The Art of Starts Revisited

Article by Darren Rousar.

Awhile back I wrote an article titled The Art of Starts. In it I made a compelling case that beginners should focus on cast drawing starts. The point then, as now, is that learning how to see takes place mostly during the start of a cast drawing. Ideally you’d give that article a read (or reread) before perusing this one.


Many beginners see starts as merely a means to an end. But the art of starts goes well beyond learning how to see, for how well you start can affect how well you finish. That’s especially true for cast drawings. Therefore, let’s revisit the art of starts with an eye towards learning how to do them for practice.

What’s Your Subject?

The best subject will be a plaster cast. The reasons for that are many, some of which are outlined in the cast alternatives article. Ideally, you’d choose a simple cast like the one of David’s nose. As effective as that nose is for Sight-Size cast drawing, it is all the more effective as a subject for a multitude of starts. Unlike the other features of the David, the nose is more bulky all around. That means you can position it in just about any orientation and still perceive something recognizable.

Using starts to train your eye for accuracy will be far more effective when your source and drawing are in the one-to-one relationship provided by Sight-Size than if you’re forced to determine a proportional sum at every step. Therefore, you are going to be doing all of your starts in Sight-Size.


Harsh lighting on your subject will be better than soft. The reason is contrast. You want high contrast so that the shapes are clearly delineated. As I’ll mention below, starts are not about pretty pictures. They are about learning to see accurately.

Waste Paper and a Burnt Stick

A common problem when pursuing starts is the desire to take them all the way to finish. One way to avoid the temptation is to use less than ideal materials.

The right paper is always an issue for cast drawing. How well does it erase? Is it too rough, or too smooth? But when it comes to starts, none of that matters. In fact, the worst paper to use for a tightly finished cast drawing is the best one to use for starts. Does it erase poorly? Good! Use it for your starts and you’ll be prevented from pushing towards finish.

When it comes to the best charcoal for starts, leave the Nitram in the box. You want something very soft – and cheap. Use whatever inexpensive soft charcoal you can find. Doing so will accomplish two necessary things:

  • You’ll have a difficult time drawing gently (which will help force you to do just that).
  • You’ll have no thoughts of wasting charcoal.

Time is Short

Decide in advance to spend no longer than an hour to an hour and a half on the starts – no matter how complex the cast is. Do enough starts under that restriction and your portrait models will present you with less of a problem in the future.

That time frame also means one session. In other words, don’t split the time between multiple days at the easel. It’s fine to take a break midway through. Just be sure to complete the start in the same day.

For Your Eyes Only

If you’re thinking about what others might think of your starts, don’t. Using starts for practice is just that: practice. You’re free to fail as often and as badly as is necessary to improve. That’s true for beginners and experts alike. Approach each start with the intention of throwing it away when you’re done. Whether you actually follow through with the threat is up to you. Regardless, that means no pretty pictures.

You didn’t think practicing starts was only for beginners did you?

Everyone can sharpen their eye by dedicating some time to starts. Imagine how a few hours a month (or week) might help, especially if your other projects are more long-term.


Plain Potatoes

Mr. Gammell called the outline, or arabesque, of the cast’s main shape the potato shape. It’s a good term to use, especially for starts. Remember, all you’re trying to do is to accurately represent the boundary that divides the background from the cast.

Once you do that, you may want to move onto another one. But wait. There’s more after a bit.

Whether you arrive at the potato shape via facets or curves is up to you. However, I’d suggest doing them in the opposite way that you normally work. Doing so will force you to see in a way that you’re not used to and that will help you see more accurately.

Whatever your approach, keep the following in the forefront of your mind.

Always Guess First
Read through the short article about the Guess and Check. Then, determine to never mechanically measure any height, width, angle, or length before you make a guess at it first. This is how you train your eye. Measuring first simply prolongs the process.

Everyone errs in one direction or another. In my case, I invariably draw too large. If you’ve drawn long enough, or have a good teacher, you know your own tendencies. After each guess at a placement ask yourself if it’s in error relative to those tendencies.

See the Whole
With little over an hour to complete a start, you’ve no time for piecemeal seeing. To see the whole, never determine a single placement on its own. Why? Because no shape, intersection, or change in angle on the cast is an island unto itself. Rather, it and all others only exist relative to the others. So as you’re determining those placements try to see each of them as part of the much larger whole.

The Longest Line
Seeing the whole also means taking in the longest line. Rather than simply observing each interval of the arabesque on its own (from one direction change to another), try to take more in at once.


The diagram above shows one example of the approach I recommend. In it are four essential lines. They are numbered for clarity rather than to present an order of operation. Most students would attempt each of those lines in multiple sections. I suggest that you begin teaching yourself to see larger – hence the divisions in the diagram.

Both Sides Together
The whole is not just one side, it is all sides. Your ability to accurately perceive the whole is affected by how broad your visual attention span is. Practice taking into your vision both sides of the cast at once: left/right and top/bottom. And then do your best to draw both of those sides at once.

With that goal in mind, the article Both Sides Now over on the Memory Drawing site has some relevance.

Keep Your Eye Moving
At first, creating a drawing in an hour or so that looks like your subject may seem daunting. For beginners it is! To succeed you’ll need to force yourself to keep your eye moving. This is both figurative and literal.

It’s figurative in the sense that you need to avoid getting stuck in one place or another. As mentioned above, no shape is an island. Therefore, the accuracy of every shape is wholly dependent on its relationship to all the other shapes. Since you’re just practicing, be sure to: guess, check, correct, and then move on. That way you’ll be more likely to correctly represent all the relationships within your view.

Keeping your eye moving is also meant to be taken literally. When doing starts for practice try to never look at a single aspect of your subject for more than five seconds. Yes, that’s purely arbitrary. But the short timeframe will help prevent you from falling into piecemeal seeing.

And don’t forget about your mirror!


No Tickling!

If you’re a beginning student, don’t worry about massing in shadows and backgrounds on your practice starts. Just focus on getting an accurate arabesque in the time allowed. But if you’re more advanced, place the bedbug line and quickly mass-in both the shadow and cast shadow values.

Regardless of your skill level, avoid halftones and tickling up the edges. Remember, you are practicing starts not finishes.

Also avoid spending time on the background. While it’s true that the value of the background can affect how you perceive the shape of the outline, with only an hour of drawing time available the difference will be negligible.

What You’ll Learn

Incorporating practice start sessions into your schedule will benefit you in at least three ways. First, starts are a hack for learning how to accurately see. They force you to practice the hard parts of seeing, over and over again, with no fear of having to perform or push to a tight finish.

Second, they teach you how to see faster; assuming you do them on a regular basis and follow the recommendations in this article.

Finally, every skill explained above is transferable to your regular work. I’d go beyond that to say that every one of those skills is necessary for your regular work. Why not learn them deliberately through a series of practice starts?

Drawing with confidence.

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Learning how to accurately see, as well as draw, is best done through cast drawing in Sight-Size. Ateliers exist worldwide to help you do that. But what if you cannot attend an atelier? Or, perhaps you're already in an atelier and would like to supplement that training? I can help.