Drawing Basics: Jon DeMartin's Drawing Workshops to Improve Paintings

3 Sep 2006

“One of the biggest reasons painters get into trouble is because their pictures don’t have a solid foundation of accurate and expressive drawings,” says New York artist Jon DeMartin. That’s why his drawing workshops are so helpful to figurative painters.

by M. Stephen Doherty

When it’s clear there is no pill that will quickly relieve the pain of a painting that has gone wrong, DeMartin can help you understand how to deal with the underlying problems of inaccurate proportions, distorted features, or lifeless forms. He offers a variety of ways you can cure those common pictorial ailments.

A student watched carefully as DeMartin showed him how to use sanguine-colored Conté crayon for the drawing.

A student watched carefully
as DeMartin showed him how
to use sanguine-colored Conté
crayon to draw the model.

DeMartin’s workshops and classes are in demand throughout the Northeast, and he is a regular instructor at several top art schools in New York and Connecticut. Nelson Shanks recently invited him to conduct an intensive one-week workshop for the talented painters who study at Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia. “To Nelson’s credit, he wanted me to introduce his students to a completely different approach to drawing the figure than the one he employs,” DeMartin explains. “It was an honor to do so because the students at Incamminati have been introduced to some of the top figurative artists in the country, such as Nelson, Stephen Early, Leona Shanks, Darren Kingsley, Michael Grimaldi, Dan Thompson, and Rob Liberace.

“Drawing is an integral part of the picture-making process,” DeMartin asserts. “It provides the opportunity to explore variations of the subject. An artist might get excited about an idea and rush headlong into the painting without adequate preparation only to discover—often much too late—that the idea couldn’t be sustained through the entire process. By taking the time to execute preparatory drawings, an artist can carefully consider and distill the ideas and thereby make better creative decisions.”

DeMartin recommends drawing with the arm fully extended.

Workshop students drew with
their arms fully extended.

The best part of DeMartin’s drawing workshops is that they offer students a range of approaches to figurative drawing, each of which can help with particular aspects of picture-making. For example, he has students begin each day with quick gesture drawings that emphasize the spontaneous, linear aspects of recording an active pose in a line drawing. “Short poses from one to 45 minutes tend to be more about line and gesture, and long ones (one hour or more) are about shape and volume,” he explains. “Because of time constraints, any extensive modeling with values is difficult to do, so the more ways I can make line express volume, the better.

“In many drawings from earlier centuries, the illusion of the third dimension wasn’t entirely dependent upon value gradations because the conception behind the outlines was dimensional by itself,” DeMartin continues. “As a result, a smaller value range was used and the drawings could be made in a shorter amount of time. Opportunities to realize exciting actions and rhythms are increased if short poses are practiced.

DeMartin worked directly on a student drawing to help them understand how to make improvements.

DeMartin worked directly
on the students' drawings
to help them understand
how to make improvements.

“When artists spend hours or days working from the same pose, their drawings become analyses of values related to forms turning from the light to the shadow,” DeMartin explains. “That kind of study relates more to the 19th-century academic practice of making highly finished drawings of plaster casts and of models holding the same pose for days and weeks. The emphasis in that case is on careful observation of the subtleties within the form.

“Both of these approaches to drawing the figure can be beneficial to painters, but they can also lead to their own problems,” DeMartin says. “Artists who only make short gesture drawings often produce stylized images that are formulaic rather than honest responses to individual models. Conversely, artists who only make drawings that take months to complete often end up with mechanically accurate observations that lack emotional content. By combining the two approaches, the artist has a better chance of being able to make both quick evaluations of the way figures move in space as well as accurate observations that evoke the essence of the person being drawn.”

DeMartin's one-minute gesture drawing.

DeMartin's Gesture Drawing:
One-minute gesture drawings
with Nupastel on newsprint paper.

DeMartin recommends that artists use different drawing materials but the same posture while making these two types of drawings. “Drawing should be done from a standing position with one’s arm extended so the motion comes from the shoulder, not just the wrist,” he indicates. “Artists should be able to see both the drawing surface and the model within their field of vision.

“The principal objective in making quick sketches of the model with chalk (Nupastel) is to capture the rhythmic actions and possibly some contraction,” he continues. “I want to find the action before the contours because without that sense of motion the drawing will lose its rhythmic flow. If time allows, I gradually introduce structure by conceptualizing the orientation of the head, rib cage, and pelvis in space using vertical and horizontal median lines. The focus is more on the skeleton of the body than on the muscles.

“The lines describing the features can cross over the body parts as they emphasize the flow of the forms and the relationship of one shape to another,” DeMartin explains. “If an arm crosses over the body, for example, the artist should draw the continuous lines of the body first and then draw the arm over that section of the body. The point is to first capture the action and contour and let the subtleties come later.

DeMartin's five-minute gesture drawing

DeMartin's Gesture Drawing:
Five-minute gesture drawing
with Nupastel on newsprint paper.

“Drawings done over an extended period of time should be started with medium vine charcoal placed in a holder,” the artist advises. “The advantage of vine charcoal is that it is easier to erase and adjust, provided the lines aren’t too dark. Also, because of its softness, vine charcoal slides across the paper and lends itself to a bold and simple start.”

Once DeMartin is satisfied with the proportion and placement of the figure on the paper, he indicates the area of shadow in a process he calls posterizing. “One thing is universally true for both short and long poses: shadows should be put in first because those guide the artist in comparing the other values that are in light,” he stresses. “I create one flat value for the lights (the white of the paper) and one flat value for the shadows with hatched lines that make a light tone. Value is not a concern, only the graphic interpretation of the shadow pattern. It is important to recognize which forms are in shadow and which aren’t because artists often mistake dark values in the light for shadows.”

When he is satisfied with the basic vine charcoal drawing, DeMartin wipes off much of the soft charcoal, leaving only a faint image on the white paper. “That gives me a template or guide for the final stages of the drawing,” he explains. “I then re-outline the figure using compressed charcoal, which is more permanent, and I pay more attention to the accuracy of the drawing in comparison to the model.

“I develop the shadows in an additive way, building up layers of charcoal,” DeMartin says, explaining how to draw long poses. “I first rub in an even, flat mass of shadows and then use a charcoal stump to melt the shadows into the paper. This serves as a nice juxtaposition to the values in the light, which are more spontaneously drawn with hatching. On longer poses, the drawing’s three-dimensional illusion is expressed primarily through values of light and dark. The planes on the form that turn away from the light source darken as they approach the shadow line. These are the value gradations on the form that convey the illusion of roundness. The rounder the form, the more the gradations spread out.”

Demartin's twenty-minute gesture drawing.

DeMartin's Gesture Drawing:
Twenty-minute life drawing
with Nupastel on newsprint paper.

The amount of time workshop students spend on short- and long-term drawings depends, in part, on their skill level. “If students haven’t had a lot of training, I spend less time on short poses and more on long poses because it’s too difficult to train an unskilled artist in a workshop that only lasts a few days,” the artist explains. “Beginners are better off dealing with issues more directly related to painting—such as values, shapes, and edges—rather than gesture. They usually find it easier to work on proportion, scale, and projection if the model holds the same pose for several hours.”

To help convey how beneficial training in drawing can be to a painter, DeMartin offers a detailed review of the development of one of his recent paintings, Billiards.  The numerous thumbnail sketches, linear drawings, value studies, and compositional diagrams all helped establish the solid foundation DeMartin believes is so important to good painting.

The interior scene of a billiard hall began as a quick gesture drawing and developed through a series of compositional studies. “I remembered a billiard hall I visited in the 1970s, which I had photographed and years later made into a rough, graphite drawing in a 3"-x-5" sketchbook,” he recalls. “The sketch was a loose indication of two men shooting a game of pool as they stood near a window. Years later I envisioned a painting that could be included in the John Pence Gallery “interiors” exhibition in San Francisco. I imagined it to have lots of atmosphere resulting from the high contrast of a bright light and deep shadows.”

After making more drawings to explore the idea and imprint the image in his mind, DeMartin asked a friend to pose as one of the pool players and drew the mirrored reflection of his own body for the other man. “I did several drawings in vine charcoal to get the action and character, then I made more careful drawings on toned paper using compressed charcoal and white chalk,” he explains. “I relied completely on those drawings when I began the painting process.”

Just as he varies the type of drawing he employs, DeMartin also uses different painting techniques. “I benefit from having studied with artists who explored two different ways of developing paintings, each of which leads to a different result,” the artist admits. “Michael Aviano explained how to build on a monochromatic underpainting, while Nelson Shanks taught me to work with color relationships from the very beginning. I find occasions when one or the other approach can best serve my intentions.

“In the case of Billiards, I decided to establish a monochromatic base by first sealing the lines of the drawing with a thin mixture of Old Holland brown ochre paint and then painting a full-value, monochromatic base with burnt umber,” DeMartin continues. “A monochromatic underpainting offers the advantage of allowing the picture to ‘breathe,’ particularly in the darker passages. That creates a nice balance of opacity and transparency, as well as a textural richness. Once that was completely dry, I began painting in color in several passes to achieve the levels of transparency and opacity required for the finished painting. As I layered the local colors over the foundation, I was vigilant in holding on to the values underneath.”

DeMartin emphasizes that there is not just one recommended approach to drawing or painting. The important thing for artists to remember is that some amount of drawing will help in selecting the elements of a picture, establishing the composition of lines and values, and resolving potential problems. “It always helps to have techniques based on solid principles that, with hard work, produce successful results,” he concludes. “It is only through the ability to first capture life in drawings that artists are able to realize their visions.”

About the Artist
Jon DeMartin received a B.F.A. degree in film-making from the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and studied art at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, with Gustav Rehberger and Nelson Shanks, as well as independently with Michael Aviano. In addition, he trained in cast drawing with Milet Andrejevic and Edward Schmidt. His drawings and paintings have been exhibited in galleries in New York, California, and Virginia and have been published in American Artist, Art in America, ARTnews, and The Classicist. DeMartin has taught at the New York Academy of Art, the Woodstock School of Art, and Parsons The New School for Design, all in New York, as well as at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He is represented by Hirschl & Adler Gallery, in New York City, and John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of Workshop.


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Comments

Pat Jasper wrote
on 19 Apr 2008 4:25 AM
wasn't able to pull up Mr. De Martin's step by step demonstration. Great Article
regina wrote
on 2 Mar 2009 12:00 AM
I had purchased a painting of yours around eight years ago in ny at the art student showcase....just today found the info and decided to look you up. I hung it at my diner on Marthas Vineyard and it always stops people in thier tracks! it says study self portrait....seven up bottle , handsome man on suitcases! thank you!