At workshops I teach, both at the Casa and in the States, participant have requested I write down some of the simple pointers and reminders about drawing that I’ve shared with them. I have found that these very simple things have been useful for both the beginning artist (as they are good foundations) and the experienced professional (as they frequently jump right into painting and often don’t take the time to draw as an end in itself). I have been told over and again that they find it both a refreshing reminder and a useful process. So in this essay I would like to share with you a few of the basic reminders as well as an exercise that has become a part of my workshop “Draw Like a Painter”, (being offered this November at The Art of The Carolinas).

To begin with, each one of us has a unique signature. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. Our unique mark and line is very personal, and can be an expression of our consciousness of the moment, we need to simply “get out of our own way”. Often times when people approach drawing, particularly if it has been a long time, like one Casa participant, Stu, 82 at the time, who had “never drawn before” (at least not since he was in high school, over 65 years ago!)

… or they are not in the habit of drawing and are not “well practiced in the process”, it can sometimes be intimidating (sadly I have seen this in young children and teens as well, who’s creativity has not been nourished). In fact, I have often witnessed a cathartic experience occur during the drawing process. This happens as the voices of the “critical self” emerge and the artist works with freeing themselves from these voices.

Signature Energy 1
Masla, Signature Drawing, charcoal on paper

In this respect, drawing, whether it be naturalistic (trying to produce something that we have observed in nature, to capture its likeness or essence) or if it is eidetic (internal, from our memory, thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination or visualization), if it is approached as a process of awareness and self discovery, it is a meditation. A very simple place to begin, both in meditation and the meditational practice of drawing, that we often forget or overlook, is with the breath. Our breath unites the external world with the internal. If we focus our attention to our breath, it is often revealing of our inner state of mind and body and can also be used as a tool to alter those states. Through controlled breath we can either excite, calm or energize the mind and body. And we have all experienced how both emotional and physical states have effected our breath. Many practices, from yoga and pranayama to running, calligraphy or Tai-chi, consciously incorporate the breath into their practice. In this first exercise I am going to suggest how you may do so with drawing.

We take the element of air, bring it within our bodies and convert it into energy for our bodies and minds. We do a similar thing with our eyes as we “digest light” through our vision. As the eyes take in the particles and wavelengths they are converted to “energy” that travels the optic nerve into our brains for processing into images and memory. When we exhale, we expel the energy of breath in a different form to be nourishment for other creatures. So what of the energy we have internalized with sight? Sometimes we expel it in the productions that stem from our visions, on occasion it is in the creation of another energy, that of art, (hopefully nourishing for some other creatures as well).

I often refer to the creation of artwork as the creation of an “energy field”. This “energy field” effects those who come in contact with it and it in turn can thus effect its environment. The intention of the artist will often impact the effect of the energy field. We are taking that which has ultimately been internalized, and giving it an external shape and form, the resulting whole becoming more than it’s separate parts, (this may not hold true for photorealism, a subject that would be too lengthy to address here). In drawing, this energy field is created by the play of marks and shapes, the abstract structure, design and compositional elements, the modulation of line, thick to thin, the pulsation created by the patterns of dark to light, hard and soft edges, etc. Ultimately they all bear the signature of the artist – the internal energy, flowing from the heart and brain – out of the hand – to the paper or canvas. This unique individual mark that is the expression of the artist, can never be “wrong”. It is their signature, what we call “style”. I feel it is very important to relate, particularly to young students, who are flooded with images and judgements in a media crazed culture, that style is very different from what is imposed on us – which is fashion. Drawing, which on some level is an expression of an internal state of being, is an expression of style, or, it is the process, one of discovery, in which we uncover the self. Peeling away the layers of “fashion” & “critical voice” to reveal the intuitive clear voice of the creative self. This voice, which stems from awareness, is not clouded with our usual internal dialogue, but is witness in creation: with joy and awe and playfulness.

Exercise in Uncovering the Creative Mark:

To begin this exercise, gather your materials together on a work table. I suggest a table rather than an easel, so all your drawing tools can be spread out around your work, easily accessible. Also, if you feel moved to, you can get up and walk around your drawing, stand and use your whole arm and body to draw with, not just your wrist.

Suggested Materials: a large piece of drawing paper and various tools for drawing and mark making. i.e. various kinds of charcoal, soft and hard, vine and compressed, white chalk or pastel, a variety of drawing pencils (5 or 6) from a 8b (soft) to HB (medium) to a 4H (hard), perhaps an ebony pencil and a layout pencil, a kneadable eraser (great for lifting out and drawing with) and the standard “pink pearl eraser, a tortillion or stomp (rolled paper or cloth used for blending and smudging, and any other materials you think would add to the variety and creativity of your mark making.

Remember, you can’t do this wrong, there are no rules, at least very few, and you can bend and break those if you really want to. I have to tell you that people often “stop short” with this exercise, often not pushing it (and themselves) as far as they could go. There are many reasons as to why this happens, which I might address at another time, but this is the advantage of having an instructor/facilitator there with you as a guide, to gently nudge you onward, to probe with questions and suggestions, to alter your perspective, etc.

Start by sitting comfortably by your table, close your eyes and breath. Take a few deep cleansing breaths, hold them for a few seconds and then let them go fully. As you inhale, feel the life energy enter your body and expand to all parts, from your lungs outward, become aware of the various sensations in your body, Not judging them, just noting them… there is tingling in my feet, tension in my neck, etc. As you exhale, feel your body and mind expand as your breath flows back into the world. Let go of all your tension and the chatter of the judgmental mind… oh this is stupid, I’m wasting my time….this isn’t drawing, I can’t draw…what’s for supper. Just observe, sit back in your awareness, relax and follow your breath. Do this for a few minutes, follow your breath, observe your feelings, whatever they are, where ever you are at in the moment – that’s ok, just observe. Maybe you are feeling anxious, or sleepy, … angered from a thought of an event that occurred this morning…. no judgement, just witness your mind and body and breath.

After doing this for several minutes (5 – 10) there will be some dominant theme(s) in your awareness. Perhaps it will be simply the sensation of tranquility from giving yourself the license to just breath and observe, perhaps not. Maybe something else. No judgement. But here is the only rule for this exercise – as you pick up the materials to begin drawing “Where you are at and what you are feeling in the moment”, remember this – try not to create any “pictures” or “symbols” of your feelings (i.e. no birds, no happy faces, 🙂 , etc.) – rather allow the pure quality of your line and mark making express your feelings.

Become aware of the quality of your line, the pressure of your drawing material against the surface of the paper. The modulation of that line and mark and its compositional direction. Allow your feelings to flow from your heart, through your arm, hand and fingers, through the pencil or charcoal, onto the drawing surface. No symbols or “recognizable images” – just the pure quality of your line and mark expressing your feelings. Experiment and explore with what your tools can do, push them and yourself a little bit further. If you get lost, overwhelmed, or stuck – in your thoughts, just close your eyes and follow your breath again. Continue drawing.

Allow the drawing to inform you of what it needs, drawing out of you more feeling. Is it capturing your emotion, what if you darkened this, or took the eraser and dragged it over here, pulling up a bit of this line or shape. This is not a time to be listening to the “critical mind”, though it may be talking very loudly, breath and slip into “visual thinking”. How does this mark react to this line, to this shape… I feel the need to enhance the contrast of tonal values here and sharpen the edge there.

Remember, whenever drawing or painting (not really a rule, but always a good idea), if you are not standing up already, take a few steps back and look at the work afresh, as a whole, then draw some more, (a good time to stretch a little as well). Think your done? Perhaps, perhaps not. Turn the page upside down (or walk around the table), get a fresh perspective. What can you do to that drawing to add to the dynamic quality of the emotion it conveys. Continue to draw your heart out!

Next month we will explore this process a bit further and see how we can apply these principles to observational drawing, what I like to call Naturalistic Drawing. Meanwhile, remember to breath.

Listening to the Mark72dpi
Masla, Listening to the Mark, charcoal and graphite wash on Fabriano paper