A STUDENT FRIENDLY APPROACH TO DRAWING AND PAINTING TECHNIQUE
There are very few, if any, people who have such a natural talent for drawing and painting that they can do it well without long years of study and practice. I have been drawing all my life and have been painting professionally for 25 years. I am considered, by some, to be fairly good at it. Even so, I must practice constantly, and I still find new things to learn. Like all artists, I am not satisfied with my skills. I work every day to be better than I am. Fortunately, I have the obsession for drawing and painting that makes all this work seem like fun. So I enjoy doing it. In this article I will try to share my approach to this work. It is not the right way to do it. There is no single right way to do art. This is simply one method that works well for me. Some parts of it may be useful to you. I hope so.
When I draw or paint something, I want it to look very real. Not all artists want that, but I do, so I will share with you things you should think about if you want your artwork to look real. In order to fill my mind with the skills necessary to do this, I study books on anatomy, and I draw from live models as frequently as possible. Drawing from live models is useful. It forces you to be fast and helps you become good at quickly capturing the essence or gesture of the figure. I also draw from photographs. Some artists say this is bad. I do not agree. You can learn a lot from photographic reference. With photographs the light stays the same, and the model does not move. I prefer to take my own photographs when I am doing an important painting, but for practice I have a huge file of pictures of people, animals, and objects that I have gathered from magazines and books over the years.
The most common failure in the works of younger illustrators is that they attempt to draw something for which they have no reference, and they get it wrong. Do not be ashamed of needing reference. Using it does not mean you are a bad artist. It means you are wise. When I was starting out, my mentor complained that I was not using proper reference for complicated figures or objects. I told him that I believed I should be good enough not to need it. He took me to the home of a very famous artist whose paintings were in museums and sold for a great deal of money. I watched that artist work. Attached to his easel were many pictures of each and every item that he was going to put in his painting. He used lots and lots of reference. As we left, my mentor said to me, “Most of the people who say you should not use reference, cannot paint as well as this man. He knows his human limits and compensates for them. Those other people do not. Listen to him, not them.” That made sense to me.
When I first went to see my mentor, I thought I could already draw very well and that what I needed to learn was how to paint, so I asked him to teach me the skills of painting. He said that the first skill of painting was to be able to do the entire painting as a drawing, and he asked me to show him a drawing I had done. I showed him one. He laughed and said he could see from my drawing why my paintings were failing. He pointed out that my drawing was simply lines, the outlines of the figures and objects. Painting, he said, was recreating how light hits various objects and textures and bounces back to our eyes.
“What do your outlines tell you about all that?” he asked. I had to admit that they did not give me any of that information. “A drawing, “ he said, “is a monochrome. In it you do not have to worry about the complex problems of hue and chroma that you will face in your painting, but it is the perfect time to work out all of your values. Your drawing should solve every question of value that you will face in your painting. Do that and your paintings will improve.” He was right.
For my next painting, I took the time to gather [or create] good photographic reference for each element, and I drew each one, not just as an outline, but with all the shadings filled in. Then I went over it again, balancing the values as a whole. After having done all that, which did take a lot of time, my painting went much more quickly. I knew what I was doing and where I was going. If I put down a brushstroke, I could look back at my drawing to tell me how light or dark the next brushstroke would need to be. The drawing was my roadmap. All I had to do was follow it. That painting was successful. It won awards, sold for a lot of money, and pretty much launched my career as an illustrator. The person who bought the painting also purchased the drawing, so I did not feel nearly so badly about having taken the time to do it. It was definitely a win-win.
Now when I am drawing I try to make sure that Line does not control me. I want my thoughts to be on volumes, masses, and shapes, and I want to reproduce the way light hits them or the way they cast shadows. Off to the side of my drawing I will scribble with my pencil until I have a large area of graphite that I can rub onto my finger and thumb to get them covered with the pigment. Then I will look at my reference and use my pencil to make lots of very light loops and swirls to block in the basic shapes. Then I will use my finger and thumb to smear the graphite onto those shapes, giving them a more solid form. Next, I will take a soft eraser and use that to take away some of my smears to show where light will hit them. Then I begin refining my image, going back and forth all over it to balance the lights and darks. I try not to use the tip of my pencil [in the ordinary way] except where it is necessary to create my darkest darks or to define an edge. I use paper stubs, tissue, and my fingers to darken larger areas.
It often helps to use a paper or board that already has a medium value of grey or some other color on it. That way, your medium values are already established, and all you need to do is add the shadows and the lights. White paint or white Prismacolor pencils can be used to add the lights.
When doing a serious drawing for a painting, I prefer to do the drawing on something more substantial than paper. I use a piece of double thick watercolor board. If the painting is successful and the collector who buys it also wants the drawing from which it was done, it is easier to mount and frame it, and I know the drawing will last longer and be of more value.
Next problem: if my drawing is done on a separate board, how do I get it transferred to the board I will be painting on? Answer: tracing paper. If you have done your drawing to the exact size of your painting, you are ready to make a transfer drawing. If not, you will need to scan it and print out a copy of it that is the size you need for your painting. Once you have a copy of your drawing that is the correct size, tape some tracing paper over it. Make X marks in the corners, then trace the outlines of all the elements of your drawing. Then flip the tracing paper over and use your pencil to trace those lines once again on the back side of the paper. Do not forget to trace the X marks too. Now flip the tracing paper back over and place it on the board on which you are going to paint. Make sure the X marks are in the border of your painting area. Rub the surface of the tracing paper until the X marks and the outlines of your main elements are transferred to your board. Now you will know where the edges of things are when you start applying paint.
So far, my drawing tips have been confined to traditional media—pencil, paper, and board. Everything I have said applies equally to digital media. I often have to create paintings in Photoshop or other software programs. When I do this, I usually start off drawing, not lines, but with a big brush that lets me paint a solid black silhouette of my figure or object. Then I use white or light gray to softly paint in the areas where light hits the object. I build that up slowly, balancing light and dark just as I do in traditional media. Only after I get all the values worked out do I begin to think about color. Those tips, plus daily practice, should guide you to the type of drawings you need to be able to do.
Now I can offer a few words about painting. I am allergic to oil paints. I think oil paints are better than acrylic paints, but I become ill if I use them, so most of my experience has been with acrylics. Acrylics are harder to use, in some ways, easier to use in others. With time and patience, you can get them to do almost everything oils will do.
I should add, at this point, that acrylics do not do well on canvas or thin paper. They are essentially watercolors. In order to get the water to go away so the paint can lay down on the surface of your painting, you need to be painting on a surface that will soak up the water. I usually use double thick water color board, something close to three eighths of an inch thick. Sometimes I use something called “particle board”. It is essentially Masonite. But Masonite is bad as a base for paintings because it has oil heat-rolled into it. There is, however, an untreated form of Masonite with no oil in it. That is the kind of particle board which I use. I can buy it in large sheets [about one eighth of an inch thick] and cut them to the size I need for my paintings. This is heavier than watercolor board but thinner and will last longer. Either of these materials makes an excellent ground for an acrylic painting. I coat them with several layers of acrylic gesso to get a nice, white surface. I put the gesso on with a paint roller made from a sponge.
The first complaint people have about acrylics is that they dry out too quickly. The fact that they dry almost immediately after your brushstroke is, I think, a good thing. If the stroke was bad, you can paint over it immediately. No problem. The big problem is not to allow your pallet to dry out. I use a ceramic tray with raised edges to hold my pallet. It is called a butcher’s tray. In the tray I place folded sheets of paper towels that I have soaked in water. On those, I place my paints. By adding a little water now and then to the towels, my paints stay wet and useable all day long. At night I place a sheet of plexiglass over the top of the tray to keep out the air. My paints stay useable for approximately one week without drying out.
The next complaint people have about acrylic paints is that that they do not cover the board as easily as oils do. That is true. They don’t. You paint an area with a color, and it shows the streaks of your brushstrokes. You can, however, get past this problem. Acrylic paints need to be built up in layers. Let us pretend that you want to paint a quilted jacket on one of your figures. The first thing is to chose a color. We will say that you want the jacket to be yellow or golden. Take a medium yellow ocher and paint it into the entire area where you want the jacket to go. It will dry with streaks. Now do it again. Now do it a third time. By now you have a fairly thick area of yellow ocher, and it is a solid color. Your streaks are gone. That was “direct” painting. It is the technique that has the most problems with streaks. Now we will put in the highlights and shadows with other techniques. We will use Washes for the shadows and Drybrush for the highlights.
But we have a problem now. Our yellow ocher has covered up all our pencil lines that show us the diamond pattern of the quilting on the jacket. How will we know where the edges of those shapes are? No problem. We take our transfer drawing, lay it back over our painting, and if we line up the X marks in the corners with the X marks that we transferred to the borders of our painting, the transfer drawing will be perfectly aligned. All we need to do then is rub on it to make the diamond patterns of the quilting transfer onto our yellow ocher area. Now we can remove the transfer drawing and return to painting.
First, we will wash in our shadows. The shadow color is up to you. It can be anything dark, except black. You can use a little black in making it, but do not use black all by itself. Shadows have color. Black is the absence of color. Since this is a wash, you will want more water than paint on your brush. Just brush it into the area where you want a shadow and then, while it is still wet, take your thumb and tap the edges of the wet area to spread it out and keep it from forming a line as it dries. Then take a hair drier and use it to heat the surface of that area. This speeds up the drying, but it also “cures” the wash you just put on. It makes it melt into the paint below it. Now, if you need to add a second layer of wash to that area to make it darker, you can do that without washing away the first layer. Keep doing this until you have all your shadows in place. Your pencil drawing will show you where each one goes and how dark or light it is in comparison to the others.
Now you paint in the highlights. You will use drybrush technique for these. Again, your drawing will show you where each one goes and how bright to make it. White with just a touch of cadmium yellow light would make a good highlight color for the jacket. You can mix up a bit of that on your pallet, but this time do not make the mixture very wet.
The trick to drybrush is in the brush itself. I make my own brushes for this. I take a brush that has a lot of soft, natural bristles, then I chop them off leaving a stub of bristles less than one quarter of an inch long. I rub that on sandpaper to soften it. When I am ready to paint with it, I first dip the brush in water. Then I rub it on a cloth to get our almost all of the water. My stub of a brush is now merely damp. I then touch it to my paint and rub it on a piece of scrap board to get almost all of the paint out of it. Eventually all it will leave on the board is just a smudge. This is just what I want. Now I use that brush to rub in my highlights. Since all it is leaving is a smear, there will be no brushstrokes. It will look as if someone used a very small airbrush on that area. If you want to add another layer you can, but it would be wise to heat your first layer with a hair dryer to melt it into the layers below.
That is pretty much all there is to working with acrylics. You directly paint in the midtones, making several coats. Then you wash in your shadows and drybrush in your highlights. There are, of course, many other techniques that can be used with acrylics, but this one is very simple and very effective. I hope you have good luck with it.
POSTSCRIPT: One shouldn’t be too dogmatic about any of these “rules”. They are only suggestions from my collection of things that worked for me. The need for good reference materials is always useful. Don’t listen to those who say otherwise. And the idea of working all your values out in monochrome before you paint is a super idea. But it can have a downside. I know so much more now than when I started. Now I often find myself daring to work without the reference and without the value sketch. Not always, by any means, but more and more often, I just grab my brush and plunge ahead with no safety nets, working out my values as I go. I am not what I would call a good painter yet, but if I keep this up, I think I will be. The work done this way has a freshness and spontaneity that I like a lot. I did, of course, try this when I was starting out. The results were gruesome. Now, however, I am pleased to say that I get my best results this way. Yay!
By the way, this is not my only way of working. As we go along, I will try to add a little short blog about shading with pencil, another about a really useful technique using airbrush and colored pencil, and one on working in Photoshop. There may be others.