Draw Accurately: Why can’t I draw my kids’ faces?

Last night was the first in an 8-week drawing course I’m giving in Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. I didn’t learn to draw in art college. Okay, I did spend an intensive year there at the age of 17, and the drawing tuition was excellent – from some of the tutors. Sadly, there were those that had some kind of weird belief that making a beautiful drawing was an outdated and outmoded practice, with no point. They called it “making pretty pictures” and dismissed my efforts and those of other drawers – to seventeen year olds! – as “s***”. One of them even made me cry once. I lost my confidence and decided I hadn’t a chance of having any sort of career in art, or in anything. I went into science. Away from the world of suspicious art tutors, in musty halls of learning, the lure of the dreaded pretty pictures was everywhere. In zoology, I kept a poor young teaching assistant waiting as I drew a fox skull one Friday afternoon; in botany I drew the blue, exquisitely delicate brush-like tips of the penicillium fungus under a microscope; in geology I made sketches of folded rocks and mountains in the field, reminiscent of 19th-century natural philosophers. I drew wild flowers, lying flat on the ground to draw them growing, I drew thin sections of rocks, hunched over the microscope, marvelling at the kaleidoscope of colour they made in polarised light, and, finally, when I reached PhD level, I drew countless drawings of microscopic drops of ancient fluids trapped in minerals. Fast forward ten years or fifteen years. Drawing is once more central to my life. So much so that I draw every day. I find drawing as good as a stiff drink when it comes to relaxing and chilling out; but it’s cheaper, it doesn’t wreck my liver and my looks and it doesn’t leave me with a headache the next day. There are still some odd folk employed by art schools in Ireland to tell students not to make beautiful art, but they aren’t the boss of me. I think that few things are as beautiful as simply-expressed drawings of the world in which we find ourselves. If you want to make a drawing which is beautiful, it helps to draw accurately. Lesson 1: LEARNING TO SEE This cannot be emphasised strongly enough. If you really see your subject, you’re halfway there. All you have to do after that is copy the shapes you see correctly. Yeah, I know that’s easier said than done. But it’s the underlying principle of everything I do. I’m always settling down to draw, then stopping after a few minutes and reminding myself to look again, to stop messing about. Take drawing my kids’ faces, for example. A face is a very subtle mixture of shapes and colours. The fact that I KNOW what a nose looks like, what eyes look like, makes me draw without looking in an honest way, and trying to see clearly. If I could override what my brain thinks it knows, and draw what’s really there, I’d be able to do it with consistent success, instead of so sporadically that I become very emotional when I capture one of the little cuties faithfully. So for last night’s class, I wanted the students to draw something that they were not already familiar with, something their brains didn’t already think they knew how to draw. I asked them to bring something transparent, like a glass tumbler, or something metallic, with a good reflective surface, like a kitchen utensil. If you do this at home just be careful that the glass isn’t too elaborate: the student who brought the wine glass was probably more successful, because she only had the reflections to draw; the student who brought the stunning cut-crystal glass had a bigger challenge of seeing correctly, as there were carefully cut flutes and grooves everywhere, each bisecting a shape, and causing refraction. I would go with the plain wine glass unless you’re in the mood for a challenge. I used textured, tinted paper in a sandy colour. I gave them each a white gel pen, a 0.3mm permanent fine liner and a little pad of tinted paper. They each brought a HB pencil, a decent rubber and a sharpener. Here are some of the tricks that help us to SEE our subject, just as we approached it last night:

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