Art, in any form, requires discipline. One must learn and master core skills so well that they are second nature. Pianists practice scales. Ballerinas practice at the barre. Singers do vocal exercises. Athletes work out. These disciplines and practices are much more than a means to an end. Once you have attained a degree of proficiency, you still need to practice regularly so that the skills that allow you to continue to improve your art don’t deteriorate or get lost.
You cannot say, “I learned how to draw, now I’m just going to paint." It’s like a ballerina saying, “I danced Swan Lake at the Met so I’m not going to practice at the barre anymore."
For painters, the sharpness of our eye, our sensitivity to light, values, form, line, proportion, weight, perspective, and movement--all of these skills require continuous improvement and refinement. In addition to these “hard” skills, drawing is a very intimate and personal way of understanding your subject beyond the physical; it allows you to discover the subtleties of what makes your subject beautiful and unique.
An artist should aspire to capture the sublime, the joyful, the inspiring, and mysterious among other things. The key to discovering these elements lies in the drawing, well before any color is added.
Drawing as a means of communication and/or personal expression dates back in human history to around 40,000 years ago as evidenced by the cave paintings in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain. The more sophisticated images found in places such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, in my opinion, point directly to our human creativity and need to record our environment, experiences, and perhaps even conjure spirits for things such as a successful hunt. In short, drawing is such an innate part of our human identity and experience that we cannot ignore its importance.
I am also a very firm believer in the cognitive shift that occurs when we are drawing well; we are connecting with our subject on a deep level by quieting the logical, analytical, verbal, and symbolic part of our brain (the left side) and allowing the less-dominant, spatial, nonverbal, intuitive side (the right) to guide us and help us uncover the real truths about our subject. I also believe this is what many of us refer to as being in “the zone” when we are working and able to produce our best and most authentic work.
I have had arguments, or at least resistance, from students about the focus I place on drawing. In response to those encounters I like to gently remind them that drawing can be your personal journal of visual discovery and education. You don’t need to show them to anyone. Unlike a painting that you want to people to see, your drawings can be a personal place where you can feel free to make mistakes and if you really hate the piece, you can burn it without feeling bad that you wasted a lot of money on canvas, paint, etc. If you tell me that you are “afraid of wasting time” by spending a few hours a week with a pencil instead of a brush in your hand, I will ask you if you think Michelangelo, Raphael, or even Picasso “wasted their time” by drawing. It was how they exercised their skills and worked out the problems in a painting before they even picked up the brush. Release the hubris: if the greatest artists of all time knew the importance of drawing to create great paintings, why are you exempt from this practice?
In short, drawing for painters simply cannot be ignored and should be practiced. Listed below are several books I recommend with a link to preview and purchase if you desire. I’ve found these to be the best both from a practical and inspirational point of view. No one book can possibly cover everything that we need to know or understand about drawing; each book has a different focus, different approach, but all are incredibly valuable in their own right.
Draw like your art depends upon it. Because it does.
(all are available on Amazon.com)
Speed, Harold, (1917). The Practice and Science of Drawing, New York, NY; Dover Publications
Nicolaides, Kimon, (1941). The Natural Way to Draw, Boston, MA; Houghton Mifflin Company
Clark, Kenneth (1956) The Nude, A Study In Ideal Form, Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press,
(Note: Kenneth Clarks’ book originated from a lecture series he delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. It is not an instructional book on drawing; however, in my opinion, it is one of the very finest examples of understanding art, drawing, aesthetics, and the human form ever written.)