Drawing Skills Can Bring New Life to Your Painting

I’ve always thought of a painter’s drawings as his or her diary. A finished painting is the confident, public face shown to the world, but drawings read like journal entries, where you can see an artist’s preoccupations, struggles, moments of exploration, and sense of play.

Drawing of Taheera
Drawing of Taheera
by Sherrie McGraw, 2009, charcoal, 24 x 18.

Historically, drawing has been an integral part of an artist’s process. Preparing compositions, architectural designs, executing studies of the figure, musculature, gesture, and stance—all of these were the domain of pencil and paper. For a while the pursuit has been out of favor, but now there’s renewed and growing interest in drawing along with classical realism.

“Drawing allows you to decipher the world and understand what you are seeing structurally,” says artist Sherrie McGraw, author of The Language of Drawing: From an Artist’s Viewpoint (Bright Light Publishing, Ojai, California). “It is learning how to see and interpret reality through line. You really can’t get this ability any other way. It develops a whole side of an artist.”

Many students come to the artist’s drawing seminars thinking they will learn anatomy and proportions, but McGraw stresses that the world of drawing is much more than focusing on these in pencil sketches. “There are so many things that all good draftsmen know—even if they don’t know they know them,” she says. “Like giving something the illusion of weight; how to discern planes; making a model look balanced and not like it is falling over; and how to foreshorten.”

In addition to furthering one’s skills and technique, drawing proficiency gives artists confidence in the ability to edit what they see and make conscious choices about composition and detail. I mentioned to McGraw that my early experiences with drawing were ones of feeling overwhelmed by all the things that I “should” depict. Only with time did I realize that editing and making choices are crucial to successfully rendering an object. McGraw notes that many beginning draftsmen face similar challenges, and she acknowledges that constantly working one’s skills is the only way they can be overcome. “With practice, you come to realize you aren’t a slave to nature,” she says. “You take what you need in order to do what you want. Drawing sets up a whole mindset of being active, not passive, in the process.”

McGraw believes that strong drawing abilities are crucial even for artists who don’t consider drawing their primary medium. Whether one paints in oils, watercolor, or pastels, a foundation in drawing means that almost nothing will hold you back when it comes time to paint. “If you want to progress forward, drawing is essential,” the artist says. “If you are constantly worried about it, you can’t paint at your best. A lot of people are going back to drawing. Two-thirds of my classes are usually filled with professionals and teachers who want to come back to it.”

Drawing helps you develop the ability to think and see like an artist. Has it informed your work in a significant way? Leave a comment and let me know. And for technical know-how and exercises to hone your abilities, consider Drawing Secrets Revealed Kit with Sarah Parks, which proves that drawing is a learned ability that we can all excel at. It gave hope to me, that’s for sure! Enjoy!

P.S. Today is the first day–of 15!–in the Richeson Product Project Giveaway! Check out the details of the event and all the great prizes at your fingertips. Hope you enter to win! Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

15 thoughts on “Drawing Skills Can Bring New Life to Your Painting

  1. Even thought I paint, I think of myself as a draftsperson rather than a painter. When looking at art, I will increasingly turn to drawings by past masters, whether in books or at museums, over their ‘finished’ paintings. I was fortunate to have had a lot of training in basic drawing skills, ranging from graphite and charcoal to crow quill pen and ink, and training in these fundamentals occurred at all three schools I went to.

  2. I agree with Sherrie and AA about the importance of drawing for an artist even though drawing isn’t her primary medium. I hadn’t drawn the figure in many years until this winter, really in about 40 years since I was in college. The local art museum offered a Figure Drawing Guild (no teacher) so that artists could draw from the model.

    I’ve drawn landscapes for years, am a hand paper maker, and expert on paper in general, but new little about the drawing tools and techniques for drawing the figure. I began by buying Sherrie’s book and Robert Liberace’s DVD. Then the experience of really looking at the figure began to be so exciting that I know I’ll always include the figure in my subject matter in the future. Recently, I started a blog to discuss the characteristics of paper, terminology, and different qualities of paper that are helpful to in various drawing and painting techniques. This blog is linked to my web site, and I’ll be happy to answer questions that readers have about paper.

  3. I personally am a firm believer in developing and maintaining your drawing abilities, especially of the human figure and face because they can be so challenging. Being able to draw these well hones your observational skills and your eye/hand coordination in a way like no other subject. Why? Because everyone is an expert on faces and anyone can instantly see if there is something “wrong” with a face… even a 6 year old can tell if something is incorrect, because we all look closely at faces –from infancy– and continue to do so throughout our life. On the other hand, if you draw a tree incorrectly, who could tell? Very likely it could possibly look that way! Or if you drew the contour of a mountain incorrectly, who would challenge it? It simply is not as critical to have good proportions, accuracy in the shapes, subtleties and nuances in any other subject matter. So my thinking has always been: if I am comfortable and adept in drawing figures and faces, everything else will feel “easy” to the point of being second nature, almost effortless — which is tremendously freeing!

    So I draw people everywhere and every chance I get, keeping a sketchbook with me for that very purpose. I attend local life drawing labs whenever possible and enjoy visiting other local drawing labs in other places on vacation or when travelling. One evening (while attending the Intensive Studies Seminar in Taos, N.M.) I had the pleasure of drawing in the same model lab with Sherrie McGraw and David Leffel, so I can attest to their constant devotion to maintaining their drawing abilities. If artists of that caliber continue to draw from life, shouldn’t we all?

    And you never know where it might pay off. Last month I was asked by the Museum of Fine Art, Houston to be their “artist in residence” in connection with their special opening festivities for a John Singer Sargent exhibition at MFAH. They had never done this before and so asked the Art League of Houston for a recommendation of an artist who was good at drawing people’s faces. They recommended me! I was both honored and humbled, and quite frankly, not sure whether I was qualified for such an event… never having drawn in public before. But those years of practice gave me the confidence to try it and all went well. The museum was happy, the public was happy and so was I!

    So many times –especially in juried competitions– you see paintings that were so obviously projected and traced… and unfortunately, many of those often win the top prizes. It was starting to seem that real drawing had gone the way of the gooney bird. I’m so happy that top artists like Sherrie are championing real, artistic drawing as opposed to tracing photographs, and even happier that more and more artists are learning or returning to real drawing. It is the lifeblood of “art from the heart.”

  4. “…So many times –especially in juried competitions– you see paintings that were so obviously projected and traced… and unfortunately, many of those often win the top prizes. It was starting to seem that real drawing had gone the way of the gooney bird…”

    I’m soooooo glad someone mentioned it–it’s the great big, unacknowledged elephant in the room! I’ve seen so much work that I *know* has been projected and traced, but it’s difficult to prove without having been present in their studio when the artist did so. Yet, the work *feels* mechanical and traced, and I can tell instantly. I can see someone working in a commercial context under a project deadline needing to rely on projection technology for work, but in a fine art context to me it is absolutely unacceptable. I’ve begun to incorporate my underdrawings in my paintings because I feel it’s a necessary part of the work as a whole. Years ago I would have erased my underdrawings to faint traces and then painted the painting, but not anymore. It adds another dimension.

  5. William– You added several good comments. I became so interested in your drawing abilities that I just went to your Profile page to see some photos of your figure drawings but was disappointed to see that you haven’t uploaded any yet. Hope to see some soon.

  6. I agree with Sheree Mcgraw. Drawing is important for artists. I must say when I was young I got confused when I saw artists like Jackson Pollock and others rejecting academic drawing as boring drawing -teacher stuff ! Later when i become more experienced I realized that there was a difference between dead academicism and exciting realism. I suppose it all depends on how good the artist is. I suppose there is lot of bad abstract art in the world as well. But there can be no second thought about the value of keeping ones skills well honed by daily drawing practice

  7. “…So many times –especially in juried competitions– you see paintings that were so obviously projected and traced… and unfortunately, many of those often win the top prizes…”

    One last thought: if the so-called gate keepers can’t tell the difference between an freely drawn piece and a projected and traced piece, they’ve really got no business judging art.

  8. I totally agree. A couple of years ago I began to use the time spent at the variuos sports and extra cirricular activities my children persue to draw. I bring a drawing pad and make small sketches of people and objects around. It makes the time go and I feel I’ve used it wisely.

  9. Kathryn… I appreciate your comments (as well as Kisu’s). I was intrigued by your mention that you went to see if I had any drawings on my profile page… I didn’t know we could upload photos?! I went to “Edit Profile” and nothing available there even suggests that uploading photos is possible. I’m rather new at using this and thought only comments were possible… I do have some drawings posted on my Facebook page, including some from drawing at the MFAH. (My facebook page is “Wm. Kelly Bailey”).

  10. With a paint brush in hand, I am like a fish out of water… out of my element almost entirely. Give me a set of pencils – either graphite or colored – and I’m happy. The more I draw, the more observant I become. I think the ability to observe is going to aid my painting too – once I overcome that “fish out of water” syndrome. I really should have begun drawing in my teen years though, because by now I’d have learned much more than I have in the last seven years; perhaps even to the point of becoming comfortable in a wider range of media.

  11. Sherrie McGraw’s comment that when the drawing is not “correct”, the painting in whatever medium, suffers. I have gone back to studying drawing, which I enjoy thoroughly, and I am finding my paintings are just so much better. Thank you for your drawing magazine I get so much valuable information from it.

    Marcia Storey, Australia

  12. I live in the UK and have been an artist all my life. Now that I am 68 years young I still find that good drawing always inspires me. I have now gone back to learning the technicalities of life drawing ( which I love). I have been told that I am good, I still don’t know enough! I would love to subscribe to your mag but the p&p really kills it for me. But keep up the good work. Can I get this mag “online” like kindle or something? Look forward to hearing from you.

  13. Drawing is to the artist as math is to the engineer. It allows analysis of any art work, points out the weaknesses and strengths of a visual statement and conditions the eye to see things correctly.

  14. Every instructor I have had has told me I am very good at drawing and that they appreciate all of my “marks”. I am trying, now, to “draw what I see”, not “what I know”. This has helped me improve immensely when I attempt to draw “shapes” instead of a “person”. It is amazing to see the finished project and has helped me to “simplify” as I can get “stuck” in the details. I am learning to paint with watercolor and absolutely love the medium. I have tried others but always come back to watercolor. I am taking a class now with Artist Network University- “Painting People in Watercolor” with Annette Raff. Drawing simple shapes and shading are emphaszied in this class. It’s really an amazing techinique and it works! Happy drawing and painting everyone!