It's Like Snooping in a Diary

13 Sep 2012

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

Peggy Holding Her Leg by Sherrie McGraw, charcoal and conte drawing, 17 1/4 x 14 1/2.
Peggy Holding Her Leg by Sherrie McGraw,
charcoal and conte drawing, 17 1/4 x 14 1/2.

Historically, learning and executing sketching techniques was an integral part of an artist's creative process. Preparing compositions, architectural designs, executing still lifes and studies of the figure, musculature, gesture, and stance--all of these were the domain of pencil and paper. For some the pursuit is out of favor, but many of us are interested in learning how to sketch for its own sake, in addition to the opportunities sketching affords for refining our other art.

"Drawing allows you to decipher the world and understand what you are seeing structurally," says Sherrie McGraw, one of my favorite artists and workshop instructors. "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 McGraw's workshops thinking they will learn anatomy and proportions, but McGraw stresses that the world of sketching and drawing is much more than that. "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 he or she is falling over; and how to foreshorten."
 
Freehand sketching 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 success.

Profile of Benjamin by Sherrie McGraw, charcoal and conte drawing, 14 1/2 x 11 1/2.
Profile of Benjamin by Sherrie McGraw,
charcoal and conte drawing, 14 1/2 x 11 1/2.
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."

We all deserve that feeling of being active and engaged in our own creative processes. Talking to McGraw definitely strengthened my belief in the power to be had in drawing sketches. Likewise in Sherrie McGraw's instructional DVD, Visual Concepts in Still Life, there is a concentration of attention paid to those crucial steps of an artwork--from sketching out a visual concept to staying true to it with every brushstroke. McGraw shows you how to develop strong, thoughtful ideas and how to articulate them in painting-or sketching--with the sensitivity and effortlessness she is known for. Enjoy!


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