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!!
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.
Drawing lines around things is really trying to capture an illusion; there are no lines around anything we see, only edges where one ‘thing’ seems to end and another starts. As we move, our view of these ‘things’ moves too – it can sometimes feel as if we are permanently walking through a three-dimensional picture, with the scenes continually rearranging themselves around us as we focus on them (or is that just me?!).
We cannot get away from the fact that although we know that everything is rounded and three-dimensional, we have to separate one thing from another by delineating them. Logically, everything is separated into ‘things’ with edges, and with spaces in between them. Otherwise we would be bumping into things all the time.
“We live in a three-dimensional world, or four of you include Time; or up to eleven if you follow modern physics. This means we live in a mysterious world – we cannot know the other side of things. We cannot see it all at once.” Andrew Marr
“For Nature is made up all of roundnesses....Boughs are rounded, leaves are rounded, stones are rounded, clouds are rounded, cheeks are rounded; there is no more flatness in the natural world than there is vacancy” John Ruskin
(both quotes from the excellent ‘A Short Book About Drawing’ by Andrew Marr)
This is one of the first difficulties when attempting to draw something realistically; the brain wants to show what it knows, rather than what the eyes really see. Children often draw different angles and viewpoints of an object in one drawing to describe what they know as well as see. Many adults do the same thing and find themselves drawing lines that are not there, at completely distorted angles, and really cannot see how inaccurate they are until someone shows them
Try this; hold up a pencil about 12inches in front of your eyes and look at something beyond it. You can focus on the pencil or the thing, but not both at once. When you focus on the thing, you will see two pencils. Close one eye and focus on the thing – the pencil will be a little fuzzy – now, keeping your head and pencil in the same place, close the other eye instead. Do you see how much the pencil seems to have moved? Unlike cameras, with just one lens, we have binocular vision through our two eyes, which our amazing brains translate into a single view. Cameras can only give us a two dimensional flat impression, with just one focal point; our eyes capture space and depth, plus the ability to focus near or far as we look around.
We cannot capture this three-dimensionality exactly, as our paper, after all, is flat! We can give a good representation of it though, as long as we draw with our eyes and what we really see, and not what our brains tell us. I find it easiest to explain this to students by asking them to pretend that, when drawing, the world is completely flat. Everything in this flat world fits together like pieces of a jigsaw.
Holding up your pencil again, with one eye closed, something close to you will ‘touch’ the edge of the pencil in space, and so will something in the far distance. Looking up and down the edge of the pencil, everything will touch it in a flat sense. The world is FLAT!
Besides anything else, holding up your pencil like this and squinting at the world beyond it shows you the most important function of your pencil; it is NOT for drawing with – you can draw with anything, from sticks to boot polish. No, the most important function of your pencil is to make you LOOK like an Artist. If you sit in front of a piece of paper and perform this exercise with conviction, it really impresses onlookers..........
Many (many!) moons ago, when I was doing an art foundation course at Hull Art College, I fell in love with life drawing. I had always drawn quite obsessively, hence the decision to follow my (he)art and improve my skills.
The opportunity to draw someone who would happily hold a pose for an hour or more without any embarrassment was a revelation to me. Our usual model was a no-nonsense young woman who would cycle to college through the busy city with just her dress on, rush in late, fling her clothes into a corner, and model for us all morning. We were a mixed bunch of 17/18 year olds, and the various reactions to this were hilarious. I loved it – and I still have some of the drawings I did back then somewhere. I’ll have a look and see if I can find one for you.....
On a foundation course the aim is to give students a taste of all the different disciplines and avenues that they can follow in art. Usually this is broken into a few weeks concentrating on each subject, and we tried our hands at graphic design, photography, three-dimensional work and ‘Fine Art’ (there were probably other subjects, but as I said, this was a long time ago!). I had really been looking forward to Fine Art – that’s what I dreamed of doing; being An Artist and painting proper Paintings.
What a shock though. This was the 70’s, and the thinking at the time was to encourage ‘self-expression’ rather than teach traditional skills and techniques. I was presented with a big white canvas, oil paints and brushes, given a rudimentary explanation and then left to it. No instruction, no model, no still life, nothing. I painted an imaginary scene in shades of sticky mud and hated everything about it. I don’t remember what happened for the rest of my ‘Fine Art segment – I think that I just went back to drawing the model.
Later, when it came to choosing an art college to graduate to, I searched the UK for a course that would actually teach me traditional skills. None of the Fine Art courses appealed to me, as they all seemed to be following the same ‘self-expression’ abstract approach, and I decided to study Illustration at Harrow. What a happy choice! I didn’t particularly want to be an Illustrator but I knew that the college was famous for the standard of pure drawing its students achieved.
The experience on my foundation course taught me that we all need to have a good solid knowledge of our chosen path before we can start to express ourselves with any confidence or personal style. No one would expect to write a novel without starting with the alphabet, rules of grammar, language etc, no one would think they could compose an symphony without knowledge of music or the instruments involved. Why should we expect to draw or paint any better than we did as children without learning the basics?
Here is a quote from Tom Robb
“The essential element of learning to draw is the ability to see, but seeing is not that easy. By developing observational skills the artist has the opportunity to develop intellectual awareness and knowledge not only of the visual world around them, but greater awareness of themselves, their skills, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Drawing, though for the most part being based on things seen, is an abstract learning activity involving sophisticated mechanical and intellectual skills”
‘The Artist’ magazine, October 2013 (Which I highly recommend, by the way)
All children are born with an urge to make marks, to sing, dance and generally express themselves individually. If you ask any small child if they can draw or paint and they will say ‘yes’ and usually show you – so what happens? Why do we lose that confidence in our ability? It seems to be an inborn urge to make marks and draw what we see around us. Perhaps that helps us to connect to our environment and make sense of it..... Drawing as a form of communication and connection goes right back to our human roots. Our self awareness, creativity and inventiveness has made us the most powerful animal on earth.
Little children begin by scribbling (on everything!) until they – miraculously! – form a circle. Apparently young chimps love to scribble as well, and some even manage to make a circle too, but they do not take the symbol any further. Human children put dots and lines inside that circle - and suddenly it represents a face, usually Mummy’s, or the face of their primary carer. That face is the most important feature of their world and when it appears they know that they are safe and will be cared for. They draw that circular image over and over again, beginning to add other people in their world, and adding stick legs because the faces move, and stick arms and fingers because the faces do things with them.
One of my favourite drawings created by one of my children when they were tiny was a drawing of us all as a family; I was the only one with fingers though. In her world it seemed that I was the only one that did anything!
Little children are sponges, and will happily copy other people’s images to complement their own, so they are shown how to draw a simple house, a tree, a bird. They copy each other’s images and symbols too, so they often look quite similar the world over. An exercise I give my students is to try and draw a simple landscape as they think they would have at the age of about five. The first thing we notice is how HAPPY it makes us feel! Then we see how similar they often are, and one thing that I love is that Maltese students will usually draw little houses with pointed roofs and chimneys.... there is no such thing in typical Maltese architecture! I wonder how children would draw if they were not shown anything at all? We had a Spanish au pair girl when I was very small and she used to draw little Princesses for me. They all looked the same and I loved them. I wonder if that sparked my fascination with drawing the human figure?
I drew these at a live Flamenco event last summer - I had to be fast!
Children’s drawings naturally develop to become more rounded and sophisticated, and to reflect what the child is most interested in; cars, boats, animals, etc. At some stage though, a dissatisfaction sets in as they try to draw more realistically and find that nobody can help them to do that. They might be able to draw one or two things reasonably well, but other subjects will just frustrate them. Some children find drawing and thinking creatively easier than others, but most find it really difficult and are easily put off by negative comments and accept the label of ‘unable to draw’. They fall back on childhood symbols such as stick men and cauliflower trees whenever they are asked to draw.
The reason behind most people’s frustration with not being able to draw realistically is usually the same one; it is because they have been attempting to learn to draw in a logical way, and drawing is not a logical process. It is a creative one, and involves learning to ‘see’ the world in a completely different way before we can draw it. It is the way that an artist sees, and is not taught in classes unless the teacher is not only able to see that way, but also able to explain and demonstrate it. We have to be able to draw exactly what is in front of our eyes, without processing it in any logical way.
Some children are able to naturally see this way already, but more of that next time...
. Meanwhile, I am starting another series of drawing classes on Saturday afternoons in Manikata next Saturday, 18th January - click below to contact me !
I love to paint - and draw - and help others to discover their creative side too.....
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