Anatomy of a Drawing 1

I thought it would be interesting to dissect a drawing, so to speak. This is one from my Moleskines collection, book two. It began with a what should I draw? kind of question, and a suggestion from Peter of a walrus. No more of an idea than that. I pulled up photos from the computer of walruses (I never work from someone else’s sketches) and roughly drew the face in pencil. He looked so much like a bearded and mustached character from the first second that it was natural to sketch in a bowler hat and the suit. One of the great things about drawing highly detailed work is that I have lots of thinking time while I’m methodically rendering stroke after stroke. There are no rulers, I just use the natural motion of my hand pivoting at my wrist to help me do long even strokes. You get very fast and even with practice. It’s funny how one thought leads to the next. The tilt of the walrus’ head mad him look asleep and the hat sat best on his head when pulled down low. And as he looked like a businessman, I asked where does a businessman sleep in his suit? – which led me to decide he was commuting. Then the setting and the need for other characters emerged.

Second Class Carriage

Although I didn’t know what else would be in the picture when I began with the walrus’ head, I made sure it was placed in the upper right third so that there would be plenty of room for the rest of the picture, whatever it was. Unless I am doing a character study where I want the main character to be staring out at us, front and centre, I usually place main features off-centre. Here’s my reasoning for it: nature is generally wonky – most things that we see are in flux – the sun moves across the sky, people move through their environments, shadows lengthen and flutter, stars in clusters wheel across the heavens, rain falls, wind blows, observers glance about and what we see with our peripheral vision is usually as important as what is in front of us when forming our feelings about a scene. Balance, when it occurs, is something that stands out. If you capture it in a picture it is there forever. Three boats scuttling past each other may line up for a second but that is one moment in a minute of drawing-closer. What moment would best describe the scene? Showing them in a regular line? That suggests that their natural state is order, predictable and stable. That would be false. No, I would draw one dipped, one turning, one close, one far and one passing… Where we place things tells us about their natures.

In this scene, although I started with the walrus, the real focus is on the environment – the whole ensemble. The bird-lady is central but absorbed, she is not engaging our attention. The walrus, although dominating by his size and plainer form (amongst a mass of pattern), is not king of this scene. He is off-centre and asleep. It is not a portrait, it is an illustration. It shows you a moment of a story – it allows you to glance in a carriage and wonder who these people are, where they are going and what their individual stories might be.

As for design… the shapes lead us around the picture fairly evenly.These below images are blurred to signify a trick Ido all the time when I’m painting or drawing… if I make my vision blurry I can better see the shapes, darks and lights and the structure of the piece, rather than getting distracted by the details. So, looking at the picture again, I’ve drawn in some of the things that are intended to direct your gaze a little. Here’s a summary…

walrus blurrywalrus blurry directions

All three main figures face the same way and create a diagonal sweep up to the right (arrows). Although the inside of the train is fairly dark, there are passages of light on the figures which are a counterpoint for the outside light. In the same way, outside, there are darker shapes and the dark point of the balloon. Where possible you want light against dark or dark against light. After all it is the presence of shadows that define shapes. It is the clustering of shapes and the passages of light that show us where to look, what is important, and how things relate to each other. In any picture, especially one with lots of detail, you usually need to have something that stands out that says – look over here, I’m important! There are three punctuation points for me here (circled). Three things that intentionally draw the eye: his bowler hat (very dark on a light background), the dark of the lady’s hat in the centre of the picture and the ship outside the window. There are also three small details of similar type, tone and size that hopefully form a chain, leading you into the landscape outside the window.

How much of this is designed and intentional? As I said, I didn’t plan it. But I am drawn to certain ways of doing things. I know I like threes in uneven clusters. I know I like lines that skirt the picture. I know I like to use a rule of thirds for where important lines and shapes should occur (a third up/down and in from an edge). I know that a white space needs a fleck of dark and a dark space needs a fleck of light. I know that relentless detail must be harmonised by something plain. And so whether it is intended or simply occurs, it is much the same. This visual expression is a language we speak with greater fluency the more we practise it. The exciting thing is that every artist speaks a slightly different dialect and would draw the same scene in so many different ways… I love that.

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