Tuesday, 25 October 2011


The Life Model - white conte and charcoal on
pre-tinted paper
Our drawings are often, certainly for the beginner anyway, tentative. Perhaps this is partly fear of drawing the lines too firmly, since that makes them harder to erase! Yet, we doodle with lines quite confidently…so therefore, we must have some reluctance to draw objects or scenes with that same confidence. Not surprising of course…we are trying so hard to create a drawing that looks like our subject. After all, someone might look at it.......

I have also noticed that students reasonably confident with a pencil, sometimes turn into nervous wrecks when asked to draw with pen and ink! The safety net of the eraser …gone! The resulting drawings are often stiff, showing the anxiety of the artist. So clearly…our thoughts and feelings, as well as our skills, are conveyed to the world through our drawings.

It is interesting to realise that unlike our handwriting, which we take for granted and which rarely changes in style, all drawn lines have expressive qualities, and the more we explore the differing characteristics of the lines we create, the more we expand our artistic vocabulary and move beyond our natural inclination to draw everything in the same way .

Of course, it is appropriate to spend time making drawings which are purely observational – exploring our subject carefully, constructing the form as accurately as possible, getting the fundamentals of proportion, scale, perspective, direction etc right. This can be taught, and learned, it becomes a valuable skill. Here is a drawing of a skull I did when I was a student. It shows evidence of strong observation,it was clearly the result of slow, careful execution, it is competent - but somewhat bland and lifeless ....sorry, awful pun there !   :)

But just look at this line drawing by Toulouse Lautrec. Pen and ink!! Yet look at the vigour of the work, the feeling of life and movement! No proper face – does it matter? Is the horse's head a wee bit small?  Maybe, but does it matter?  Not a bit. We feel the strength of the trooper, his comfortable, confident position on his horse, the powerful body of the horse, all done with a few lively, gestural lines.

Take a look at this selection of lines below. And think of the adjectives we could apply to them. Can you “see” any of these words?

nervous : angry : happy : free : quiet : excited : calm : dancing : vigorous ; graceful : confident : hesitant : joyful

The basics of good proportions, form and structure, still need to be present in your drawings, but I urge you, at the same time,to consider, albeit gradually to begin with, the use of line variety for expressive and emotional reasons, to emphasise some of the abstract qualities of your subject. Lines can flow slowly or rapidly to express varying types of movement,  they can be heavy or positive for emphasis and drama, they can express tone and weight, they can be soft and sensitive and even by their absence, can suggest light - or lack of it, as in the life model drawing at the top of this blog.   you may find, as you become sensitive to this aspect of drawing,  that you begin to produce drawings which are so much more interesting and telling, than those created purely to be accurate.


  1. Wow! Thank you for posting an article on exactly what I made a personal discovery with tonight! I've been working on that!

    I have had clean accurate technical pen lines which are very mechanical, even in width and precise since I was ten years old. I did good observational drawing then because I had a scientist for a father.

    Over the past few years I've been letting myself sketch and make mistakes, sometimes deliberately using a pen so I wouldn't be tempted to go back and fix them. Especially when I sketch my cat, following one subject to learn his motions and gestures as much as his anatomy.

    All my life I loved the famous da Vinci and Michelangelo and other famous artist sketches where they actually overlapped sketches on the same page and somehow the page was beautiful.

    Tonight I achieved it by accident while I was sketching my cat. I sketched his rear end and tail because his tail was cute. I flipped the page on my ATC pad and sketched another quick gesture because he was done eating and flopped in full view washing himself.

    The pose I captured was a pause in the washing. He moved and relaxed, suddenly taking a beautiful profile pose. I couldn't wait. I drew the second sketch right over the first, letting the lines of his body move in different graceful gesture lines - all this with a ballpoint, pens that skip and attenuate and change value with pressure.

    When I was done, he moved and I looked at what I had and was stunned. That was tonight's quantum leap. I spent the whole day cutting mats when I'd rather be drawing and all I had time for was a fast kitty gesture - yet I did three of them and two on the same page are now the best cat gestures I've ever done.

    Thank you for describing this. My sketch looks better and more lively with two views of him overlapped and very fast expressive strokes - done with confidence because I've been sketching his fur direction in flowing brush pen lines for years. Practice gives that confidence. Best of all little doodling practice where the results are so small and insignificant that it doesn't matter if they're a total botch.

    The botch can suddenly turn into genius, something better than you ever thought you could do.

  2. Thanks for this...extremely interesting post. I love the Lautrec sketch, and understand what the varied lines are doing...now I just have to incorporate that in my own work!! As a beginner, I'm still concentrating on accuracy...drawing still feels "artificial" to some extent, but I have hopes that with more and more regular practice I will move beyond this. Again, many thanks for your helpful post and indeed your whole blog.

  3. I do fall into the observation sketches with all the lines looking the same camp...infrequently doing something more expressive, mostly by accident rather than intention. I find that I don't mind using ballpoint pen. It doesn't scare me at all. I don't think it is the 'not having eraser' that scares me. But, the harder ink lines...like microns or fountain pens. I have such a hard time not overwhelming the sketch with them. They do scare me because I rarely like the sketches I do with them.

    That said, I did do some sketches with a ballpoint pen, where I held the pen from the very back. My lines were varied and expressive and I liked the sketches very much. Hmm...haven't posted that particular sketch yet. Maybe I should do that!

    Your posts are very interesting...look at all the conversations you're starting!

  4. Interesting as always. Love the white conte sketch! I stay far away from erasers and am much better for it. It is amazing how doodles, quick sketches are often for me so much more free and creative than drawings where the conscious mind intrudes. I have just taken one of those freewheeling sketches and made a more certain ink drawing out of it for watercolor. It is so much more unique than my representational drawings and I am excited about trying to apply color in a more creative way as well.

  5. Thank you for this excellent post, and indeed this excellent blog. I've read all the way back and have found all your posts very informative - the sketchbook posts especially so. This is something I've kind of avoided; however, I'm intending to get myself into the sketchbook habit, and your thoughts have been very helpful. Keep up the good work!


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