Few skills are learned in bulk. They are learned one step at a time. Take learning to play the piano for example. We all know that budding pianists spend countless hours practicing scales. But did you know that professional pianists also practice scales, and do so on a frequent basis?
Why is it any different for learning how to draw?
Historically, copying their master’s drawings or engravings was the first task an apprentice was given. This exercise is akin to Bargue copies, which is common in many of today’s ateliers and academies. Some, however, begin their students with cast drawing and this was my experience at Atelier Lack and later, at Atelier LeSueur.
Regardless of the project, the main goal is teaching the student how to accurately see. The process limits what the student is confronted with so that they might learn to see one step at a time. Cast drawing and Bargue plates teach you how to see shape, value and edge, without the interference of color.
However, more can be done.
Let’s look at the process of seeing and drawing a cast or Bargue plate by breaking it down into groups of discrete steps.
Step 1 is always finding position. You must correctly position your subject on the paper. You must also correctly position each aspect of the subject on the paper, relative to every other aspect.
Step 2 is finding shape. You must correctly draw the shape, or shapes, of your subject, in the aforementioned positions.
Step 3 is finding value. You must determine the value range of your subject and compare that to the range of your materials. Then you must correctly reproduce the subject’s values into the range of your materials – in the correct positions and shapes.
Step 4 is finding edge.
And so on.
Combined, the steps I just outlined are what is known in other endeavors as performance, not practice. Is this bad? The history of art seems to say that it is not. But you can improve your performance even more by adding some deliberate practice to your traditional training.
Put yourself into the mindset of drawing a cast once again. In general, the separation of the process is one way. By this I mean that, as you pass from one step to the next, you do not stop doing the previous steps. Instead, you add the next step to the process. You also do not do step 4 before you do step 3.
The problem is that, as you progress, the time spent on the preceding steps becomes increasingly shorter. As an example, when you are working on edges, you are also mindful of their shapes. But since you’ve already determined their shapes in steps 1 and 2, you are now, for the most part, simply maintaining them.
And this brings me back to my previous article, The Art of Starts. Starts are more like practice than performance. They are an attempt to keep the student’s eye learning steps 1 and 2 without worrying about steps 3 and 4. That they are Starts means that more of them will be done and therefore the learning will be continual.
There is an additional form of accuracy practice and that is to consistently spend time on even smaller parts. In this I do not mean parts of a figure or face. I mean parts of the process. These smaller parts are so elementary as to be considered childish. And yet we must not forget about practicing scales. The point of scales is not enjoyment or entertainment. It is solely about skills. Parts help to further separate practice from performance because they are abstract and the time allotted for each is limited.
I have my students practice a series of progressive projects based on the information above.
What are these projects? Take a look at the image below.
This is an example of a Centering exercise which tests and trains your eye’s ability to determine a position. In this case you are being asked to find a center, relative to the four sides of the rectangle.
First, draw a rectangle. Use should use a ruler to make sure that the lines are straight and the corners are right angles.
Next, by using your eye alone, place a dot in the exact center of the rectangle. When you are confident in your choice, confirm it by using the ruler to cross the corners as I have done in the right-most image of the example. The center of the rectangle is at the intersection of the crossed lines.
That’s it. Except that you should do a number of these exercises until you are accurate far more often than not. Odds are, if you’ve studied drawing at all, you’re probably pretty accurate already. To make the practice more difficult, try to find the center of larger boxes. You might also rotate the boxes by 45 degrees. You could even search for thirds, both horizontally and vertically. I recommend doing some of these kinds of exercises on a regular basis to help keep your eye in tune.*
I will further discuss more of this concept in a future article. Additionally, I have a new book coming out called, An Accurate Eye: Learn to Draw Better by Learning to See Better. In the book I present over two dozen exercises that will help you to train your eye for accuracy, above and beyond your regular studies at an atelier, academy or at home. More information about the book is coming soon.
By the way, it is not only students who can benefit from deliberately practicing Parts. Trained artists can as well, just like the pianist practicing scales.
*Here is a PDF of randomly sized rectangles put together by one of my long distance students. Thanks Wayne!