Tag Archive for: how to draw

black & white duoMaking two paintings just using black and white as a tonal painting exercise seemed a natural progression of my new contrast project, even if it is way outside my normal colour comfort zone.

What did I hope to learn?

Our eyes see high contrast shapes more swiftly so how can we use that to lead the viewer’s eye around a painting in a pleasing way, using differences? Strong tonal difference is seen first, often from across the room and getting this structure right is essential to the overall impact of a painting, but you can be more playful within areas that are closer in tonal value so that there is interest when you  notice things that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Using differences in mark making, scale and shape can also help in the ‘design’ of your painting.

Beginning and adjusting

So starting with just simple marks and then reacting each time we add more to the painting is a good way to play with what impact we can have. This seems simple, but it was hard!

I wanted to avoid all my usual forms of reference – no allusion to landscape, just using simple forms.  I was prepared with different size brushes and I started with black… It felt very harsh!

When it felt like enough I switched to the second board so it didn’t become too repetitive. The aim was to avoid using mid tone greys as these can too easily become indistinct.

I tried to take photographs throughout so I could keep a record, but inevitably there were times things moved pretty fast. I thought might be easier to show in a video:

At the end of the first session I stood back and looked what I had done: two big bully boy scribbly eggs and some awkward lines that were similar in length which just emphasized the same shape. Not a great start.

Printing out the images at 2 inches square four times on an A4 sheet meant that I could add and subtract tonal areas just using a pen and tippex. This felt slightly like ‘cheating’ as I was avoiding resolving the issues I had created by using paint. But it allowed me to explore alternatives more quickly by expanding the darker shape on one panel and by covering it over on the second.

Different painting adjustments

It feels really good to obliterate things by painting over them! This in itself is a great lesson – too often I can feel wedded to a certain area of a painting too soon and the wish to preserve it can be so strong  I want keep it – even if it’s in the wrong place and doesn’t fit the overall composition. Seeing how a painting can be improved by painting over what isn’t right felt like a revelation. The improvement is more satisfying than the loss of what has gone. And it hasn’t completely gone – there are always traces left behind that add interest and texture.

If you know my work you will recognise these are VERY different from what I usually do. I was trying to keep away from anything representational on purpose. No landscapes, no tricks of lighter tonal value receding into the distance of a landscape. I was treating the surface of the painting as a flat plane and aiming to create balance rather than any illusion of three dimensions.

Black image adjustmentFixing in Photoshop

After I had finished I took one of the panels into Photoshop and made some further adjustments:

It was a painting of two halves, which can work, often where you have a horizon of land and sky but I needed a way to make it easier for your eye to move from left to right across this painting.

By breaking up the line between black and white and adding more lighter areas to the right hand side, this gives a way for your eye to travel over more easily.

The three white areas in the top right were similar in size so I made one larger.

That small white dash in the middle of the black area? Placed rather centrally between top and bottom? I elongated that and pulled it more towards the top.

The bottom area felt quite heavy so I broke into the black space and increased the whiteness of that light patch at the bottom so it pulls your eye downwards.

All these changes could be made with paint but I think they give more variety and liveliness. You ‘move around’ within the space so you find new things to look at in all areas of the painting. There are some similar shapes (where did the boats comes from?!) which means it feels a bit cohesive.

You could also make similar changes at a smaller scale using pen and tippex as I did earlier. Or by photocopying your black and white image and then using the second copy as source material to collage over the first image to ‘try on’ different possibilities and see what makes the design feel stronger.

But I’m not painting in black and white?!

… and neither will I be usually. 🙂 In the next post I’ll show you how doing this exercise has already helped me identify elements of a painting I’m working on which could be improved if I paid more attention to the value, rather than get carried away by colour!

Is tonal value something you consciously think about in your work, or notice when you look at paintings? Let me know…

Ask any grown-up and they have often decided that they are either creative or not. Sometimes this happens even younger; from childhood we start to build our own self-image. I wonder what it would take to change that perception?

Guests to our house over the summer have been drawn (no pun intended) to my sketchbooks as they lie scattered on the table. What is it about sketchbooks that is so tempting? Like a sweetshop full of unexpected gems… Conversation tends to follow a set pattern:

“Oh! Have you been drawing much?”

“Can I have a look?”
Always appreciated when someone asks this – sketchbooks can be quite private places – then usually followed by:

“How lovely, I wish I could draw!”

This is usually followed by excited encouragement from me as I truly believe there is no such thing as “not being able to draw”,  But it made me consider what people actually mean when they say they can’t draw. Because we can all draw. Even playing the board game Cranium there are rounds where you have to draw blindfolded and people manage to draw fully understandable drawings!

Of course we all draw differently. The way your hand moves across the page, applies pressure and changes direction is part of this. Often what people mean is that they can’t draw a visually accurate impression. Fair enough, this can be tricky – it certainly takes practice and time to develop the skill. But it is a skill, like learning to drive or touch type. If you want to do it, you can. You just need to want to do it enough to develop the practice.

There’s more to it than that though. Often when I draw I’m not looking to create an accurate representation – sometimes precisely the opposite. If I want accuracy I can take a photograph as a record, but when I draw I’m looking for some personal interpretation. Gerhard Richter is a German artist often credited with re-injected new life into painting when it was considered ‘tired’ but his enigmatic drawings also show how he challenges the preconception of what drawing is. This is a large drawing at 40 x 60 inches, some of the marks are evident but you can also see where he has taken away as well as added, building and removing in layers. What is it of? Does it matter? It seems an honest and refreshing way to draw.

Gerhard Richter Drawing II 2005

Gerhard Richter Drawing II 2005

I looked up the definition of ‘draw’ and was surprised at the results. Drawing in the artistic sense was waaaay down the list at number 22 of possible meanings. Instead I found this:

“to move or pull so as to cover or uncover something” draw the curtains

“to suck or take in” for example draw in air, inhale

“to extract or take for one’s own use” draw strength from one’s friends

“to bring about deliberately, to provoke” draw enemy fire

“to evoke as a response; elicit” performance that drew cheers from the crowd


What fabulous definitions!! If we think of drawing in the light of these we can begin to see how drawing can be so much more.

We draw to uncover our understanding – to push and pull our own reaction to what we see to discover the truth of what we are looking at.

Suck it up, take it in: we draw to absorb information.
Artists soak up like a sponge, it’s part of the creative process – to collect and gather.

Drawing is for your own use. Extract from it whatever you wish.

Widen your parameters and squash your preconceptions. Drawing can be bold and energetic like this gesture drawing by Clive Powsey. Or slow and studied like the work of Euan Uglow who famously uses compasses to measure his models exactly. Nothing is left to chance in this scientific approach and the measure marks become part of the drawing or painting.

quick gesture drawing showing movement and balance

quick gesture drawing showing movement and balance

every detail is noted in this measured drawing

every detail is noted in this measured drawing

Take a moment to to consider why you are making the drawing.

Drawing is a deliberate action; you can listen to music in the background, you can drive while having a conversation but drawing tends to absorb you. You have to make decision to find a drawing tool and surface and yet sometimes we don’t stop first to think about what we are doing – is it to create an accurate impression, to remember a moment or simply to generate a balance of textures on a page?

Evoke a response.. hmm I would forget the part about drawing cheers from a crowd – that’s bound to tie you in knots! Remember that drawing is for YOU but evoking some sort of emotional response is worth bearing in mind: excitement, calm, studied, delicate, energetic. Start to notice drawings you like and think about why – perhaps because they draw a reponse in you.

In its simplest form drawing is merely marks on a page. And a toddler can do that. Take the judgement out and you may find that you can indeed draw. And what a joy it can be!

As I was preparing for the recent Open House event I knew that one of the things people enjoy about it is the chance to find out more about the way an artist approaches their work. I always have sketchbooks on show, this time I also wanted to show people how a print is made so they could get an understanding of the work that goes into the different stages.

I had my own plates and prints taken at different stages on show but I wanted to push people even more…

Some of the prints I have made have been done using a drypoint technique, where you use a sharp tool to scratch directly into a surface. The resulting furrowed line creates a burr which holds the ink. It is relatively quicker than etching, much more direct and gives a softer almost furry line. You can’t print that many copies as gradually, under the pressure of the press, the burr breaks away.

So it was perfect technique to let people have a go. I laid some plastic plates out, some tools and invited people to have a try. I had no idea what people would do, I just wanted to give them the chance to pick up a tool and see what it felt like.

Vistors to Alice Sheridan open studio having a go at drypointAdmittedly I may have had an ulterior motive and within the first few visitors these comments started…

“I don’t know what to do!”

You got it… it may look simple; this art business, but even just starting can be harder than you imagine. Blank paper syndrome!

“It’s harder than I thought – it won’t go the way I want!”

Slightly unfair this; everyone trying something for the first time has to work through the unfamiliarity of the technique. Often we expect things to be so straightforward and art can be swiftly dismissed as “just a few lines on a canvas”. Learning to master and develop any new technique is one of the challenges of art that gives som many people enjoyment – always something more to learn.

“But I’m not creative, I haven’t done art since school”

When I heard this I really encouraged them just to have a go; just make a mark, draw with their eyes closed, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece. No one would be judging and the idea was that all the marks would build up so their own contribution would be indistinguishable. Losing their fear of being judged or, in this case, even being able to see the end result immediately, gave people more freedom to have a go and just try it out

Most people were slightly nervous but you could also feel a slight excitement at trying something new. Some people lost themselves for a few minutes as they became lost in a complex doodle.

And almost everyone at some point smiled and pronounced “Oh that was fun!”

Two days later I printed up the plates and sent the resulting images out to everyone on my mailing list. I printed just two copies of each plate: one for myself and one up for grabs for the first to reply. Just moments later we had two happy ‘winners’.

wiping the inked up plate

wiping the inked up plate

me printing the plates

me running the inked plates through the press in the studio, and yes, it is hard work turning that wheel!

So here are the plates – not what I would have predicted. I was expecting an almost black mass of overlapping lines and drawings but everyone was extremely polite and mainly tried to ‘fit in’ around what was already there. It has a sort of grafitti effect and you can clearly see the variation in natural shapes and styles you would expect of so many different hands.

Plate 1

Plate 1

Plate 2

Plate 2

I loved giving people the chance to do this. It was great to see people rise to the challenge and get involved. And exciting to create a work with such variety of input and no idea of what the outcome would be.

Perhaps I’ll try something similar again!