Don’t draw what you see – sorta.

Let me explain the title. Of course I want to draw what I see; don’t we all? A nice sunset, trees, people, buildings – they’re all out there. Even if I decide to draw a completely fantastic scene, there will still be plants, animals, and people, and where there are people (human or not) there are artificial structures. There are all sorts of things in my head I want to get on paper. But trying to draw what I’m looking at, without understanding the physical laws constraining everything, is a lot more complicated than you might think.

Every artist I’ve spoken to, every book I’ve read, every class I’ve had, regarding “how to draw” says this: “Visualize the shapes in your subject. Circles, ovals, rectangles – everything is a ‘shape with details’. Draw the basic shapes first, then fill in the details.” Look at your hand: whoa! Futurama! – Lrrr’s hands  Hands are complicated – all those lines, my right pinkie sticks out (too many dislocations), it’s hairy… so much going on. Trying to draw that as-is always gets me caught up in the details rather than the overall structure, and when I’m done it’s OK, but then that’s the only way I can draw a hand. If I want to draw a hand that’s not splayed I have to revisualize everything down to the last detail. Too much for anyone.

Instead, I can look at it another way. At the base of the hand is the end of my arm; what’s it look like? Two more-or-less converging lines. What does the palm look like? A square? Not quite; it’s more of a trapezoid, with the short base being my wrist and the long base the part where my fingers come from. Fingers are elongate ellipsoids, two short arcs at each joint (rather than the 7-10 lines I see on my actual hand) and a longer arc at the end of each finger for the nail. For comparison purposes (picture of my left hand on the left, mouse-drawn in MS Paint on the right):

My handSimple shapes hand

So the thing on the right isn’t very good; looks like something a 3-year-old might draw – but the important thing is, it’s recognizably a hand. I can work from that, adding in a little detail at a time, until I get this, which is simple but clearly a hand.

Simple hahnd

To get this hand I started with the “shapes-only” hand, added a little detail, and erased the guidelines.

I think this insight (start with recognizing the simple shapes, get them down, then add a little more detail each time) is valuable. In hindsight, the desire to get to the finished product right away, rather than starting small and adding detail, is what kept me from doing other complex things, like learning guitar. I’d get frustrated and, foolishly, ashamed that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and I quit. Gaining this insight is one step of growth; the next step is to put it into practice.

Another step, at least on the drawing path, is digging out some things I drew in high school. They’re fairly good. An artist I admire has a set of YouTube videos on his drawing process. He shared a few videos of art he did when he was 12 – 15 years old; my art at the same age was as good as his was. The difference is simple: he kept drawing and getting better, I stopped and haven’t drawn anything since. Now, I’m not arguing that in 25 years I’ll be as good as he is today; I haven’t a clue whether I’ll be any good in a few months, much less after years and years of practice. I am arguing, though, that at one time I had this skill, and with practice can regain it and get better than I am now, or was then.

And isn’t that what matters, that I get better? I think it is.


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