Warmup sketch, likeness and failing art

16 Apr

I’m exploring the point of failure in drawing. At what point am I giving up and why? Why in blazes do I want to bother about failing? Isn’t success much more important? Simply put, I want to improve my process. The best way to do that is to fail often and fail early and then revise where you want wrong.

Warmup sketch, likeness and failing art

Since the above drawing is my warmup sketch, I didn’t give a dang about structure. I took a random ad from my TV guide and started drawing top to bottom. There was some structure, but not much. Warmup is all about getting the bad drawing out of your system, so what follows is pure gold (one hopes).

And then it happened. The magic was lost. I saw so many mistakes on top of each other, so many entangled knots that I simply gave up. Of course, I knew this was going to happen, because I didn’t work systematically, being a warmup sketch and such.

And to be honest, a year ago, I would have been very proud at a result like this. I wouldn’t even have known that I made any mistakes, let alone how to avoid them. At most, I would have noticed that the result looked “odd”.

Also a year ago, I would have needed a 2B or even 4B lead, or I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at on the page. I enhanced the contrast of the scan considerably, so it reproduces better on a computer screen (and still it’s rather faint).

What has changed is that I’ve started to use a 4H-lead. The marks left behind by such a pencil are so faint, that you must be very aware what you are drawing in order to recognize the image on the paper. With that I mean that by using a faint pencil sketch, I force myself to internalize the original. I can then use that internalized image as my guide, instead of what is on a sheet of paper.

Yes, you read that correctly, if you want to draw from life, most of the drawing happens in your mind, not on paper. On paper are just the slight notations and some landmarks. The real story is inside your head. If you want anyone else to understand that story, you need to make it as clear as possible.

With “story” I mean “visual impression”. It is hard to explain to non-artists, but I will try to do so anyway.

How do you recognize a face? Well, I suppose you don’t really know. You just do. However, take a photo of someone you know and cover the top half. Do you still recognize him or her? You probably do. How is this possible? Aren’t the eyes what makes you recognize someone?

You have internalized the missing part. You already know the photo, even if you only got a glance at it before covering the top part. In your mind’s eye you can see those eye, even if your eyes can’t see it, because the top half of the photo is covered.

The same goes for drawing. You have drawn so many faces, that you’ve internalized a “standard face”, which you can draw with your eyes closed, so to speak. If you draw someone, you only have to notice in which ways that person deviates from the “standard face”. It’s this deviation you put on paper as an artist in the initial sketch. After all, you want to capture the particularities of a face, what makes it different from other faces. Then you fill in the rest with your knowledge of the “standard face” (what you’ve internalized by drawing so many different faces).

A typical beginner’s mistake is to start with the standard face, by using a schematic face they have adopted from a book about drawing faces. While such books are helpful to point the beginner what to look at, it’s no replacement for drawing experience. You need to have drawn a few hundred faces with some effort of trying to make it look like the original. At that point you have some conception of what a face looks like, beyond the point of recognition.

Again a stunning revelation for some, I guess. If it looks like the original, if I can recognize who it is, isn’t that enough? Well, it can be. For a mug shot, a composited portrait of a crime suspect, recognition is the only quality that is important. Rendering is kept to a minimum, so people don’t have to interpret the drawing too much. Even so, people are not as good in recognizing strangers, because they try to avoid eye contact. So these composite drawings seem to work best if the suspect is someone you know, someone whose face you have internalized.

Having a bad memory for faces myself, I don’t care as much about likeness as some do. It’s the structure of a face and the rendering of the features I’m concerned with as an artist. That this happens to coincide with a likeness is a happy accident, if you’d ask me in honesty.

So it’s the combination of likeness, structure and rendering that forms the “story” I want to tell with my sketches and drawings of faces. Because I publish my art and know that others care about it, I still need to concern myself with likeness. For most a portrait that doesn’t look like the original is a failed portrait, however “artsy” the drawing might be.

My take on it is that putting likeness at the top of the list of things to do in a portrait drawing or painting will lead to stiff art, like the person is consciously posing. If you put it lower on the list and start playing with structure and rendering first, the result will be much looser and satisfying.

I guess time will tell if I’m right. Many of my fellow students at my local community college I see measuring with a pencil first and mechanically reproducing a face with some kind of formula. The few who don’t have much looser art, but needed many years (ten or more) to arrive at that point. I have only been drawing seriously since 2009. The only difference is that I don’t put as much value on convention as some seem to do. Some may say that’s a weakness and if that’s true, I’m using that weakness to my advantage.

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4 Responses to “Warmup sketch, likeness and failing art”

  1. gonzalexx April 16, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    Great post Rene!
    I like the way you’re analyzing here. I think there’s much to learn that one passes by in the day to day drawing activities, but I think you pretty much caught all your important points. Great to have them in mind.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Rene April 17, 2011 at 12:16 am #

      Thanks, Jose!

  2. Marshall April 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    I like the idea of putting likeness as more of a secondary goal and internalizing face structure. That seems to me like a very “Comic Book Artist” type of technique. And I’m all for breaking conventional methods whenever the urge hits. All though i do value the discipline or at least the principles behind them. And may return to them at a later date.

    • Rene April 17, 2011 at 12:13 am #

      Well, it’s something that seems to work for me. It’s not a prescription for success. Sometimes I do follow convention, just because it happens to be the best option available to me. However, slavishly following convention is not really my thing.

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