Posts Tagged ‘technique’

14MarchPassageLThis is a passage from a larger painting, which will appear at the end of this post.

When  you’re working on a painting, it may happen that you feel you’re getting carried away and that you can’t see the unity in what’s on your canvas.  You love all the parts but you feel that as a whole it  doesn’t hang together. This often happens as a painting draws near completing and the artist becomes self-conscious about having to please an audience.

In that case, you can pull out your camera (or phone) and take pictures of just passages of the painting.  You’ll discover that within your painting there are any number of potential paintings.  This exercise will refresh your eye and your mind.  It will remind you of what you love in a painting and lead you back to focusing on your individual sensibility.  The audience will find itself.

14MarchPainting by Patty Cohen, oil on canvas, 24”x24”

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

Now consider the following passages from Patty’s painting as potential paintings in themselves.  Imagine them as large paintings.

14MarchPassage3 14MarchPassage4 14MarchPassage5






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In my drawing class, I present demos on various techniques and then stand back to see who will use those techniques and to what degree.  The lesson on shading, for example, will make quite a different impression on different students.  A student takes what he or she can use at that moment—and feels like using.  That is, I think, as it should be.

One student, Gaby, has been using a careful shading technique for drapery studies that fill the page with a compelling presence and at the same time invite associations to anatomical features.  The illusion of three-dimensionality of these round forms is difficult to achieve and requires intense concentration and visualization.

Another student, Linné, working from the same still life set-up (see previous post) avoids the articulation of light-shadow-reflected-light and instead suggests the drapery with his own forceful lines. In some passages of the drawing, he goes into the sheer pleasure of markmaking and simply invents.  Mysterious humanoid forms emerge while at the same time clearly representing drapery.

‘Twas not ever thus.  Individual expression was not tolerated among the Renaissance and Baroque artists who worked with numerous assistants in their spacious workshops.  For example, Raphael (1483-1520) and Rubens (1577-1640) trained their assistants to specialize in certain aspects of a painting like drapery, clouds, water,architectural detail and flesh.  The assistants had to reproduce the master’s technique so faithfully that the whole tableau appeared to have been painted by the same hand–the master’s.  We tend to forget this—and we’re supposed to—when we look at these enormous paintings and frescoes.  Rubens’ paintings celebrating the life of Marie de Medici measure about 14 feet in height.  Raphael’s School of Athens fills a wall in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by the achievements of these masters and let’s instead give credit to those unnamed assistants.  We moderns, lucky us, can study the techniques of those big guys from the past and then enjoy the freedom to find our own individual approach.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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At the end of the class, one of the new students said, “this is crazy.”

He had been trying to draw what I had tacked up on the wall, a line drawing of a person sitting on a stool with legs pulled up.  The part that was crazy about this was that the drawing was upside down.

Not crazy at all. The only way to draw is to first see and in order to see you need to stop labeling what you see.  You have to turn off the verbal part of your brain and switch to visual.  Easier said than done.  In fact, this is very hard.  Your brain does not want to shut down the verbal facility, which it has worked so hard to refine.  The upside-down drawing exercise subverts your verbal impulses and over time allows you to enter a visual state.  When you’re in this visual mode, you get a buzz, a kind of high, an altered state, and, behold, you will see.  It’s so corny to talk about this.  It has to be experienced.

My new student listened to some of this left brain/right brain talk and my reference to Betty Edwards’ 1979 book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  Oh, yea, he said, I have a copy of that book.

Right.  Lots of people have copies.  Or had, before they dumped them at some used book shop.  If you’re not familiar with this book, you can pick up a copy at a used books store for, oh, about a dollar.  When it first came out in 1979 it was all the rage and it raised hopes that everybody could learn to draw.  Well, yes, everybody can.  You know what I’ll say next, don’t you:  you have to practice.

Upside-down drawing is the most valuable exercise you can do.  Here’s how you do it:

• Find a complex drawing by an admired artist or a magazine photo that shows clear outlines.

• Tape it upside-down  on your drawing board above the drawing paper which is also taped down.

• Observe large shapes and general directions.  Draw these as guide lines. Keep them as part of the drawing.

• Start by drawing lines that relate to the edge of the paper.

• Observe aspects of a line: beginning and end, where it bends, relation to other lines. Observe negative space.

• Pull the pencil without scratchy backstrokes. For large drawings, hold the pencil so that your thumb is on top. Lean back in your chair.

• Leave faint lines in place. Erase if the lines are too confusing. You’re not aiming for a neat, “perfect” page.

• Do not invert the drawing until you are done.

The value of this exercise is in the concentration and the process, not in the result.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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Sketching in a café, a museum or on the beach is a pleasure and it’s nice to have a small sketchbook in your backpack to suit your mood and your drawing technique.  I’ve never liked the sketchbooks that are available in stores.  I like sketching with markers on a particular, glossy paper and so, a few years ago, I simply started making my own sketch books.  This involves a little effort but not too much and I find it’s worth it.

To make your own sketch book:

1. Find a book on your shelves or in a used-book store that’s just the right size for a sketch book.  Cut out the printed pages, which you’ve never bothered to read anyway or which you judge to be trash. Throw these into your recycling bin.  Punch one or two holes into the covers.

2.  Cut the paper you love to fit the covers.

3. Punch holes into the paper to match the holes in your covers.

4. Buy some rings at your local Office Depot.

So easy!  This may change your life.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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John Singer Sargent (1856 -1925) was an American painter who lived much of his productive life in Europe.  He has lately fallen out of favor with the art scene, probably because his clients were the super-rich and the crème de la crème of the Belle Epoche art world.   On a deeper level, however, our dismissal of him may be about envy:  the man could draw and paint with the kind of ease and finesse that contemporary artists just don’t have the time for or motivation to develop.  It does take time, you know.

Today I want to focus on the way he painted hands.  In his stately portraits, the hands appear to be dashed off in a few brush strokes.  If you look closely at the canvases, you can see that a finger often is rendered with one sure flick of the brush as the hand grasps some gauzy or lacy fabric. You can’t believe that he did that and you just want to give up, certain that you’ll never be able to draw a hand.

Then there’s Mrs. Swinton at the Chicago Art Institute.  The portrait is four feet wide and almost eight feet high. A very young woman with a wholesome Ingrid-Bergman-face asserts her status in society.  Sargent documents her sartorial finery and dazzles us with his bravura brush work. The highlights on the satin gown are globs of cream-white paint; the shine on the chair upholstery is rendered in slashing brush strokes, as if in passing.

Then you notice the hands. Both of Mrs. Swinton’s hands are positioned to convey hauteur. Her right hand is twisted back over the chair in a supercilious, affected manner.  This gives Sargent a chance to show us that the anatomical difficulty of this oblique view does not faze him.  He nails it in a few brush strokes.

The left hand on the hip, however, gave him a work out.  Here he’s not showing off, he’s not flicking the brush to get the tapered fingers in place.  This passage in the painting is labored, with the paint applied in many thick layers. You can empathize with his struggle if you’ve ever tried to draw a hand and maybe you feel relieved to know that even a wizard like Sargent can have a bad day with hands.  Actually, it’s odd that this hand, which is so relaxed, with the fingers nicely aligned, would give him trouble. But clearly, it did.

Hands are difficult, no doubt about it.  The anatomy is complex and it can come at you in so many different angles. Still, you can learn to draw hands. When we do hands in my drawing class, I sit next to individual students and show them how to tame this beast.  Basically, there are three main points:  1) the knuckles form a V; 2) draw the general form of the whole hand first; and 3) don’t overdraw the fingers, especially not the finger tips.

If the mighty Sargent can spend hours scraping and glopping over a left hand on a canvas, you can forgive yourself for drawing a clumsy hand, too.  It gets better with practice and eventually you’ll pull off a really elegant set of fingers.  Not every time, but enough of the time to look forward to the challenge and the pleasure (!) of drawing a hand.

Sometimes my students’ progress is startling. After one brief demo, a student will draw a page of hand studies that shows a sudden grasp of all the points I’ve demonstrated.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






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Cartooning looks ease.  The only way it can be effective is if you make it look easy.  Like magic:  the rope trick can be learned, for example, but it takes a lot of practice to make it look smooth and convincing.  Similarly, cartooning is not an easy art form.  Practice, practice.

I teach a class called “Cartooning for Teachers.”  It’s not just teachers who sign up, but also therapists and public speakers, a population that knows the importance of practice and making things go smooth. This week one such class came to an end, after eight sessions.  It was actually organized privately, by teachers and a school psychologist, who were determined to get this skill under their belt and onto the chalk boards.  What fun!  But also, you guessed it, a lot of practice and perseverance.

We started with a simple pudgy bear and progressed to the cat, dog, tiger, bull, viper, and sassy bunny.  All of these characters were accessorized with hand gestures, tails, and attitude shoulders.  Gotta go for attitude, it’s the name of the game!  By the middle of the course, the students were eager to get into human forms.  The whole thing is about humanness, of course.   Animals in themselves are not funny.  We think they’re drole because we project  human attributes into them. So, when you’re learning to draw the pudgy bear, for example, you’re actually learning a lot about what makes a face a face and what makes for nuances in expression—meaning human expression.  In the course of these eight weeks the nuances got more complex and the layers of meaning piled on.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that I recommend this course for serious portrait artists.

During the class I drew with marker on three-foot- high brown construction paper taped to a board.  Shown here (above) are some of the sections from that paper.   I also sat next to students and drew along with them (white paper) so they could see how I would develop a character, face and gesture.  We easily transitioned from animal to human faces.  The value of the course was obvious to all.  But it was just a beginning–like most everything else we do.  Practice, practice.

See also, www.khilden.com

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You’ll find a two minute video on YouTube in which I demonstrate how to swing your hand in the air in an elliptical path.  When you do, the ellipse on paper will just follow.  I invite everyone to watch this short video, because it simulates a class room demo where you watch over the shoulder of the instructor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLD9aCjoNWc

Here are the steps:

1. Place your forearm at about a 45 degree angle to your body and adjust the angle of your paper so that its vertical edge is parallel to your forearm.

2. Hold the pencil with fingers not curled in a writing grip, but slightly extended.  Let the pencil rest on your middle finger with your forefinger about an inch-and-a-half from the tip of the pencil.

3. Your hand is high over the paper. Only your pinky is resting lightly on the paper.

4. Gently swing your wrist in the air in an elliptical path.  Feel the pinky brushing over the paper and allow your forearm to move slightly. Find a speed and rhythm that’s comfortable and even.  Draw some ellipses in the air in a continuous movement.

5. Without interrupting the rhythm, lower the pencil to the paper. Then resume the ellipses in the air. Move the paper. After 3 or 4 ellipses in the air, lower the pencil to mark the paper without breaking the rhythm.

6. As you continue practicing, move the paper over and up.   Keep the position of the arm the same.

I love the paradox of this process.  The ellipse on paper–which is real and visible—is the residue of the ellipse in the air, which is an illusion.

I talked about the ellipse in an earlier blog, dated April 19.  I’m returning to the ellipse now because the New York Times has started a 12-week series on the art of drawing by James McMullan.  His second article, September 24, was on the ellipse.  Unfortunately, it is, at best, confusing.  Mr. McMullan offers no real guidance on how to approach the drawing process.  The comments left by readers show that they learned nothing from the article, though there was an abundant outpouring of enthusiasm over the fact that the Times is running a series on—what?—drawing !  I, too,  am delighted that the art of drawing has found space in a newspaper.  Here’s my own comment,  # 83, quoted in the Times:

“It’s wonderful to see that the Times is running a column on drawing. I agree with commentator #32 who laments the fact that most of us are visually illiterate. We should all be drawing! But Mr. McMullan is a poor choice as a teacher. After you’ve imagined the tops of glasses and bowls as so many floating Frisbees, you’re still no closer to learning how to actually move your hand to make an ellipse. I start every one of my new drawing classes with a demonstration of how the hand moves when drawing an ellipse. It’s a smooth, graceful gesture and it needs repeated practice over weeks and months. After students have watched over my shoulder to see the demo, I sit next to them and correct their movements. In my own blog about the art of drawing, https://artamaze.wordpress.com, I gave a lesson about drawing the ellipse (April 19, 2010), in which I used the analogy to the Frisbee– not as a shape because that’s useless–but as a reminder of how the wrist moves when you throw the Frisbee. That’s the real connection!
Mr. McMullan mentions that the hand needs to be loose in drawing the ellipse, but then he shows us ellipses drawn by a very stiff hand. His ellipses are not drawn with any swing at all, but with a scratchy, hesitant line. Mr. McMullan, you are most welcome to attend my drawing class. With empathetic, insightful instruction, you, too, can learn to swing your wrist to draw a lively ellipse.”

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“I want something to look at,” she said, “and I want to spend time painting it.”    She wanted something close to Joseph Raffael’s watercolors, (>) though certainly not as huge.   She came to my plein air landscape class with the expectation of  spending  a couple of hours working on one watercolor, layering and slowly developing a dense surface.  Then she suddenly did this. (<)  I had suggested that she look at Cézanne (below),  a master of luminous, transparent color, whose watercolors print very nicely and are available in books.  The Cézannes were lovely, she though, but there was “not much to look at” and it’s not what she wanted to do.  All that white.  She wanted the surface more worked, denser, darker, more complex.  And she wanted to spend more time on one painting.  Instead, suddenly, she started producing four or five paintings in a three-hour class.  She didn’t like these paintings at first; they came too easily to her.  She had expected to WORK.  But I think otherwise.  I think producing such watercolors takes tremendous concentration and a rapport with this unforgiving medium that may have suited her sensibility but which she only now allowed to play out.

At the end of our ten-week course Janet told me that she had previously studied with a teacher who advised her students to cover up the white of the paper:  just put a uniform wash over the whole paper before you start painting.   How perverse, I thought, don’t do that!  It’s the white of the paper that makes the color luminous.  Why would you want to start with a murky surface and condemn your lovely watercolors to muddiness right off the brush.  On the last day of our class, Janet confessed,  working with the white paper as a key element in the whole process made more sense.

The white of the paper becomes an element in itself, not just background that needs to be filled.  Using the white as an element takes skill, sensitivity  and a concentration that constantly reads the whole surface and how everything on that surface relates to everything else.  This is not easy.  This rapport comes to most people only after countless hours spent in patient experiments involving little blotches of color into which other blotches of color are bled.  Hours, months, years.  That someone would have such a natural feeling for this medium strikes me as very rare.  I, for one, find myself absorbed in these watercolors.  The white in them has a presence and projects a power that I find quite moving.

The words “Beginner’s Mind” are part of a Shunrui Suzuki’s little book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Though we did not talk about this book at all, I feel it’s appropriate to comment on it since the student used the expression.  The “Beginner’s Mind”  is not at all stupid or crude.   The ability to be in a state of “beginning” comes after much work of staring down the mind’s constant commentator.

In that state the mind is able to see clearly.  To see clearly is to see the “whole picture” including all the white bits that appear to be blank but are anything but.

Many viewers, looking at all that white space in the watercolors, are asking, “but how do you know it’s finished?”  This question deserves a post of its own.  Later.

(The paper really is white, it’s my camera that doesn’t get it.  I’m working on it.)

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The popular misconception about watercolor is that it’s easy. How hard can this be?  You only use water, no complicated smelly toxic solvents.  All you need is some paper, some paint that comes neatly in small tubes, some brushes and the old pickle jar to wash your brushes in.  Phhfffffrrrhhh.

Think again.  Watercolor wins hands down as the hardest painting medium.  Totally unforgiving.  If you’re planning on trying watercolor, add a large wastepaper basket to your supply list and learn to work right next to it.  Painting in watercolor demands a sense of adventure, a sense of risk taking. In this medium you really do have to go with the flow. And flow it does, very often, probably most often, not in the direction you hoped it would.  Wastepaper basket time.  Allow yourself years of practice before you get the hang of it.  Not a typo there, years.  Why would you put yourself through this?  Because it’s exhilarating.  It wakes up your complacent I’ll-just-go-over-that-later-and-fix-it mind.  Uh-uh.  Not later, girlfriend.  Every stroke-splash-wash you make behaves like a living organism that demands your total attention or else it’ll die on you right then and there.  If you overwork it, the thing will get gummy. To count as a watercolor, your painting has to be transparent and luminous.  So, sure, go out and buy the simple supplies. Then set yourself down and turn your mind to the “transparent and luminous” setting.  When you need inspiration—and you will, often– I suggest you look at the work of my friend Christine Hanlon, who dashed off this little gem while sitting on some rocks just north of San Francisco.  She likes to walk over to the ocean in the morning to do a watercolor…”to get the creative juices flowing.”  Yes, indeed.  Thank you, Christine.  http://christinehanlon.homestead.com/index.html

Zen teachers like to talk about how when you do something, whatever it is, you should burn yourself up completely, leaving no residue.  It’s like that with watercolor.  You burn yourself up, except, errhh, with water.

If what I’m saying here isn’t perfectly clear, I hope at least it’s transparent.

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