What are the essential, key elements in drawing and painting better?

 Cardoon, detail, coloured pencil

What are the crucial , vital, key elements in drawing and painting?  There isn't a hard division between painting and drawing - they blur into each other - for instance, charcoal is extremely painterly and paintings need drawing elements (with paint).

For me the key elements are:
  • observation and underlying drawing skills even in very free or very sketchy work, it's what makes it hang together believably -  it doesn't need to result in a photorealist image, just one where proportions and perspective and form are shown.  The observation in a Degas sketch is amazing, with life and vitality,  but not photo like.  The sketches of David Hockney or Van Gogh are made up of pattern and marks - but the landscape reads, uphill down dale and the woods and hedgerows flow.
  • good use of tone, showing the full range observable - this may be limited as in a subtle Gwen John interior - but more often has a wide range of contrasts.   Half close your eyes to simplify tonal values capture them with more ooomph.  Don't forget 'lost' edges where things next to each other may be different colours (or not), but are tonally equal and the edge is indistinct,
  • using line where the flow of it creates form and movement - but not to simply outline,   if a line is used it has to 'earn its keep' and be there because it's doing a job of work and the weight and tone of it vary with the delicacy of the subject or distance or suggesting a 'lost edge'.
  • the marks made - a wide variety of marks to help express the texture, form, feel of an object or the landscape; the roughness of bark, the liquidity and weight of the sea, the tangle of undergrowth or branches.  A variety of tools or media helps with this - it's why so much of my work is mixed media - so that I can pick up the tool or medium that will give the mark I want.  Don 't be too neat - most works seen up close have areas of scribbly marks - looking at  a reproduction in a book makes thing appear tighter and neater than they are in real life. 
  • Colour - learning to mix a wide range of bright and subtle colours - what Jeanne Dobie , in Making Color Sing, calls 'mouse colours' are essential to make a painting glow without being garish.  This is a really good book and not too basic, so it's quickly outgrown.   One to dip into as work progresses.
  • Composition - don't assume that you have to fit everything in, a crop can be much more interesting.  And don't have all elements (trees or lemons or whatever) the same size and shape - vary).  Vary angles, think how the eye moves around the painting, not just the 'rule of thirds' - colour and tone can enable to break 'rules' by guiding the eye onward.   Great examples of this 'rule breaking' is in the current Lowry exhibition at the Djanogly gallery at the University of Nottingham - a great show.   Read this post for my thoughts on the visit and his unusual compositional devices.
  • Quiet vs busy areas -  which is really part of composition - it's easy to overcomplicate (I know all too well ;>) ) - leave areas of quietness, spaces that offset the areas of interest with more detail.
  • Colour balance  - some, a little and a lot is a suggestion that frequently works well, not having the same quantity of each dominant colour - and harmony, using not too many colours within one painting.   I like to have a wide range of pigments to choose from but within any one work, won't use too many at a time.  I'm definitely not of the 'you only need one red, one yellow and one blue' school.    Just as an example; without magenta it isn't possible to get  zinging translucent pinky purples, and without pthalo blue and viridian I wouldn't be able to mix the colours of Cornish seas.  There are other colours it's lovely to have simply for the effect they have in colour mixes.  And the colours that magenta and viridian make when mixed are just delicious!
  • Using sketchbooks - to work out ideas, to practice, to research, to do plein air work that will later lead on to finished paintings in any medium, to stick interesting things in, quotes, articles ... anything.   I have a few facsimile artists sketchbooks, including Kurt Jackson, David Prentice, John Blockley and now  A Yorkshire Sketchbook by Hockney.   I love sketchbooks.  They show the underlying thinking, the shorthand marks, sometimes the written thoughts, giving an insight into an artists wider body of work.  Sketches can be simple pencil line, more developed with tone, pen, charcoal, watercolour, oil and much much more and a  mix of any of the above - that's what's in my books anyway!  Don't only set out to do 'finished pieces'  - play, explore and it will feed into those finished pieces later.
  • Get out to galleries to see past masters and contemporary work.   As I said when talking about marks - work that appears very realist, when seen close up can be made up of scribbles and gloops of paint - just take a close up look at the lace in a Rembrandt for a great example of this.

That's my two pennyworth!   What do you think is essential?

and I'm going to take each of those elements and go into them more, with examples, one by one.


Hillary said…
Thanks for the timely posting, I am working on this at the moment and it has given me more things to think about and to try.
Reign said…
this post sounds very useful to people wanting to be new gen artists, thank you
vivien said…
I'm glad you thought it might be helpful - I'm going to do follow ups, expanding on each point, following a request to do so.
I agree with all of the above but would like to add 'Practise' the more you do the better I think. A little and often and you can't help but improve hand eye co-ordination and how much you actually see. Oh and experimentation too... losing the fear factor.

Great post I'll eagerly await your thoughts in the expanded posts. Have a great weekend.
vivien said…
Thanks Lisa :>) and funnily enough - I've just put a paragraph about that in the post on observation today!

I totally agree

Have a great weekend too :>)

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