I am often asked, How do I improve my drawing skills? The question is usually phrased with an implied question such as, “Is there a trick to getting better at drawing real quick?” I always feel like lurching for the old cliché, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” but that’s not what they want to hear!
Drawing is often described as mark making. This seems to me a rather clumsy and inaccurate way to define the activity. Yes we make marks on paper but we are all very good at that anyway and our handwriting skills evidence this.
There are skills involved in making marks more confidently, with greater variety of strokes, of following the direction of form with your marks, etc but on their own do not make your drawing better.
Drawing is better described as contour line selecting. Contour lines describe the point on a transitioning curved surface where it turns away from the viewer in space. The horizon line is a simple example. That is the line that describes the point beyond which we cannot see anymore of the earth.
Drawing well is a delicate balance between analyzing what you see and drawing what you already know. The only way I know, to improve drawing skill, is to work on one’s understanding of the mechanics of the visual world.
For example, life drawing skill, can never improve without getting to grips with how the skeleton and overlaying muscular structure of the human form, affect the way it appears.
Imagine drawing hands from different angles. Without an anatomical understanding, they will always be just a collection of complex shapes, conditioned by changeable light conditions.
Without digging deeper into the underlying structures of things, we are forever only drawing what we see. In that sense we can never learn “to own” the experience. We can never see things for their structure, but only for their appearance – and we know appearance is only one tenth of the truth hey!
knowledge is the empowerment of the artist. Technique is nothing more than understanding how to describe and present to the viewer that which the viewer does not understand. If the artist does not scrape the surface of what things appear to look like, they are forever stuck in first gear.
This lesson is fundamental and goes a long way to explaining why the life drawing of so many art students today, is trapped in, what I call, “the victim state”. That is a state where we are recipients of visual treats but can never fully control them.
In response to this lack of structural understanding the contemporary artist goes to great lengths to become expert in describing how things appear. Many modern artworks, especially portraits are testament to a very high level of skill in recording what is seen. These portraits are so very different to ones painted only half a century ago.
The reason they are different is simple. The impressionist and expressionist movements have so fundamentally altered our perception of what it means to be an artist today, that it is very difficult to return to a time when the patient pursuit of visual understanding took priority over the emotional and the impression.