I love to draw with paint at live events, dance and music performances. I usually use acrylic paint on dark backgrounds at night time events. Sometimes I will use pastels or ink.
It takes a huge amount of focus and energy, but the buzz I get from it is, I have realised, addictive.
Looking through my old sketchbooks the other day I found pages and pages of tiny moving figures, and I remembered doing them over 40 years ago. I was working on a college project at the time which featured clowns in strange positions. I had to draw them without models because the poses were impossible, but I wanted the contortions to look as realistic as I could. I had the brainwave of drawing footballers on the TV. This proved to be a fantastic training for drawing moving figures . I learned to capture a mental snapshot and then draw as quickly as possible before the image faded..
I have filled the pages of many books with quick sketches of people ever since.
People usually spend much more time looking at their pencil/pen than the subject. In effect they are always drawing from memory. They get so fascinated with their hand drawing they forget to look properly at the subject at all. One of the exercises I give to my students is to use ‘blind contour drawing’. They have to cover their hand so that they can’t see what it is doing, and draw a three dimensional subject as carefully as they can. At first this feels unbearable, and seems impossible. Even the crazy abstract lines that happen at first have a strange beauty about them though. They are lines of pure seeing – total connection between the eye and hand. The brain can’t interfere and process anything. This is what we are ultimately aiming for in our drawings- pure honest lines that describe what we are seeing.
There is yet another use for your pencil that I haven’t mentioned yet; measuring. That’s the OTHER thing that artists are doing when they hold a pencil out and squint past it. It’s yet another useful and simple skill that makes all the difference to your drawings and also helps to override your left brain.......
Find two identical things – cups perhaps. Put them on a table in front of you with one about 20 cms further away from you than the other. It’s easier if they are directly on your eyeline, so maybe sit down to do this exercise. Hold up your pencil at arm’s length in front of you and close one eye. Hold the top of the pencil so that, in space, it is in line with the top of the nearest cup. Slide your thumb so that it is in line with the bottom of the cup. You now have a measurement of the cup. Move your pencil and compare this with the second cup. It is probably half the size!
This is quite a revelation to your left brain, which knows that the cups are the same size, and will refuse to ‘see’ that one now appears smaller. Unless you prove it wrong, you will tend to draw the cups the same size.
You can either stick to the exact same size, making marks on your paper and joining them dot-to-dot, ( called ‘sight-size’) or you can reduce or increase the first mark you make on your paper and then keep everything to the same ratio. So a cup may be half as wide as its height, no matter how big or small you draw it.
The more you practise measuring the less you actually have to do it; in time you will begin to make accurate calculations, and your left brain will leave you alone to go and do what it does best - writing lists and planning what to have for dinner!
A question that I am often asked is “how do you get ideas for your paintings? You must have a really good imagination!”. The answer is that yes, I DO have a pretty wild and boundless imagination, but I don’t work ‘from imagination’, I work from observation, from things I see around me.
I find it interesting that when I ‘make up’ figures for my rare forays into illustration, I do what everyone else does and I draw symbolic figures. Mine might be a little more sophisticated than those by people who haven’t spent the last few decades studying the human form, but they still come out ‘cartooney’. These pictures are from a book I illustrated some time ago “Discover Undersea Malta” * It was a great project, and it took a lot of research to get the details correct. My biggest problem was trying to draw people with snorkel masks on though. My poor daughter was roped in to pose for me wearing a mask while she watched TV so that I could sketch her from various angles! Thank you Bianca!
In my drawing courses the first exercise I give people is to draw three things before I tell them anything at all. This is so that they can compare their drawings at the beginning and end of the first class and see how different their lines, approach and feelings are. Their initial drawing of a figure is a symbolic one; all we can do is pull up our stored left-brain image of a person. It is often exactly the same as it was drawn as a teenager. We all remember writing our names over and over again in our teens, practising our signatures until we came up with an ‘image’ that felt right. In the same way, we build up a set of symbolic images to represent things we see around us. Unless we are artistically ‘gifted’, or shown how to see three dimensional space in an abstract sense, these symbols will pop up every time we are asked to draw anything. So people will automatically revert to lollipop trees and suns with stick-rays, and funny little figures....... and they usually say, wistfully, ‘I can’t draw’
I draw in waiting rooms, airports, buses, trains, lectures...... drawing the world around you connects you to Life in a completely different and dynamic way – and there is no need to ever be bored again!
I am starting classes on Wednesday and Sunday mornings mainly for those that have done my basic drawing course, but anyone is welcome to join in - click here to contact me!!
*“Discover Undersea Malta” published by Publishers Enterprise Group (PEG) Ltd. in 2000
Before I came to Malta I had spent a good six years of my life at art colleges, but really hadn’t much clue about how to make a living out of art. I had studied Illustration, because my three year course at Harrow Art College had given me such good drawing skills, but I was pretty hopeless at doing as I was told (still am, some would say!). I came here with my art materials, my sketchbooks and a lot of love for a local musician!
Circumstances dictated that I had to work as a graphic designer for almost two years, and I absolutely hated it. By the time I left, I had completely stopped drawing or even thinking about art. I didn’t know any other artists in Malta, and I must have just blocked out any interest in art. I began a very odd period of my life; I found that I was obsessing over what I realise now were creative outlets, such as cooking, sewing, knitting, making jewellery and various other things, even selling some of the stuff I produced. I even went so far as to create two children (not alone of course!) – and no, I didn’t sell them......
Obviously there wasn’t much time for Art then, and so I continued with the cooking, sewing, knitting...... and then one day when my youngest daughter was asleep (I swear she slept for the first year of her life) and the eldest one was at school, I sat there and thought – something is really missing here, what is it that I am longing for? And it hit me. Drawing.
So I found my pencils and a nice new sketchbook, and I COULDN’T DRAW. Really, I couldn’t – the lines just came out all wrong, and the more I tried, the more I cried.
I think that feeling ranks as one of the most poignant ones of my life; how sad that I had let all that talent slip away from me. How could I have forgotten something I had found so easy, and so full of joy? What had I been doing, thinking that making dinners and jumpers could ever be a substitute for that feeling of connection and sheer self expression?
And so I began a journey back. It had been almost seven years since I had really drawn anything properly, and finding my ‘line’ again was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I started by asking myself what it was that was missing? I could see the subject that I wanted to draw, but my hand just wasn’t able to guide the pencil along the right lines to capture it. I began to read voraciously about creativity and art, and along the way came across Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. This helped to explain many of the problems I was having with perception and coordination, and – with a lot of hard work and practice – I found my love of drawing again.
This experience has helped me to understand and explain the problems that other people experience when they first start trying to draw. We are looking without seeing, coming at things from the wrong direction and attempting to do a creative task in a logical fashion; using our left brains for a right brain activity.
In four sessions I can explain all this to people who have always thought that they would never be able to draw anything well. We just need to trick our left brains into leaving us alone, and that is achieved with exercises I have gleaned from many sources over the years and put together in a structured course. I can’t turn people into Artists in four weeks, but I can give them all the tools they need to tackle drawing anything. They have to practice, of course, but for those that stick with it, the results can be amazing.
My next course begins next Thursday morning at 10am in Manikata – let me know if you would like to join the adventure - 80 euro for a whole new way of seeing the world!!
After all the left and right brain theory about the opposing effects of logic and creativity (see my last blog post) have gone over your head :-), here is what I have concluded; that drawing is actually better if you can do it using no brain at all!!
This takes a bit of practice, because the only way to draw without processing is to have complete confidence in your technique and total disregard for the end result. It’s only paper, after all.
When I was at college I wanted to draw figures in contorted positions as part of a project I was doing. It was to be a mobile hanging and I needed them to have their arms and legs arranged so that I could cut out the figures and then hook them onto each other. My friends weren’t that accommodating (or flexible) ...... I came up with the idea of drawing moving figures very quickly, and then using them as the basis for my drawings. I had the brilliant idea of drawing footballers on the TV, and spent hours doing just that.
Along with the anatomy classes at college and my continuing love for working from live models, I now find that I can work really quickly as long as I manage to switch off and just let it happen. The trick is to watch the figure for a while until you have a feeling for the way they are moving – sometimes I really feel that I am dancing the flamenco, or playing the guitar (I can’t do either) – and so the drawing kind of comes from the inside out. Once I have that connection, I can take a mental snapshot and then draw it out before it fades, not looking back until I have finished.
I am very lucky to be allowed to draw and paint at all sorts of wonderful events and venues in Malta. Every year I set up my easel at the Malta Jazz Festival in mid-July and just paint non-stop for three evenings. I can also go along to the Malta Arts Festival dance, music and folk-singing shows. The weather is perfect for outdoor performances and the settings are spectacular.
Last week I was asked if I would like to paint a lovely performance “Mu-Danzas Boleras” at the prestigious Manoel Theatre in Valletta. Would I! I was given a box next to the stage – which I covered in plastic sheeting and had some real fun drawing with watercolour and ink.
I am asked sometimes why I don’t make life easier for myself and just draw from photographs – but where would the challenge or fun be in that? The end results might be more realistic perhaps, but they would not have the sense of movement and energy that I revel in. All I have to remember to do is disengage my brain (it’s getting easier with age) because otherwise I get in my own way and can’t draw a thing. And then afterwards I have to stop myself from trying to ‘correct’ them, as that tends to deflate them, and me, too.
I have to admit that sometimes I have a passing fit of nerves as I stand, brush in hand, thinking “you’ve done it again, set yourself up for a really public embarrassment”.
But I take a deep breath and remind myself of the Buddhist teaching “If you never get to know the nature of fear, you will never know fearlessness”
and Albert Einstein’s “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”
A very important theory which became popular in the 70’s was that the brain worked in two quite separate ways – the left side dealt with logics and learning, the right side with creativity and intuition. More recent research has shown that we actually use different areas, left or right, depending on what information we need. Both sides of the brain communicate new abilities and then process the information in different ways to add to overall intelligence and efficiency. However, defining the tasks of the brain into ‘left’ and ‘right’ does help to explain many of our difficulties with learning to draw, and with creative thought in general.
Our left brains are incredibly efficient at getting us through life as quickly and easily as possible, dealing with thousands of bits of information every second. The onslaught of today’s super fast technology means that we have to continually filter unnecessary ‘stuff’ all the time. The right brain has been more or less overridden in many people; apparently modern man’s left brain now actually weighs more than the right side!
A child’s repeated right-brained ’w’ questions “why, where, what, why, who?” slowly peter out as it learns the answers and files them away in its ‘hard drive’. Information is wired in with practice and repetition, and it then becomes unconscious reactions, such as walking, chewing, driving, speaking……. It leaves us free to concentrate on the content. The brain’s natural urge is to create shortcuts, to save us time and to make life easier so that we don’t have to continually re-think everything.
The problem with learning to draw is that the brain cannot find anything to refer to other than our teenage drawings, stored away in the left brain, which – unless we were encouraged and helped to draw as a child, or had a natural aptitude – we developed in a symbolic way. Teenagers will often draw a repeated image of something that interests them, and it can become quite sophisticated, but a symbol is useless when we want to draw realistically.
To draw well, we need to find ways to activate the right brain, and encourage it to ask all those ‘w’ questions every time we want to ‘see’ anything as it really is, instead of the left brain’s superficial overview and dismissal. We need to be able to see everything anew every time, as everything we attempt to draw is a new problem. Every petal on a flower is different to every other petal, every leaf on a tree, every eye, every –well, everything! – is completely unique and fascinating. This is probably what Picasso meant when he said that he wanted to learn how to draw like a child; not that he wanted to draw in a child’s naïve and symbolic way, but that he wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes- a continually new experience.
So, to activate the right brain in other ways, and also to improve your drawing and creativity, try using both sides of your body more – combing your hair, brushing your teeth, dialling the phone, even writing and eating with cutlery in the ‘wrong’ hands. Doing this feels uncomfortable, but notice how your brain is trying to make new connections, and how much more interesting these tasks become! Release your right brain from its non- creative prison!
Seminal books on the subject are “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and “Drawing on the Artist Within”, both by Betty Edwards.
I love to paint - and draw - and help others to discover their creative side too.....
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