basics is certainly important; yet without
practice it forms a wasted body of knowledge. Conversely, although practice and repetition are necessary to develop drawing prowess, repeating the same mistakes over and over again does
not an artist make. Strive to thoroughly learn the drawing fundamentals outlined in this essay; they will serve as your foundation for further growth and prevent the recurrence of mistakes.
Then, hone your knowledge with assiduous practice. There are no shortcuts. The road to artistic proficiency is paved with millions of discarded drawings and torn canvases, broken casts of
bronze, and countless chips of marble.
Draw as if you were conducting an orchestra, harmonizing myriad elements into a cohesive whole. Just as a conductors movements are related to the music he directs, you should, to the
extent that it is possible, be conscious of the motions your hand makes against the paper. Strive for dynamic, elegant, fluid movements and these attributes will find their way into your
The first strokes you apply to the page will set the stage for the rest of your drawing. If you begin timidly there stands a good chance you will end up with a timid drawing. Therefore,
begin each illustration forcefully, in an explosion of effortend with refinement and subtlety. In the initial stages, seek out and describe only the large and the obvious. Dont
think of details until much later. Its not that details are unimportant; there is simply a sequence that must be followed, a proper ordering of events. It is akin to building a house:
you must pour the foundation before hanging the wallpaper. Realize that your drawing is, quite literally, a frozen representation of your state of mind as you perform the task: if you are
bored, it will record your boredom; if you are afraid, it will record your fear.
The human figure is one of the most complex, most challenging, most beautiful subjects on earth. The key to drawing it well lies in recognizing that your task is not simply to copy nature.
If it were, photographs would have taken the place of illustrations decades ago. An artist creates, certainly, but he must also learn the importance of omission. Beginning students
always render too much. Learn what to discard or leave under-developed in your drawings, as well as what to carry to a high level of finish.
Study the great masters of the past and learn to distinguish between good and bad art. Digest the opinions of others, but ultimately, decide this for yourself: whatever your goals, you should
first and foremost recognize what pleases you. And since good art is good no matter what the medium, learning more about one type will expand your interest in others. While experimenting
with drawing you may be delighted to find yourself equally attracted to painting or sculpture, gardening or photography, creative writing, dance, music, cooking, or other means of expression.
Don’t hesitate to pursue these other activities. You may run the risk of spreading yourself too thin, but if your time is managed properly these complementary interests will buttress
your drawing skills.
Listen to yourself carefully. Cultivate an awareness of your desires, your shortcomings, your frustrations and aspirations. Listen well, and you will come to know yourself better. Since
art is self-expression, this knowledge will provide you with something to say.
I recommend that you purchase an inexpensive photo album and begin filling its pages with art that you appreciate from reproductions collected from various magazines and postcards. The purpose
of this is to identify exactly what attracts you so that you may gain a sense of where you are likely to be going. It does not matter if your tastes differ from others. What matters is that
you decide what interests you and head in that direction. In time, your tastes may change; this is natural. When it happens, be sure to update your album accordingly; it should evolve as
you evolve. As you are able to afford it, supplement your collection with original art created by those you admire rather than reproductions exclusively. Throughout history artists have
bought, exchanged, traded, and borrowed one-anothers work for the pleasure and influx of new ideas it brought them. The same will be of great benefit to you.
Many adults who attend their first life drawing course are disappointed to discover that their drawings resemble those made in early childhood. Yes, you have matured in many ways. But when
it comes to drawing you should not expect that simply because you are older you will draw better than you did when young. Most individuals dont hope to become more proficient in engineering,
mathematics, business management, or dentistry simply because they have aged. They intuitively understand that many years of study and practice are required before mastering these disciplines.
And yet, with art, many have contrary expectations.
The truth is that if you havent drawn since you were seven years old, once you resume you will continue from where you left off. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Your greater maturity
will speed the learning process and you will make up for lost time with surprising rapidity. For now, accept the fact that your artistic abilities have not matured simply because you have.
Drawing proficiency is an acquired skill and, like any other, it is one requiring practice, patience, and a strong desire to succeed.
The Core of Art
Drawing lies at the core of all art; it lays the artist bare. If one cannot reproduce accurately and economically what is seen, no amount of brilliant color or design will save the composition.
Nothing will promote one’s reputation as an artist so much as good draftsmanship. Learn to draw well, and you will have opened the door to all of the visual arts. Artists themselves
know who the best draftsmen and draftswomen are: Edgar Degas, Berte Morisot, William Merritt Chase, Joaquin Sorolla, Diego Velázquez, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Mary Cassatt,
Anders Zorn, Mariano Fortuny, Ilya Repin, Richard Schmid, Hans Holbien, Sergei Bongart, Alphonse Mucha, Émile Auguste Carolus-Duran, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and countless others
throughout history. Study the work of the very best; they have much to offer the student.
The Drawing State of Mind
Focus not so much on making a beautiful drawing, but on learning to draw well. Reach a state of mind where the process of drawing is the ultimate goal and where the finished drawing is only
a by-product. Cultivate your drawing skills; have no agenda other than to improve, no motive beyond a desire to grow and to be better this week than you where the last.
Serious students of drawing often have unrealistically high expectationsexpectations that in many cases far outpace their abilities. When they are unable to draw as well as they desire
to draw, they may become frustrated and discouraged. At this point they do not see that their main obstacle has become their negative mindsetrather than their lack of ability or experience.
My advise to those who wish to avoid this pitfall is simply this: focus on learning to draw, nothing more. Think of it as an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one. Learn to
sidestep emotional responses to your own work so that nothing stands between your model and your drawing. Be clear headed and open to the creative process. Every artist, no matter how experienced,
has something yet to learn. Harboring thoughts of inadequacy does nothing but impede your progress.
Learning from Failure
Failure is a necessary part of learning; one should not strive to avoid it. Were it not for experiencing failure, we would become satisfied with our efforts and would have no reason to progress
any further. Realize that you will never be entirely pleased with any drawing you produce. In each attempt you will strive to accomplish something beyond the scope of your abilities. You
will fail in your attempt, to some degree, but at the same time grow as an artist. Accept the fact that it will always be so; it will keep you humble.
You may already have some drawing experience and this may be helpful to you. But if not seen in the proper perspective, past experience can actually hinder artistic development. Experienced
students of art tend to cling to old habits. There is security in this, for to try something new would mean sailing into uncharted waters, becoming vulnerable to failure. This, as I have
said, can be painful and discouraging. One would be wise to remember that failure is a necessary part of learning. Repeat this as a mantra. Despite your previous experience or assumptions,
make a serious effort to set aside your old habits and give consideration to new methods. Have no preconceptions or prejudices. If you cling too strongly to past practices you run the risk
of missing critical information that might otherwise improve your ability to draw.
When learning a new method of drawing (or any new discipline, for that matter), you are taking the difficult path. Your attempts may feel awkward at first, your journey tough and frustrating.
Your first drawings done in the new manner will very likely be worse than the ones you did the old way. When this happens, stay the course. Remember that the progressive artist is one who
adheres to a methodology in which he willingly tries new things and risks failure. Sargent did this. So did Rembrandt. Not satisfied with mastering portraits, they each proceeded as if they
were perpetually in school, striving at every moment to learn something new.
Allow me to tell you a little fable in order to make a critical point:
There once was a young man who sought enlightenment, and so studied for many years to be the best monk he could be. Finally, when he felt confident enough,
he traveled hundreds of miles and endured many hardships in order to gain an audience with the Great Master, the spiritual leader of his monastic order. High on a rocky mountain peak,
the young monk was lead into a great temple and was confronted by a very old man. The Great Master greeted the young monk, saying, Do you see that large table against the wall? Please
be so kind as to slide it near the window for me.
The young monk thought this was an unusual request but could see that the old man was too frail to do it himself. So he pressed his palms to the massive table and pushed with all his
might. Strain as he might, however, he could not budge it an inch, let alone move it across the room to the window.
Im sorry, Master, he said breathlessly, his face red and perspiring, Im afraid the table is too heavy.
The old Monk smiled at him. No, my young friend, he said. The table is not too heavy. You lack the strength to move it.
The point of this story is that we often fail to admit responsibility for our inadequacies. In reality, no subject is difficult to draw; it is our lack of drive
or ability that makes it seem so. In denying responsibility for our shortcomings, we diminish our awareness of what we must learn in order to improve. To draw well, we must meet our weaknesses
head on. We must harbor an awareness of our inadequacies and constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve them. This is the key to successful advancement as an artist.
The Artists Privilege
If in the future you find yourself having difficulty drawing, ask yourself why. Is it because you need more knowledge of anatomy? Can you benefit from more practice in a specific area? Conversely,
if you find a certain subject uninteresting or uninspiring, ask yourself how you might draw that same subject so it comes alive with vitality and appears beautiful. Ask how you might convert
your perception of that dull, tedious subject into a fascinating drawing. The artists job is to confront the ordinary, mundane elements of life andby sheer strength of willtransform
them. This only happens when you take responsibility for understanding the character of your weaknesses. It is only by overcoming them that you will experience artistic growth.
Artists are a privileged lot in that we have the opportunityindeed, permissionto truly study the human face and figure for prolonged periods of time. In our society, few others
are afforded such a luxury. No other circumstance permits our assessment of the human form in such a prolonged, disciplined and focused manner. As a result of this privilege, artists gain
deeper insights into what makes the human body function and appear as it does. In studying the figure we come to understand more and with greater fidelity than those who do not draw. Dont
take this privilege for granted. Make use of it to the utmost level of your abilities. See well.
In the photograph to the left, notice the shadow that the models left arm casts across her stomach. Her arm blocks
the light and causes the shadows shape, but this in turn is modified by the contours of her stomach. The shape of the cast shadow, therefore, is defined by both the arm and the stomach,
not simply one or the other. From this observation we realize a universal truth, that cast shadows are descriptive of both the object which casts, and the object which receives.
Also notice how the portions of her body that face the source of light most directlysuch as the top of her legs, upper torso and stomach near her navelare brighter than the areas
that face away from the light. Note how her right breast is lifted and pulled backward with the raising of her right arm, and how this outstretched appendage is counterbalanced by the left
leg, which extends outward in the opposite direction. Careful observations such as these are essential if ones drawing is to appear convincing. Drawing is, after all, mostly seeing.
The dexterity required to put what is seen on paper is minimal by comparison.
Judgment by Others
Artists must be thick-skinned. They must be able and willing to work alone and unappreciated. They must also recognize when praise is unwarranted, unqualified, or exaggerated. Vincent van
Gogh understood this.
In late 1889, at the height of his abilities, and only months before his self-inflicted death, Vincents art was represented by his brother Theo at the Vingtistes exhibition in
Brussels. His work was consequently reviewed for the first time in the French newspaper Mercure de France by Albert Aurier, a young poet and art critic. In his long and highly complementary
review, Aurier praised Vincents dazzling use of pure color, and his aggressive manner of depicting nature faithfully. Vincents response to the review was immediate and less than
enthusiastic. He felt that the poets praise, although surely sincere, was unfounded. He wrote a polite letter to Aurier, thanking him for his favoritism but cautioning him against
over-emphasizing the value of his work. He urged that the praise heaped upon him might be better directed at those to whom he was artistically indebted, Monticelli and Gauguin, in particular.
In the ten years he worked in virtual obscurity as an artist, Vincent produced some 1,100 drawings and 875 paintings70 in the last 70 days of his life. Only a few of these were sold
in his lifetime. Contrast this with recent times when van Goghs work routinely commands the art worlds highest prices. His painting entitled Irises, for instance, recently
sold at public auction for a record $53 million. A year later, his painting of Dr. Gashet sold for an astonishing $82.5 million.
The point is that regardless of what others thought, Vincent maintained his own sober appraisal of his abilities. As with every artist, he alone understood the true scope of his unique strengths
and shortcomings. Vincents value system stemmed from an assessment of his ability to communicate clearly through his medium, which was inside him, rather than how others judged his
work, good or bad. So it should be with you.
What makes a drawing or painting have worth? Consider the premise that artistic value comes as a consequence of a works ability to sustain interestin both the artist and other
viewersover the long term. Some works of art hold our interest indefinitely; others loose their charm after only a handful of viewings. Think of the most memorable works you have seen
in books, galleries, and museums. What qualities do they share in common? Enduring works of art do not have to be sizeable, or expensive, ancient, elaborate, or even beautiful. They possess,
however, universal traits that quantify artistic valueaspects that help to maintain our interest for years on end. Here are some of them:
Identification with the human condition; the dignity and worth of human beings.
All parts working for the good of the whole. Rhythms are not random, but lead the eye about the composition in a purposeful manner.
Artistic proficiency. Bravura, forcefulness, high spiritedness, technical prowess, realization of the artists intent.
When the viewer perceives that there is a presence beyond the boundaries of the drawing (or painting), a sense of mystery is evoked. When the human subject of a drawing glances expectantly
at an unseen suitor, or a shadow cast from beyond the frame falls into view, we cannot help but wonder what exists beyond. Mystery happens when the whole story is not revealed. It occurs
whenas was often the case with Caravaggios workportions of the picture are accentuated in the light, while others are obscured by shadow.
The ability to appear whole and complete. Harmoniously weighted across horizontal and vertical dimensions.
Insofar as is possible, unencumbered communication between artist and viewer.
Unpretentiousness, modesty, and introspection; the absence of vanity and arrogance. The ability of the artist to speak through his work, to give freely of himself.
These are some of qualities that help define artistic worth; you may have others. Think of them when you are drawing, and even when you are not. Remember, a
drawing is not simply a random series of marks on paper. It consists of thoughts first, pencil strokes second.
The Art School
The art school is a place where students are taught by example, where there are ample opportunities for practice and experimentation, and where one finds others with whom one might exchange
creative ideas. A melting pot of methodology and creative talent, the art school helps the student by introducing him to a broader range of possibilities than might otherwise be encountered.
Unfortunately, schools can also be aesthetic processing plants, stamping out cookie-cutter artists having adequate, though not unique, skills. Due to the subjective nature of art, schools
may also be centers for political infighting, power struggles, and the flexing of egos. Whatever your goals, you would be wise to recognize that your education is essentially your own responsibility.
It is your choice if you become a product of the school or exploit the schools many resources for your own gain. As you mature as an artist, give voice to the growing strengths of
your convictions and resist the tendency of any school to embrace you within its subculture. From the schools barrage of visual and verbal information you must ultimately decide for
yourself what is good, bad, useful, or to be discarded.
As children we were taught using a process of selective introduction. There were colors and shapes to be identified, patterns and textures to be discovered for the first time. There were
new visuals to be seen in books and encountered on outings; countless objects and images to be categorized and named with the help of our parents and teachers.
This method works well for children, but for the adult learning to draw, these distant memories become problematic. We grow up thinking that a nose, say, is a thing in and of itselfwhich,
of course, it is not. A nose is simply a protrusion from the flatter front of the face; it is not a separate object which may be removed and replaced like a watch on the wrist. In the same
way, an eye is not a distinct thing. From the artists standpoint it consists only of various shapes, values and colors; a roundness within a depression within the front surface of
the head. What is the head, for that matter, if not an elliptical protrusion from the top of the torso?
Odd though it sounds, in order to draw effectively we must unlearn a bit of what we learned as children. When we draw a head, a figure, or anything at all, we must first and foremost distance
ourselves from what the subject actually is, and see it abstractly. Instead of a human being, we must train ourselves to see an abstract pattern of light and dark. If we reproduce this pattern
accurately, we will go a long way toward describing the essence of the subject. This is why beginning students draw best from photographs that are turned upside down, where the actual subjects
are less recognizable. Liberated to reproduce the pattern of light and dark without distraction, students draw with greater accuracy.
The astute reader may be aware of an apparent contradiction in what I have said. How, you may ask, must great art, high art, contain an element of humanity when the artist views the subject
abstractly? The solution becomes apparent when we realize that there is a difference between one who is learning and the accomplished artist. The student must forget about the human being,
thinking only of the pattern of light and dark. Only later, when the fundamentals have been mastered, should he allow humanity to slip back into his work.
Self and Subject
Whether you are drawing from the model or from a photograph, avoid the temptation to copy exactly what you see. Every person, no matter how attractive, may appear grotesque from a certain
vantage, or under unusual lighting conditions. When this happens, make the feature in question look more ideal than you see it, more closely related to its essence, its character. The artists
job is to use his subject as reference, rather than to transcribe it literally. Realize this, and you will never merely copy, but will include only what benefits the rendering. This is how
your personality finds its way into your drawing, becoming an integral part of it. Remember, your primary task is not to reproduce the model in every detail, but to make a successful, personal
This having been said, there are highly regarded artists who render their subjects literally (or nearly so), but even they have imposed their personal vision by selecting the model(s),
composition, and value scheme. Consider the Dutch master Jan Vermeer, whose objective was to promote the quiet domestic interiors he rendered so carefully. His paintings reproduce, in a
highly realistic manner, luminous conditions of light. Although Vermeers presence is felt in his choice of subject and composition, he has made a conscious effort to subjugate his
personal feelings. We are left with the impression that the actual settings he used looked very much as he depicted them.
For other artists, however, the subject chosen is much less important than their personal vision, their emotional state. These artists interpret what they see, not merely transcribe, so
their feelings become an integral, if not dominant, part of their portfolio. At the turn of the century Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and other French Impressionists were far more interested
in how they went about painting than they were in what was painted. Theirs are largely portraits of themselves, regardless of the subjects depicted.
It is up to you to decide how to proceed. Keep in mind, however, that you should master the basics before launching into the depths of personal expression. You must learn to speak before
you can communicate to others. New students always want everything immediately. They wish to paint like Charles Hawthorne or draw like Howard Pylebut without putting in the years of
practice that it took these individuals to become masters of their craft.
Many a good artist has dreaded the comment, made to them by laymen,You are so talented! They object to the phrase because it denies them all the many dedicated years they worked
to hone their skills. Artists may be born with an innate interest in arta force that drives them forward, past countless obstaclesbut the skills they acquire are always the result
of years of hard work. If you are unsure how to proceed with your drawing, discover what kind of art you enjoy. Visit museums and galleries; study art in books and magazines. This will show
you the way. Whatever path you take, be sure that your choice is not merely cover for a lack of skill. If you are fond of abstract art, for instance, make certain that it is not because
you find it easier to produce than realism. First and foremost, learn to draw well and to speak with a clear voice. Then, when you finally do communicate through your work, you will be understood
When you think about it, drawing is an exercise in memorization. You look at the model, soak up information like a sponge, then retain it long enough to spill the image onto paper. All of
us like to think we have keen powers of observation and good memories, but this is rarely the case. You have looked at your own face in the mirror for years, but can you draw it from memory?
How about the faces of your parents, your spouse, your children? You look at the dashboard of your car every day, but do you recall it well enough to draw it accurately?
The trouble is that although we look, few of us take the time to really see. Needless to say, increasing our power of observation is paramount in learning to draw better. One way of accomplishing
this is to increase the time taken between looking and drawing. As an exercise, try turning your back to the model. Youll have to turn your head to see your subject, and thus extend
the time taken between observing and drawing. Better still, place your model in one room and your drawing paper in another. Although frustrating at first, you will soon develop an exceptional
visual memory. Practice such exercises, and youll be surprised by how quickly your powers of observation improve.
Nature and Art
It may be argued that artists are closer to natureand to their own naturethan are other individuals. Artists are not simply observers of the natural world, they are a part of
it. While drawing, an artist spends many minutes or hours in tranquil contemplation of his subject. How different this is from one merely glancing, merely passing through. Perhaps not surprisingly,
most artists are always drawingor painting, or sculptingif only in their minds. They see an unusual face in a crowd and think about how it might be faithfully rendered, what
effects might be achieved; they drive their car and compose landscapes in their minds with every turn of the steering wheel. It has been said that to truly understand a man, we must walk
in his shoes. To truly see him, we must draw his picture.
To better understand our relationship with art it is necessary to first define our place in the scheme of things. What is our true nature, our essence as human beings? How do we fit into
the world? These are not easy questions to answer, but we do know this: animals in the wild are somehow closer to nature than we are, and perhaps for this reason, closer to their essence.
They fit in better than humans do, and left to their own devices, rarely deviate from their natural course. Every action a bear makes in the wild, for instance, is essentially
bear-like. Everything about a rainbow trout says trout. In every way possible a deer is a deer, a wolf a wolf, a hawk a hawk; they never stray from their nature. Human beings,
for the most part, are not as consistent as this. Men and women dieting, day-trading stocks, and driving in rush-hour traffic are not essentially human in quite the same way that an otter
gliding through a river is essentially an otter.
The difference is that we humans are too aware of our own existence; we think too much and deviate from our charted path. We constantly create ourselves anew, redefine ourselves, perform
self analysis. Our minds, our thoughts, our free will very often distance us from what we naturally are, from simply being. We live in our minds, rather than in the world. It is the age-old
existential problem, and the reason why Eastern meditation techniques typically begin by a focus on breathing: being, rather than thinking.
There are, fortunately, essentially-human endeavors that remain untainted by egocentrism, acts in which the analytical mind of man fades into the background. Drawing is one of these acts,
revealing a glimmer of our true nature. While drawing, a kind of transcendence takes place. In hindsight we look back upon these occasions as being ones in which we were no longer set apart
from nature, but were an integral part of it. While drawing, we are living the moment.
Many of the worlds greatest works of art are simple arrangements of everyday things: a pair of old shoes, rendered with quiet dignity by van Gogh; a hanging beef carcass, painted with
great sensitivity by Rembrandt; a seated, contemplating man, powerfully sculpted by Rodin. In the developmental stages of your own abilities, place your model in a simple setting with few,
if any, additional elements. A lone figure against a plain background provides enough to challenge even the most experienced artist. If you have the occasion, examine the work of American
painter Andrew Wyeth. Although he creates highly rendered scenes, they are composed in a profoundly simple manner. It is his basic, simple compositions that serve as foundations to hold
his extraordinary detail together. Remember that while simplicity unifies, complexity fragments. A drawing that is composed of only a few basic elements, economically stated, speaks clearly
of the artists intentions. It says he is in control of his medium, rather than the other way around. A complex drawing more often appears confused and monotonous, and lacking a sense
of direction. It is said of Ernest Hemmingway that his writing has a great economy of style. Like him, we would be wise to say more with less.
As you draw, create a methodology in which small accidents are allowed to happen. Cultivate a degree of randomness or unpredictability in your work, so that the unexpected might occasionally
be thrown your way. Try drawing on randomly textured paper, for instance (like hand-made rice paper), or with a dry oil painting placed beneath your drawing paper. Try starting a drawing
by sanding a soft charcoal stick over the top of your page, letting the dust settle as it will. Then, see how your drawing can be woven into this fabric of random tones. Try staining your
paper with a haphazard wash of watercolor—even coffee or tea—and letting it dry before beginning your drawing.
The point is to allow accidents to occur; a bit of randomness. Use your imagination and see what happens. The benefit becomes clear once you realize that when you allow accidents to happen—and
work with them—you gain insights that would not have otherwise occurred to you. A drawing in which the artist has dealt with—and overcome—several accidents is nearly always
superior to one in which he has anticipated each and every move. It is in working with accidents, with the unknown, that the artist expands his knowledge base. He learns nothing, on the
other hand, by simply repeating what he has done before.
The High Ground
Proceed with your drawing from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out. Instead of moving from one small detail to the next, plan your entire design beforehand. Find where forms will
be located before you actually render them. The process is similar to standing on a tall mountain and looking into a valley below. As long as you stay at this height your view is unbroken;
you can see where youre going and maintain your objectivity. If you are a bird flying at this height, you can proceed where you desire because you are taking-in the big picture. But
what happens if you descend into the valley, forested with tall trees and riddled with boulders? Your sense of direction is compromised because you have lost your grand perspective. Your
ability to determine your own fate, to navigate effectively, is entirely lost. While drawing, look for the big picture and fight off the temptation to render details before larger forms.
Your drawing will become more harmonious and will gain a sense of unity. Take the high ground, and youll always know where you are headed.
Dealing with Frustration
Every artist has periods of frustration, times when the gap between what he wants to do, and what he is able to do, seems insurmountable. As a beginning student, I remember sessions when
my drawings seemed so far away from what I wished them to be that I stormed out of class, angry, discouraged, profoundly disappointed. Finally, I stopped drawing altogetherfor a year
or twountil eventually the prospect of never drawing again became even more painful than my initial frustration. It was then I made a pact with myselfa kind of solemn oaththat
in order to master my craft I would continue to draw, seriously and continually, for a minimum of ten years. I told myself that I would no longer be concerned with perfecting any particular
drawing, but would simply try to draw better today than I did last week, or last month, or last year. Id concentrate on learning how to draw, rather than creating a magnificent drawing
It worked. My periods of frustration diminished once I freed myself from the burden of having to create a flawless drawing every time. I finally realized that drawing was a process, an evolution,
rather than a destination. Today, if I make a drawing that I dislike (and believe me, it happens), I no longer fear that my skills have vanished, that I will never draw well again. All it
means is that I made a bad drawing. Other good ones will follow; some may even be sublime. It is all part of the learning process.
I have come to realize that we who engage in creative tasks are on a kind of train, speeding toward an unknown destination. The train seems infinitely long, extending forward and back as
far as the eye can see. Some of our fellow artists are seated behind us, while others are seated ahead. As we increase our level of skill, we move a seat forward; in time, an entire car.
You see, it doesnt matter which car we are on. Nor does it matter who we are in front of or who is ahead of us. What matters is thatas long as we are creatingwe are on
the train, and that with it we are moving forward.
As your experience grows, you will notice more and more how life imitates art, and art imitates life. You will find, for example, that a better understanding of the craft of drawing will
make you a more caring parent, a more lyrical musician, a more insightful scientist. In turn, learning to be a better spouse, writer, fisherman, or plumber will help you become a more enlightened
artist. The only requirement is that you remain open and aware of this process; that you consciously search for similarities and connections between art and other disciplines. Over time
youll be surprised how much one benefits the others.
It helps to realize that nature is always aesthetic and can guide you when other forms of motivation falter. Whether observing the graceful rhythms of the human body, or a leaf floating
in a pond, nature is never harsh, never disproportionate, never without balance, poise, and a sense of harmony. Whenever you are in doubt about your abilities or reasons for drawing, study
nature. Watch the branches of trees blow in the wind; look at clouds as they caress the mountain tops; observe a puppy at play. Nature is our ultimate source of inspiration, as well
as our best teacher.
What exactly does the experienced artist know? How do his methods, his thought processes, differ from others? Does he hold the pencil differently, or summon complex procedures?
It may surprise you to hear thatby-and-largethe only advantage the master has over the inexperienced artist is a heightened ability to see. His refined visual sense is more selective,
more focused than those with less experience. He has learned to filter out the non-essential, getting at the root of the matter quickly. And yet, such things are relative. If you asked the
master about his acute visual sense, he would no doubt say that he too has much to learn.
To succeed in drawing, as with anything in life, you must give it due respect. Proceed as if you were performing a grand ceremony, taking part in a solemn ritual that has linked humanity
since its beginning, as indeed it has. Before starting to draw, have your tools and materials present and ready, your pencils sharpened, your eraser clean, your paper smooth and anchored
firmly to the drawing board. Take a few deep breaths. Observe your model for several minutes before actually beginning to draw. Try to visualize the finished product in your mind; work out
the composition, the values and focal point. Where will the darkest dark be? The lightest light? Where will you center the viewers attention? It has been said of the great Renaissance
master Michelangelo that he could examine a raw slab of marble and actually visualize the finished figure inside it. All he had to do was chip away the unwanted fragments to expose the living
form within. Know exactly where you are headed before you begin and, like Michelangelo, your progress will be quick and sure. At all cost, avoid being careless, unorganized, or haphazard.
If you are neat, dedicated, and reverent to the task, you will not fail.
Ambassador for Art
In my travels to Europe I observed that in the eyes of many I was not simply an American, I was America. Whatever I said or did was taken to represent the collective views of all occupants
of my beloved country. As a result, I invariably assumed the role of ambassador and was on my best behavior. The impression I wished to leave was a favorable one.
When we engage art we must become its ambassador also. As with our homeland, we must give art due respect, behaving properly, speaking well of it so others will be left with an accurate
and favorable impression. We must be willing to come to Arts defense when others strive to bring it down; we must possess a substantial knowledge base to back up our aesthetic assertions.
More than this, we must be a kind of missionary for art, spreading the good word, in a sense; opening the world to a better acceptance of artistic values.
I once heard of a small shop owner in New York city who did something extraordinary. Each day, he took a photograph from his shop window, never leaving his store to do so. When each photo
was developed he placed it in an album for his customers to view. Over the years he filled dozens of photo albums with his snapshots of daily city life: a taxi driving by, a policeman writing
up a ticket, a child with a balloon, a weeping homeless woman, a pigeon on a mailbox. His collection became a window to the world, a grand appreciation, and a celebration of life, motion,
composition, and pattern... all from his little shop. Truly, this man was one of Arts ambassadors.
The true difference between the non-artist and and the artist is that while one may think something is beautiful, the artist believes it to such an extent that he takes measures to share
it with others. Training certainly bolsters ones skills, but training alone is not enough. Love what you see and draw to share it with others, not for the purpose of showing off or
for monetary gain, but out of generosity.
© 2003 Norm Nason
Norm Nason is a senior graphic designer and fine artist who received his BA degree in English from California State University, Northridge, where
he also attended graduate school. In his 15 years as a technical publications manager, he provided graphics services to numerous aerospace and defense contractors, including
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Rockwell International, and the Army’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He currently works in advertising and has illustrated
several books, including Interpreting the Stratigraphic Record, by Donald Prothero, Ph.D.; and MetaMan, by Greg Stock, Ph.D.; and he designed the book Sergei
Bongart, by Mary Balcomb. Norm has taught life drawing and painting at the California Art Institute since 1988, and is a painting member of the California Art Club. His
photography was featured in the October 2003 issue of TheScreamOnline. Also, read his article "Vincent
van Gogh and Aesthetic Guilt."