Drawing Basics: The One Rule We Hear More Than Any Other From Art Teachers

28 Jul 2009

One of my favorite things about our quarterly magazine Workshop is that in almost every issue one can find a teacher swear by a rule in one article and another teacher in another article swear by the exact opposite. They are both right--or I should say, they are both only wrong in thinking their stance is absolute. There are many ways to make art. Some are time proven, others have a quirkiness that works very well for a sliver of the population, some open a few doors and lock others, some can only take you to a certain point, then leave you free (or lost).

That said, one rule that pops up often in all of our magazines from all sorts of instructors and artists is this:

Big shapes first.

Simplifying what we see is a good first step whether drawing or painting. It helps with still lifes, it certainly helps with human figure drawing too, which is very difficult for us to see without bringing an immense amount of preconceived ideas and experience to it. And it is absolutely necessary when painting a landscape, where the artist has the whole world in front of them to depict on the working surface.

So the advice is often to squint. Squinting eliminates details and condenses the range of values perceived. It can turn the subject matter into a few big masses, allowing the artist to arrange and block in the composition. This is not just the domain of the plein air painter, who must work quickly to get the composition established and the painting in motion before Mother Nature changes her mood. Even the most classical and meticulous atelier advocates seeing the big shapes first when tackling what will eventually be a tightly rendered drawing.

"The basis of every drawing exercise we have students do here is the same: Work from the general to the specific," says Craig Blietz, the artistic director of the Kewaunee Academy of Fine Art, in Wisconsin. "This is emphasized to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the exercise, but it's always the main tenet. Determine what is the essential character of your subject through gesture and proportion before considering details."

The Kewaunee Academy of Fine Art puts its students through a very traditional drawing program that utilizes Bargue lithographs, the sight-size method, drawing from plaster casts, and life drawing. Blietz says that no matter what the exercise, students are urged to get the gesture first. "Find the relationships of the large masses," he recommends. "The large masses need to relate properly to one another in terms of their position. That is gesture.

"Next is proportion," Blietz continues. "What are the sizes of the objects relative to one another?

"Then, refine the drawing by adding complexity, but in a stepped manner," he adds. "You should not jump from broad statements to a very refined, modeled statement, but rather subdivide a shape into smaller parts as you progress in the drawing.

"This ensures a solid drawing from the beginning," explains Blietz. "You don't come to find later that the head is too small. The size and placement will be correct. The Bargue plates are good because they are two-dimensional--Bargue has already flattened the scene for us--and because the linework in some of the simpler plates allows students to see how Bargue simplified objects."

Big shapes first.


A student makes a drawing copy of a Bargue lithograph

A student copies a Bargue lithograph at the Kewaunee Academy of Fine Art, in Wisconsin.
Copying Bargue's plates in one's own drawings is helpful in part because it shows how the master artist simplified objects such as the human arm, rendering them first in simple outline.

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Robin11 wrote
on 28 Jul 2009 5:49 PM

This is great advice!  It took me a while to figure this out (on my own) that if the basic gestures, shapes and proportions are off, all the details in the world won't make it look right.

smithharia wrote
on 30 Jul 2009 8:56 AM

I agree with this advice completely. I have yet to paint but am still drawing and have been told that it's the absolute foundation of all the rest of our work. If you can't draw, you can't do anything else, at least, not well.

Really enjoy these forums. Thanks for being here


on 6 Aug 2009 11:51 AM

Painting classes fill, drawing don't. In painting classes spend most of the time teach basic drawing.  Everyone (particularly adults) wants to produce a framable painting in one session.

on 7 Aug 2009 10:20 AM

I think drawing is essential.When I studied art in Austria in 1946, I had to draw from plaster figures, bones and live models and even from pieces of wood and folded paper.From time to time we had to copy from drawing of old masters.

on 7 Aug 2009 11:28 PM

Are the Bargue plates available and published full size?

Bob Bahr wrote
on 10 Aug 2009 7:09 AM

No, Refined Artist, I don't know of anyone who publishes them full size.

Kisu wrote
on 24 Oct 2009 2:25 PM

I would agree very much with what has been described, *except* I think the sight-size method creates limiting or constraining cognitive/motor habits that appear to be difficult for sight-size trained artists to deviate from.  I spent a lot of time in life drawing classes when I was in art programs (employing the comparative method of drawing as opposed to sight-size method), as well as osteology coursework and drawing from skeletons, both human and non-human.  Yep, drawing is the foundation, and everything else is built on that.