Perspective and Emotion (2): The space around an object

May 12, 2013


Above: Auguste Renoir flower painting, oils, 1901

An object in a painting can seem to have such a physical presence that I am stopped in my tracks. Whether a vase of flowers or a pair of shoes, the image may insist that it really is there, a solid presence in its own space.

In this second article about using perspective to increase the emotional “punch” of an image, I’ll suggest how to understand three-dimensional space to give your still life a sense of  solidity and depth.

To me, this clear sense of space/ depth in a picture can have an even more startling effect if other aspects of the image, such as the colour, stray far from reality. Take, for example, the vase of flowers by Renoir (above). The three-dimensional quality of the flowers, vase, and surrounding space are so convincing that they seem to scream “REAL!” at me, while the luscious visible brushstrokes and warm colour-scheme do not strive for a trompe l’oeil effect and shout “IMAGINARY”. Such an approach, teetering on the boundary between strong illusion and a dream-like image, makes the painting especially thought-provoking.


Creating a sense of space around your object



Above: Cezanne “Study for l’autopsie”, c.1867-9, charcoal, 31x48cm

So this is an article about still life, and here I am using a figure drawing as illustration! I chose this image as it beautifully demonstrates how to fit a body or object into a convincing space.

Cezanne was always fascinated by the whole business of how objects “fit” next to one another and within space. He is of course well-known for his brightly-coloured still life paintings that in some ways used traditional perspective, and in others broke many rules, but nevertheless appeared convincing as objects in space. Cezanne had this ability to play around with three-dimensional space, but this skill was grounded in a good understanding of perspective.

The first point to note is that a preparatory drawing from life can be very useful in understanding how an object fits into its surroundings. This holds true whether you are drawing a complex figure or a simple vase.


Above: Cezanne “Study for l’autopsie”. My red arrows point to Cezanne’s floor edges.

One interesting thing about Cezanne’s figure is the way in which it is slumped against a corner. In this study, Cezanne has included the edges of the floor as clear lines (indicated by my red arrows, above) to indicate the position of the walls around the figure. The artist may or may not opt to include such edge lines in the finished painting, but look how they clarify the sense of space in the preparatory drawing.

Putting this into practice with a simple still life subject

When drawing a typical still life of flowers, fruit or other objects, two or more edges of the supporting table are often visible. There may also be edges of a wall or window-frame behind your object(s). Try including some of these edges as lines in your preparatory study to help understand the space around your still life.

Notice how edges of floor, skirting board, tables, etc., need to be angled compared with the edges of your drawing paper. Take a little time to get these angles so that you are happy with them – they are the fundamental structure of your picture.

Some tips on getting sloping lines “right”:

If, in real life, horizontal lines are just as high off the ground as your own eyes, then they should be horizontal in your picture.

If horizontal lines are higher or lower than your eyes, then they’ll need to slope (unless the line is just directly in front of you).

To estimate the slope of a line, you can hold your pencil up in front of it. Follow this link for a demonstration.

If, like me, you are not mathematically-minded, you may wish to assess slopes in terms of time on a clock instead of numbered angles. I explain that more fully in the link.

Positioning the figure or still life object within your picture:

Take care to position your object relative to other parts of your picture. In Cezanne’s autopsy study, notice how moving the image of the body slightly to the right, to the left or up or down on the piece of paper, would suggest that the figure is nearer or further from the edges of the floor. The positioning of it the figure is clearly important.

In Cezanne’s drawing, there are negative spaces between the floor edge and the edge of the man’s leg. If you are unsure where to position a figure or object, it can be easier to draw these negative spaces than to do a lot of measuring.

If your still life object has straight edges then you can judge the slope of these as described in the section above. For an object as complicated as the human figure, you may need to imagine some straight lines and judge how these would slope. For example, there is a line (a groove between muscles) that runs vertically down the front of the man’s torso, and this tips as his torso tips. Drawing figures in three dimensions takes plenty of practice, so stick at it!

Using directional marks when drawing, to give a sense of space


Above: Cezanne “Study for l’autopsie”. My navy arrows point to regions of hatching that suggest solid surfaces. My green arrows point to areas of inky black shadow.

In Cezanne’s drawing, above, the body appears to be touching three surfaces: The floor, a vertical wall by his left shoulder, and a near-vertical surface behind him. On closer inspection, the structure behind him is not a flat wall as it is slightly irregular and stops level with his head. It could be a draped low cupboard in the studio.

Creating a preparatory drawing with the body positioned between these three surfaces provides enough information to develop this into an interesting painting, perhaps with the surfaces reimagined as outdoor ground and rocks. How does Cezanne get structural information into this preparatory drawing?

Notice how Cezanne has hatched (shaded) the three surfaces with directional marks. There are navy arrows pointing to these areas of hatching in the picture above. Parallel hatched lines can be used to suggest a flat surface, e.g. the wall that touches the figure’s left shoulder.


Using directional marks when painting

Painting with bold, visible brush-strokes, can help to create a sense of structure in your picture. Brush marks can be used in a similar way to pencil or charcoal hatching lines, to suggest the structure of a surface. The paint marks may be subtle and softly slurred or scrubbed into one another or, as in the Van Gogh still life, below, they could be discrete and contrasting in colour.


Above: “Fritillaries in a copper vase” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Van Gogh has used brush strokes to suggest the flat surface of the table or mat on which the vase is standing. See how these marks (indicated by my yellow arrows, below) angle into the picture due to the effect of linear perspective.

Notice how, in Van Gogh’s painting, the edge of the table is unclear or absent, and the space behind the flowers is a sparkly, blue void. These and other aspects of the picture are dream-like, but the vase is securely “grounded” on its supporting surface in three dimensions.


Above: “Fritillaries in a copper vase” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887, my arrows point towards some of Van Gogh’s directional brush-strokes. Click on the image for an enlarged view.

Painting or drawing rounded objects


Many still life images contain simple rounded objects such as a vase or dish. Look closely at how the edges of the round object seem to curve . If you are looking down on an object (like van Gogh’s vase), it’s near edges will seem to curve in the direction of a smile. Make this effect clear in your picture and the object will appear more three-dimensional. In the image below, my green arrows point towards the decorative band around the vase. Look how van Gogh emphasised this with strong marks and tonal contrast. The curvature of this band helps to make the vase appear more rounded.



Using tone when working in three dimensions


If light angles across your still-life set-up, part of it will be illuminated and part in shadow. There may also be shadows cast by your object(s).

The shapes of any patches of light and shade will help to explain the structure of your still life. For example, look at the bright highlights on the vases in both van Gogh’s and Renoir’s flower pictures (Renoir’s image is up at the top of this article). These highlights help to make the vases look more rounded.

Shadows cast by an object can really help to explain where that object is positioned within the picture. For example, look again at the inky black shadows in Cezanne’s “l’autopsie” study, (indicated by green arrows, below). They emphasise where the figure contacts the floor and how close he is to the vertical supporting surfaces on either side of him:



 Above: Cezanne “Study for l’autopsie”. My navy arrows point to regions of hatching that suggest solid surfaces. My green arrows point to areas of inky black shadow.

Cast shadows do follow the rules of linear perspective, but usually it is sufficient just to mark in their abstract shapes instead of doing elaborate measuring.

Putting all the ideas together to achieve a sense of space in your still life

To sum up, there are several tricks used to help create a sense of space within a still life image:

  • Emphasise edges of objects that angle away from the viewer into the picture.
  • Include some  edges of floor, wall, table , window-frame, etc. within your picture to give a sense of space and scale.
  • Clear tonal modelling of objects and of the surfaces around them.
  • Directional marks on objects and on background surfaces (i.e. draw hatched lines, or paint with visible brush strokes).
  • Accurate rendering of shadows cast by the still life objects, paying attention to their shape and direction.
  • Emphasise curved edges of rounded objects.
  • Bold contrasts of colour and tone in foreground, compared with less contrast further back in the picture.


You might or might not choose to use all of the above at once. It is of course possible to ignore some of these techniques but, in so doing, it is a good idea to make good use of others from the list.

For example, an attempt at photographic illusion may avoid visible brush-strokes, but would then benefit from excellent tonal modelling and from the emphasis of edges that angle into the picture, as in the Spanish still life, below:


Above: “Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber”, 1602, by Juan Sánchez Cotán


In contrast, Vincent van Gogh chose a different approach in his painting of pears heaped on a swathe of fabric, below. The artist has here opted not to paint the edges of the table. So we are left with the impression of a riotous tumble of fruit. To make sense of how the fruit and fabric are positioned in space, van Gogh used directional brush strokes (on pears and fabric), strong cast shadows under the heap of pears, and bold contrasts of tone and colour in the foreground.


 Above: “Still life with pears”, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

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Perspective and emotion: Spaces between people

April 25, 2013

As artists we focus on ideas and emotions, so why should we bother with perspective?



Above: Rembrandt “The Supper at Emmaus”, 1629, oil on panel.


Art ideas are full of contradictions. Here is one example that fascinates me: Art itself is primarily about emotional concepts, yet artists are expected to master the technical challenges of perspective. With its ruled lines, vanishing points and strict right or wrong answers, the mathematical side of perspective terrifies some artists. How can this very technical subject have anything to do with art and emotion?

To some, it is tempting to forget about perspective completely. One can argue that, with the assistance of photography, etc., we don’t even need much knowledge of perspective to create a realistic drawing.

I have noticed that a true understanding of perspective empowers artists to create an illusion of depth and space linked to emotion. Copying images from photos without any understanding of three-dimensional space in the original image will not produce the same effect.

The spaces between people

In our lives, distance and space are closely linked to emotion. The most obvious example is that of “personal space“. How close can someone approach you before you start to feel uncomfortable or nervous? 3 metres, 1 metre, 30cm, 6cm? The answer would vary depending on who the other person is in relation to you, whether a close family member, a friend or a complete stranger.

Where people (and indeed other mammals) are concerned, space or the lack of it is closely linked to emotion, whether that be intimidation, intimacy, loneliness or maternal love. Theories of personal space as related to culture, emotion and body language would come under the subject heading “proxemics“.

A nightmarish image can be created by cramming figures into a tight space. Henry Moore made a series of drawings inspired by his experiences in the London underground stations that served as public air raid shelters during the second world war. Below is a frightening picture in which people like you and me are packed into a tunnel receding into the distance:



 Above: Henry Moore “Figures in a Cave”, 1936, chalk, brush and wash

Notice, below,  the effect of setting one figure apart from the crowd. In Moore’s drawing, one female figure sits alone. What is she thinking? How does she feel? Notice how Moore has clarified the space around her, using crayon lines to suggest brickwork, wood texture and flooring. On one side she is enclosed by walls and bench, but beyond her the tunnel and crowd recede into the distance.


Woman Seated in the Underground 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

  Above: Henry Moore “Woman Seated on the Underground” 1941, gouache, ink, watercolour and crayon on paper

Vincent Van Gogh is known for his emotionally-charged paintings and drawings, but it was actually an instructive book on linear perspective that really grabbed his attention in his youth. Many of Van Gogh’s most moving images have a clear sense of space, and he often used brushstrokes or pen marks to emphasise linear perspective. The drawing of peasants working, below, is one obvious example. Notice how the field’s furrows converge towards the distance. This dramatic use of perspective shows the vastness of the landscape compared with the figures, and suggests the immensity of their task. The peasants’ work is tough, without an end in sight, but Van Gogh gives the figures a sense of togetherness by showing them so close to one another within the massive field:


Above: Vincent Van Gogh “Farmers Working in the Field”, April 1888, Arles

Creating an illusion of depth and space

If you are keen to give your own work a sense of space, I highly recommend taking some time out to study traditional linear perspective. Even if your own images do not contain buildings or railway tracks, the knowledge gained will feed back into your work.

There are plenty of books and websites that explain the principles of perspective, so I shall not go into them here. Whichever text you go for, make sure that it is clear about eye level: “The artist’s eye level is the same as the horizon line”.

Lines that are at the same level as the artist’s eyes will appear horizontal in a picture. Lines above or below this will appear to slope.

It helps to play with perspective exercises so much that the subject starts to become “second nature” to you, i.e. intuitive.


Using perspective in your pictures


One obvious approach is to include a wall, table edge, path or other straight edge that leads into your picture. You do not need to draw the whole lot. Just hinting at a row of brickwork or suggesting top and bottom edges of a window will be sufficient.

Try positioning such straight edges so that they angle away from you and into the picture. In some cases, this can enhance the emotional impact of the image.



Above: Rembrandt “The Naughty Boy” c.1635, pen and bistre. Notice how the angled frontage of the building leads us to look at the struggling figures. The three main figures (the frantic child, the stressed mother and the old woman stooping towards them) are confined uncomfortably to the space delineated by the building and the shadows.

Any pattern of tiles or wooden panels or, in a landscape, lines of crops or ruts in a field, can recede into the distance. Keep your marks lively and interesting as you suggest these patterns. Straight lines need not be continuous.

Using lively marks or brush strokes, it is possible to give a sense of perspective without including any architecture in your picture. Brush strokes in both the background and the figures can be angled so that they appear to recede into the image. For ways in which colour and definition can suggest depth, read up on aerial perspective. My own article on colour and depth can be reached by clicking here.

Cezanne often tied figures to the imagined space of their surroundings by the use of colour and the handling of the paint. Around 1906, Picasso developed similar ideas in his own figure painting. The modelling in paint of the figures sometimes extends to their immediate background. Take, for example, this image of three figures, with its minimal background but strong sense of space:


Above: Pablo Picasso “La Coiffure”, 1906. Like a sculpted group, these three figures give a clear sense of how they are positioned relative to one another.

By developing these ideas further, it is even possible to give an exciting sense of “presence” to mundane objects such as shoes and pots. In my next blog post on this subject, I’ll take a closer look at remarkable still life images by Vincent Van Gogh and others. Do such images have a strong sense of space, if so then how is this created, and does this tie in with any emotional impact of these pictures?

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An update

April 3, 2013

Having received a few recent enquiries about art classes, I’d better add a note of explanation to this website as to why there are no blocks of classes arranged at the moment.

The main reason is lack of time! I have always loved teaching the group sessions, but the preparation for each class, and the behind-the-scenes administration, were simply becoming too time-consuming to continue on a regular basis.

Certainly, I have had far more time and energy for my own picture-making in these past few weeks.

So, what have I been doing lately?

This is an art blog, so I’ll not include unrelated activities here.

Thinking back to last year’s visit to the glassworks at Biot, near Nice, I  have started a series of oil sketches, some of which are shown below. It was the combination of control, focus, and energy that amazed me about this glassworker. Throughout this creative and but highly technical process, he moved about his work-space without hesitation, rather like a dancer.

glassworker_painting_M_Dorn_oil_sketch (4)


glassworker_painting_M_Dorn_oil_sketch (2)


glassworker_painting_M_Dorn_oil_sketch (1)



I have visited the Picasso exhibition at Somerset House. It continues until 27 May 2013, and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Related reading has since included “Picasso in Paris 1900-1907” by Marilyn McCully (this one is very relevant to the exhibition), and “Picasso’s World” by John Finlay. These books are both lavishly illustrated.

The exhibition of portraits by Manet at he Royal Academy in London has been another personal highlight.

Plus the British Museum, including the incredible current exhibition of Ice Age art.

Sketchbooks continue to be filled, as ever.

I join in with meetings at the Hertford Art Society – a welcoming group of like-minded people and an excellent source of new ideas.




Other oil sketches have been based on last summer’s graphite drawings of horses grazing in the late evening. Above and below are two images of “Night Grazers”:



I have continued a series of paintings relating to the absence of my old dog, Freddy. Some are completed though, like Spring itself in this country, an image referring to springtime has not yet got past the idea stage.

There are also a couple of larger oil paintings that are near completion, so please watch this space.

Further ideas, including those relating to musicians, prisoners, news stories and horses (but not all in the same picture!) are currently just scribbles in a notebook. Certainly, extra time and “mind-space” (i.e. the opportunity to focus on artistic things without urgent distraction) have proved to be great for creativity.


As an artist, should one focus all energy and time on creating pieces of art?

This is debatable.

Pablo Picasso certainly thought so, and his vast artistic output was incredible for its wealth of ideas and clarity of vision. He said of himself when speaking to his lover, Françoise Gilot:

“Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring mine to bear on one thing only: my painting, and everything else is sacrificed to it – you, and everyone else, myself included.”

Many of Picasso’s images possess tremendous energy and he produced vast quantities of work. However, Gilot deserved better, and the relationship did not end well!

On the other hand, a working artist surely needs the chance to observe the world, to think a little, and to interact with other people if they are to create images that are more than superficial. Picasso did of course get out into the world, observe different situations and create images in response, whether of circus performers, prostitutes, landscapes, bull-fights or children playing. Perhaps part of his artistic genius lay in his very rapid and interesting response to whatever he observed. He maintained that focus of energy, and a minimum of thinking time was required.

Should a good artist also be a good human being and reserve enough energy and focus for their family and society? In my opinion, yes. Can anyone truly achieve this? I don’t have the answer to this but will listen to your ideas if you wish to share them in the “Comments” section, below.

In the quotation above, it is interesting that Picasso spoke of energy rather than time. I agree that increased mental energy can lead to increased artistic productivity. An increase in available time is not always as helpful as it at first seems.


Are there any future workshops planned?

As explained above, I currently have no classes arranged.

However, I do love teaching and sharing ideas. The very occasional day-course would be great to teach, so do get in touch here  now or in the future if you would be interested. Good workshop subjects for a small group include anything from  using lines  to colour and composition  to animal life drawing. Though, for the latter, some warm weather would be helpful!


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A Dog’s Place

March 20, 2013

Some thoughts on drawing dogs indoors, with reference to Pierre Bonnard



Above: “Carafe, Marthe Bonnard with her dog”, by Pierre Bonnard, c.1912-15. This little dachshund is small but determined. His upright shape will not allow the viewer’s eye to wander out of the left side of this picture.


We occasionally have a special house-guest: Brandy the little white dog. She looks something like this:


 Above: My pencil sketch of Brandy’s face

 Her special talents include ball games and making people smile. I can’t resist sketching her, but this is tricky as she rarely stops for breath. My usual tactic involves holding her ball up in front of her while I draw with the other hand. I do have to throw the ball after a few seconds, and can then repeat the process.

It is just as well that I am not too bothered about drawing fine details or this would become far too frustrating!


Above: Quick pen sketch of Brandy as she waits for me to throw her ball

This exercise has had me looking at things in a new way: If the image of the whole little dog is simplified (I try looking at her with my eyes half-closed to get this effect), she could be seen as a pleasing curve-edged shape. Brandy has plenty of Bichon Frise in her breeding, and her body and tail form joyous curves rather like the dog silhouettes in Bonnard’s “Two Poodles”, below:


 Above: Pierre Bonnard “Two Poodles”, 1891, oil on canvas. The dogs form delightfully fluid two-dimensional shapes. Green negative spaces between the dogs also form very pleasing shapes.

When attempting a silhouette (or flat shape), it is extremely easy to slip into total abstraction (i.e. the shape no longer looks like a dog). On the other hand, when attempting a rapid drawing of a recognisable dog, notice how difficult it is to keep those curvy outlines (see below)! Here I have seen Brandy as a white shape in the doorway and sketched her in that setting. What attracted me to that image was the rather humorous curvy-edged white shape of the dog framed by the rigid lines of the doorway and tiled floor. In my attempt to draw a dog with an identifiable face, body and legs, the curves and some of the humour have been lost:


Above: My attempt to sketch Brandy in the kitchen doorway. The edge of a round, slatted table is in the foreground.

In contrast, look at the sketch below by Pierre Bonnard. He developed his painted compositions from his own sketches. Here we have a dachshund presiding over an overladen table. Bonnard has given the dog, objects and room an excellent sense of three-dimensional space. He has also caught the dog at such an angle that its body, and the negative (background white) shapes around it form pleasing curvy shapes. The resulting image is witty and makes me smile:


Above: Pierre Bonnard sketch of interior with dog


Above: “Woman with Dog” by Pierre Bonnard, 1981. Here is an image of the artist’s sister bending forward towards the family dog. Notice how the dog, and the areas of fabric around it, form pleasing two-dimensional shapes within the composition.

A practical approach to sketching bouncy pets indoors

Here is my preferred approach to drawing a bouncy dog in a room. Sketch the essentials of the room (edges of sofa, rug, etc.) while the dog is otherwise occupied. When the animal does stay still for a moment then draw a fleeting image of them within your sketched interior. It is rather like creating a stage-set, and then placing a character into it.

Why work this way?

Drawing the important parts of the room will give your image a sense of space and structure. This also creates a framework on your page within which you can add a rapid sketch of the pet. Making a point of drawing the room first is also a practical idea because it takes the immediate focus away from the animal. Many pets resent being stared at, and will be more relaxed if you don’t stare fixedly at them as soon as you open your sketchbook!


Above and below: My fleeting drawings of Brandy in my lounge. Edges of rug and some furniture have been sketched in first


If the dog is very energetic then there is no opportunity to hold up a pencil for traditional measuring techniques. To check proportions, two other techniques are much quicker: Firstly, check which bits of the room align with the main parts of the dog. Secondly, notice the approximate shapes of “negative” spaces around the dog and scribble these down as best you can. If you’d like me to go into these techniques in more detail then please add to “comments”, below, or contact me here, as this could be the topic of a future blog post.


 Above: More quick pencil sketches of Brandy. The writing on the left-hand page says “Brandy is standing behind the sofa making squeaky noises”

My fleeting sketches of Brandy are unimpressive but, through these attempts, I am just starting to see something that interests me and to get it down onto paper. With animals, a pleasing shape as the creature turns, or a momentary glance, may be the whole point of the picture, and is all too easily missed when drawing.



  Above: “Greyhound and still life”, 1920-25, by Pierre Bonnard. The dog turns to look hopefully at the delicious food. Not only has the artist captured the turn of the dog’s head, but he has also noticed attractive shapes around the animal and has emphasised these in the finished image.


In summary: Tips for sketching dogs indoors

  • Decide what interests you most about your particular dog (e.g. it’s posture, huge bulk or curvy shape) and be sure to get that down in your sketchbook as a priority.
  • When time is short, omit all details.
  • Look at the dog with your eyes half-closed to help you to see the essential shapes before putting pencil to paper.
  • Don’t stare for too long at the dog. They consider it bad doggy etiquette. Blink quite frequently and look away at times.
  • When drawing an awake dog, you may need to have two drawings on the go at once as the animal will move from one position to another.
  • Include the interior (furniture edges, doorways, etc.) in your image to give your dog a sense of posture, balance and scale.
  • Try drawing the interior before you add the dog to the image.
  • Photos can perhaps be useful as a record of coat markings, etc. A sense of immediacy and character can be lost in a photo. Try taking a short video of the dog instead. You can always freeze-frame it later.



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Sketchbook drawing: Girl begging on a train

March 13, 2013


It was snowing lightly on Sunday evening and I was on my way back home from Kings Cross. Ten minutes into the journey, a homeless girl came through my train begging for money. There was a long and awkward silence amongst the passengers in the carriage. People looked away nervously.  I asked the girl if she’d mind being drawn, then gave her a little money and had her sit next to me for a sketch.

When I had finished drawing, I asked  Dionne to write the words “I want to…”, and to add in whatever words that she could think of. To my relief, she did seem to relish adding a few words to my book (a horrible thought had just flashed through my mind that she might be unable to write).

What did I take away from this? My pencil sketches do not plumb any emotional depths. They do not illustrate anything of the odd relationship between a begging girl and comfortable train passengers, nor do they hint at her worry over where she would spend the coming night. From the artist’s point of view, I’d need to think better on my feet if I’m to come up with more meaningful images.

My basic little drawings seem to have brought up many questions and left them without answers. In fact, the images themselves are rather unsatisfying, but the experience of creating them has led me to think.

Though I didn’t attempt flattery, the shape of the girl’s face is quite attractive, and she looks young enough to have plenty of life to look forward to. My sketches (she was pleased to realise), do not show the skin sores on her face which in real life make people look at her in horror.

And what of Dionne – though she consented to be drawn, was I somehow exploiting her in this situation? She wrote that she wanted to change her life, and I said a few well-meaning words to her. Once I’d confirmed that she was getting good healthcare (yes) and would have somewhere under cover to sleep that evening (it would probably be a night bus), I pointed out that she was good at sitting still, and that artists or art groups in London would pay for models. In my ignorance, I could not think of anything truly constructive to say. Who takes on a model without a fixed address?

I eventually left the train with the uncomfortable feeling that I had failed this girl in some way. Yes, she’d asked for money and I had given her some of this (though not enough for a night’s stay at the YMCA). But as a fellow human being, and also as someone who’d looked closely at Dionne and drawn her, I wished that I’d had more to offer for the longterm, perhaps genuinely helpful advice or a good contact for her.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of our exchange was the way in which, despite the skin sores which she said repelled people,  I had Dionne sit next to me and looked at her in the same way as I would any other human model.

And our drawing time did also give other passengers a chance to think. As soon as I had finished, the lady across from me offered Dionne some fruit, and I noticed that she was then given money by others further along the carriage.




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Why use cross-hatching?

March 2, 2013

A close look at cross-hatching as used by Picasso



Above: Pablo Picasso “Visage” lithograph, 1928


Today I shall share some of my favourite Picasso drawings with you. While highly realistic, notice how each of these images also hints at mystery and emotional depth. This effect is partly due to Picasso’s use of cross-hatching techniques.

How did Picasso’s use of cross-hatching differ from traditional methods, e.g. those seen in Albrecht Durer’s engravings? And is there a place for Picasso’s techniques in our own work? Let’s take a closer look.

What is cross-hatching?

Hatching and cross-hatching are ways of using lines to create dark areas of tone.

Create areas of simple hatching by drawing parallel lines like this:

hatchingFor darker areas of tone, turn this into cross-hatching. Draw another set of parallel lines to criss-cross the first, like this:

cross-hatching 1

More lines can be added over the top for an even darker effect:


This basic technique can be adapted to suit your own style. Picasso varied the direction and weight of his lines as he wished, sometimes forming webs or meshes of intricate marks.

Curved cross-hatching to suggest form

A traditional variation of simple cross-hatching involves curving the lines around the form of a solid object. See how curved cross-hatching can make three-dimensional objects look totally convincing:

Durer_pen_drawing_of_pillows_detailAbove: Albrecht Durer, detail from pen drawing of pillows, c.1493

In his sketchbook drawing of a mother and child, Picasso curved some lines around the surface of the figures. Here is some close-up detail of the mother’s neck to show Picasso’s use of line. See how the lines help the neck to appear more rounded:


Above: Pablo Picasso, detail from pencil drawing of a mother and child. (Scroll down for full image) 

Cross-hatching to show light and shade

Build up layers of cross-hatching to suggest deep shadow. Leave sections of white paper blank to suggest highlights. Here is a page from one of Picasso’s sketchbooks. Look at the convincing effect of light and shade on the standing figure:


Above: Pablo Picasso page from a sketchbook, 1931

“Melt” the figure into its shadow

See how one edge of Picasso’s standing nude, in the picture above, seems to disappear into the darkness. I find this very intriguing.

How has Picasso achieved this effect?


Above: Picasso, detail from page of a sketchbook, 1931

On the left side of Picasso’s figure, cross-hatching lines overlap the outline of her leg, ie. hatching lines continue from the figure into the background. This creates the melting shadow effect. I’ve shown some close-up detail, above, so that you can have a better look. Click on the image to enlarge it further.

Notice also how the cross-hatching goes in many directions. Some lines curve over the surface of the figure’s form. Others form quite regular grids and meshes.

A mesh of cross-hatching suggests a flat plane

A grid-like mesh of cross-hatching can suggest a flat plane within a picture. The simple cross-hatching below could be understood as a vertically-hanging piece of cloth or as a section of vertical wall:

cross-hatching 1

For example, look at the engraving, below, by Albrecht Durer. Hatching and cross-hatching on the floorboards, drapes, walls and furniture help to clarify where those surfaces are within the room. Durer has made it obvious that the figures have their feet resting on the floor, and we have a good sense of the size of the room (the far wall is adjacent to the bed).


Above: Albrecht Durer “An artist drawing a seated man”, c.1525

A veil like plane of cross-hatching


Above: I understand that the above is a Picasso drawing of Fernande Olivier. The couple had a close but tempestuous relationship with from 1904 to 1912. Please contact me by clicking here if you know more about this image as I do not have an exact date for it.

In Picasso’s drawing, above, cross-hatching has been used to suggest both form and tone.

But there are additional meshes of vertical and diagonal lines descending from the top of the page and overlapping the woman’s hair. To me, this gives the effect of “something” being there between myself (the viewer) and the sitter. I don’t see an actual veil of fabric or falling rain between myself and the sitter, but the cross-hatched meshes do give a sense of space in front of her. Could they also give a sense of emotional distance between the viewer and the sitter? What do you think? Notice how the sitter’s eyes are not obscured by the cross-hatched mesh.

Notice how, on the left side of the above portrait image, there is traditional cross-hatched shading in the background. This reaches, but does not overlap, the woman’s cheek, and gives a sense of space behind her as is often seen in traditional portraits.

Picasso_drawing_in_sketchbook_no_59_c1916Above: Picasso pencil drawing of a standing female nude, c.1916

In the delicate sketchbook drawing, above and detail below, areas of hatching overlap the contour edge of the figure around the waist. Click on the images for a closer look. This is essentially a contour drawing (outline drawing). The hatching lines are used sparingly. They just hint at the figure’s form in one or two places, and suggest space in front of and around her. The image reminds me of a flickering memory, or of the idea of a ghost.


Above:   Detail from Picasso pencil drawing of a standing female nude, c.1916 (scroll up for full image)

Cross-hatching for a monumental figure

Picasso mother and child

Above: Pable Picasso pencil drawing of a mother and child. This is from p28 of sketchbook no. 77, c.1922, 30.5x42cm

The figure of the mother, above, could be described as a “monumental” figure drawing. She appears pleasingly heavy and rounded with her weight falling convincingly as she sits. It is as if the woman, chair and foot support were all carved from the same block of stone. There is a secure sense of solidity here.

How did Picasso use cross-hatching to achieve this “monumental figure” effect?

  • Soft light is falling on these figures from above and to the left of the image. Whenever light shines on an object from one direction, areas of light and shade on the object help to explain its three-dimensional shape. Picasso has used cross-hatched pencil lines to make these light and dark tones very clear. Some parts of the paper are left white, to suggest highlights on the figures. The pencil lines are surprisingly delicate adjacent to the white areas but gradually build up to a strong dark tone in the deepest shadows. Abrupt changes of tone would make the figures appear to be angular. In this case, Picasso has graded the tone almost imperceptibly from light to dark, and this helps the figures to appear more rounded.
  • Notice how many of the pencil cross-hatching lines curve around the bodies of the figures. This helps them to look more rounded and three-dimensional.
  • In the mother and child drawing, Picasso has subtly melded together the mother and child. The feet are also nicely attached to their support. He partly achieved this by taking a delicate tracery of pencil cross-hatching lines across from the support into the feet, and from the mother into the child.



 Above: Pablo Picasso, detail from pencil drawing of a mother and child. (Scroll up for full image)

Cross-hatching for a shimmering effect

A magical, shimmering effect can be created by varying the direction of the cross-hatching lines. Blocks of lines can overlap. Lines may vary in strength and length. A good example is the area of background around the mother’s head, as seen below:


Picasso_cropped_head_from _mother_and_child

 Above: Pablo Picasso, detail from pencil drawing of a mother and child. (Scroll up for full image)

Taking these ideas further

If, like me, you have enjoyed looking at these drawings, you may like to try out Picasso’s cross-hatching methods for yourself.

I highly recommend copying sections of his drawings. Pencil is a good medium to choose if you are aiming for a delicate web of lines within your drawing. For a wonderful inky blackness, go for a pen that can produce a varied line (e.g. the Rotring Artpen) rather than a mechanical pen.

To take this a step further, use your new skills when drawing interesting objects such as statues and perhaps taxidermy specimens. Such objects are unlikely to walk off and will therefore give you time to think about what you are doing.

Once you have a feel for these techniques,you may like to adapt them to landscapes or life drawing, perhaps by drawing and cross-hatching with the tip of a charcoal stick or with a loaded paintbrush on a large scale.



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Which colours recede, and which appear to come forward?

February 8, 2013

Have you ever noticed how some colours within a picture can give the impression of jumping out towards you, while others seem to melt back into the distance?


Vivid, vibrant colours tend to be very prominent, especially when surrounded by dull greys and browns. Take, for example, the bright blue seafront house halfway along the row of buildings in my view of Aldeburgh, above. Once you’ve noticed it, the blue facade of this house is difficult to look away from. The less vividly-coloured buildings on either side seem to be fading away into the distance, while the blue house remains prominent.

The way in which different colours can suggest space and depth, near and far, is a subject in itself. This is not only fascinating, but has great practical use for figurative and abstract artists who wish to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, and also for those who wish to suggest ambiguous space within their paintings.

The basic principle of colour and depth: aerial perspective

Look at any vast landscape in real life or from a photo. Distant objects (mountains, trees and so on) look paler and greyer in colour than nearby objects.


Above is a photo of a harbour in Cyprus. Mountains in the distance are just visible as very pale grey shapes. After taking this snap, we went on a boat trip and passed these same mountains. Close up, they loom high and are covered with dark olive-green scrubby plants and shrubby herbs and dark grey-brown rocks. However, haze caused by small particles in the atmosphere makes these same mountains appear pale, dull and a cool grey colour from a distance. This is a good example of aerial perspective (sometimes called “atmospheric perspective”).

In the middle distance, a similar effect is seen on the boats. See how pale distant masts appear compared with those close by.

In the foreground, the sea appears a wonderful, vibrant turquoise. Compare this colour with that of the sea in the far distance.

In looking at a picture such as my harbour scene, above, the faded colours and pale tones in the distance help us to differentiate “near” from “far” within the image without even thinking about it.

How can we apply this to our painting?

First, I’ll mention the traditional use of colour and space as applied to landscape painting.

Lake Scene, Evening 1792 by Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812

 Above: An example of aerial perspective, Philip James de Loutherbourg “Lake Scene in cumberland: Evening” 1792, oil on canvas, 42.5 x 60.5cm

In Loutherbourg’s landscape, above, the golden-brown rocks and vegetation in the foreground are “brought forward” by their warm colour. They look convincingly nearby. The two figures are also painted in warm colours and are wearing red. This helps to make them more prominent and to place them in the foreground.

Camille_Pissarro_Hyde_Park_London_1890Above: Camille Pissarro “Hyde Park, London”, 1890

Pissarro’s study of trees receding into the distance, above, is another excellent example of aerial perspective. The nearest tree to us, on the right hand side of the picture, is a warm, vibrant golden-yellow. Very distant tree trunks along the path are pale in tone and tend towards a cool violet colour.

Colour and aerial perspective

  • Warm colours (orange, orange-red and yellow-orange) tend to look nearer than cool colours
  • Vivid, intense colours (e.g. bright red, bright blue) tend to look nearby
  • Dark tones tend to appear nearer than pale ones
  • Dramatic contrast in both tone and colour is usually more obvious in the foreground of an image compared with the distance.
  • Objects in the far distance tend to appear a cool, pale grey. The colour may be close to a pale blue-grey or mauve-grey.


Can these colour-distance principles be applied to figure painting and still life?

Yes, absolutely!

In reality, the near and far parts of a figure or small still life are so close together that they do not appear greyer or paler as they recede into the distance.

However, we can emphasise spatial depth in our paintings nevertheless. Reserve the strongest tonal contrast, the most vivid colours and, perhaps, the warmest colours for the foreground of the picture.

Female nude sitting turning pastel ink

Female nude sitting turning pastel ink

In my drawing of a sitting nude, above, I have emphasised the nearness of the woman’s knees, especially the one to the left side of the picture. The far edge of her body is allowed to recede somewhat into the whiteness of the background.

The warm, quite vivid, red earth FW ink helps to make the nearest knee very prominent. This same colour is cooled by mixing with indigo FW ink, and is made far paler by mixing with water, when used in the more distant parts of the figure.

An experiment with line, colour and space

If you are interested in line, colour and space, then try this exercise. It can also double as a good drawing warm-up for yourself or for a class.

You will need:

  • A sheet of white paper (A4 cartridge is fine)
  • 5-7 objects that are small enough to be lifted in one hand. Plastic toys, small garden tools, egg cups and other items from the kitchen are all good. If you want to practise your drawing skills then go for complex objects such as toy animals and kitchen utensils. Or keep this simple and rather abstract and go for stones, twigs and rounded fruit.
  • A selection of coloured pencils, one for each object
  • Pencil and ruler

Colour_line_exercise_M_DornTo do:

Place your piece of paper horizontally (landscape-style). Using pencil and ruler, draw a faint horizontal line across the paper, parallel to and about 4cm away from its bottom edge.

Take one of your objects. Make a simple line drawing of the object using just one coloured pencil. Draw this first object near the middle of your page, not to the right or left side.

In your picture, each object should be a side view and it should be just resting on your ruled pencil line. As you draw each object, it may be best to hold it up with your free hand so that you are not looking down at it. That is how I achieved the side views of the scissors, spray-bottle, etc. for the image above.

Having drawn your first object, select and draw another object. Use a different coloured pencil for this one. The second drawing should overlap the first. As these are just line drawings, this creates an ambiguous image. Which object is in front and which is behind?

Continue the exercise, drawing each object in turn. Use a different colour for each object. Remember to keep your objects resting on the horizontal line. Make sure that each line drawing overlaps the next.

Assessing your drawing

You have used a different colour for each object. Do the colours make some objects more prominent than others?

In my drawing of toy horses, spray bottle, etc., the golden-red rearing horse “reads” as being the nearest object. It is difficult to see the colours now that I have scanned the image into the computer (pencil colours are difficult to scan). The beaker was drawn in an earthy-red pencil, and is the least prominent object, both in the original drawing and when scanned. The other objects were each drawn in a different shade of pink or purple, all quite vibrant colours.

Colour_line_exercise_Jean_HarbanAbove: An example of the exercise using simple still life items including stones as drawn by a member of my art class

In the drawing, above, done as a warm-up exercise in my “warm and cool colours” class, the round central object looks far away because it is a pale, neutral to cool grey colour, similar to the colour of distant mountains. This circular object clearly sits behind the objects on either side.

The quiet, earthy colours and contrasting shapes of the objects in this image are very pleasing. As these colours are so closely related, the image becomes rather ambiguous. Apart from the mountain-coloured circular object, it is unclear as to what is near and what is far and this is rather curious. White space around and within these objects is also interesting and restful to the eye.

Someone who strayed away from the brief

Before giving this exercise to my Friday art class, I tried it out at home myself and with my eleven-year-old daughter. It was her idea to get the plastic horses in there and, in fact, that is all she wanted to use:

Colour_line_exercise_Ella_DornAbove: My daughter’s take on this exercise

Notice how, rather than doing what she was told, she allowed her objects (Scleich horses) to come off the horizontal line. Objects that are lower down on the page will appear to be nearer. See, also, how small toy animals are challenging to draw (she is in fact very good at observational drawing but this is a tricky one) but that any distortion in the drawing contributes to the flowing effect of the picture.

Look at the effect of the line overlap and of the colours in this pleasing image. The horses seem to flow from left to right, but the curious colours make this a bit ambiguous. The vivid magenta-purple at the point of overlap between the second horse’s head and the third horse’s rump seems to jump forward. The strong pink of the left-hand horse’s front hoof is also very prominent.

To sum up: choosing colours for a sense of distance in pictures


Above: I saw a wedding couple walk onto the beach for their photo-shoot on this blustery day in Andalucia a few years ago. The strong black vs. white tonal contrast of the couple make them prominent within this slightly surreal image. Odd shapes of colour also seem to jump forward, e.g. the bright green of the umbrella.


  • Colours seem to recede if they are close to those of distant mountains (pale grey, very pale muted blues and mauves)
  • Tone trumps colour! Strong tones appear nearer than pale ones.
  • Dramatic tonal contrast (e.g. in the wedding couple, above) appears to jump forward.
  • Warm colours (e.g. orange) tend to appear nearer than cool colours (but a vivid cool blue can also be prominent).
  • If undiluted, the following strong colours can all seem to “jump forward” in a picture: Orange, red, yellow, blue, purple, pink, green.
  • To make a colour seem to recede or to “knock it back”, you can mix it with white, thin your paint mixture down, mix the colour with its complementary colour or with grey. If working in pencil or pastel, apply the colour more gently (or rub into it with a piece of putty rubber) so that underlying paper is just visible.
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A snow horse

January 26, 2013

Some tips on making snow animals



I generally stay as far away from snow and ice as possible but, in a quick burst of enthusiasm last week, I did manage to make this snow pony. A lovely thought then crossed my mind that I could fill the village and surrounding fields with similar white animals, perhaps helping to clear the pavements of fresh snow in the process. Then again, I really don’t last more than a very few minutes outdoors in such frozen weather so this is unlikely to happen.

In case you would like to give this a try, here are some basic practical tips on making snow animals:

Keep your design simple, especially the weight-bearing parts of it. This may mean planning your animal so that it is in a resting position.

Use snow shovels and buckets to gather sufficient snow before you start modelling. I used freshly-fallen untrodden snow from the driveway. Snow gathered from the tops of walls, hedges, etc. is also very useful. Pile the snow up into a simple heap at the site of your planned sculpture.

Have a basic plan before you start. Photos or drawings of your chosen animal are useful as reference. If sculpting a resting animal, it helps to know the following: What is the width of the back compared to its length? At which point is the back widest? If viewed from the side, what is the height of the back compared to its length? Is there to be a twist in the resting animal’s back? (There usually is a twist, as most animals rest with their legs pointing more to one side than the other)

Use gloved hands to mould the base of your animal shape to the desired length, width and height. In this case, I started with the body of the horse, and corrected the width and length of this before adding legs and neck. Make sure that the snow in the base of the animal is compressed together sufficiently without large air pockets.

Then attend to the neck or upper body of your figure. How far back should it extend along the animal’s body? How wide should it be? Refer to photos or drawings, if needed, to help answer those questions.

In adding more snow higher up the figure, there is a risk that large chunks of your sculpture will break off. To reduce this risk, add only small handfuls of soft, fresh snow at a time. Don’t compress snow in your hands before adding it to the sculpture.

The head of the snow animal is tricky to build because it is not fully supported and sections can therefore break off more easily. Be sure to add only very small amounts of snow at a time when working on the head.

I kept the head very simple. Attempting to add features to it would risk causing chunks of snow to break off. If making any adjustments to the shape of the head, use your free hand to support it while you work.

My resting horse had legs stretched out over the ground. Where should these limbs join the body? Use reference photos or drawings to help make this decision before starting to carve them. I made temporary finger-marks in the body of the horse to clarify where the limbs would branch off. Also check the angles at which the limbs should stick out from the body before modelling them.



Remember to walk repeatedly around your whole sculpture and adjust as required from all sides.

Once you are happy with the shape of the figure, use both hands to smooth and compress the surface of the snow, especially over the lower parts of it. Don’t “fiddle” too much with the head  or other unsupported sections as they are easily broken.

Here is another photo with the gate in view to give an idea of scale. The pony is almost life-size:






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Warm-up exercises for artists (2)

January 19, 2013

Warm-up no. 4: Free line and wash exercise inspired by Auguste Rodin



Above: Auguste Rodin drawing with wash

You need: 

a) Drawing(s) of dancers by Auguste Rodin (find them within this blogpost and elsewhere online).

b) You will also need a photo of a dancing figure.

c) For drawing, have paper that is thick enough to cope with some water (approximately A4 is a good size) and either pencil or graphite stick.

d) In addition, you will need a fairly large round paint-brush (e.g. size 6 or over) and your choice of watercolour paints or dilute ink.

When to do this warm-up: To free you up mentally and physically before drawing or before working in watercolour. Set aside no more than 20 minutes for this exercise.


Above: Auguste Rodin “Cambodian Dancer”, 1906


Above: Auguste Rodin drawing 186x300mm


Above: Auguste Rodin “Woman with swirling veils”, 1890

To do: You have chosen a photo of a dancer – take a good look at it. Which parts of the dancer are moving? Which parts, if any, are supporting his or her weight?

Also look at your chosen drawing by Auguste Rodin. Notice how Rodin has used expressive lines to give his figure a sense of energy and movement. See how both the lines and colour wash are visible in his finished drawing. The sense of energy is more important than any sense of meticulous finish.

When you are ready,  you will draw the dancer from your photo using pencil or graphite stick. Decide where to position the figure on your sheet of paper. How big will you make the figure? If it gives you confidence, make a few initial light marks on the page to indicate where the main parts of the figure will go.

Now proceed boldly with the drawing. Have the Rodin drawing by your side for inspiration and aim for a similar effect. Using pencil or graphite stick, draw the figure with flowing, sweeping lines. Don’t labour over any details within the figure. A sense of energy and movement in this drawing is much more important than accuracy.

Having drawn the figure, choose one to three colours to use within your design. Do not aim to mimic the actual colour of skin or clothing. Just choose colours that most appeal to you. Perhaps you have a tube or bottle of beautiful colour that you had bought purely because you loved it, but have since had little opportunity to use it? Or perhaps there are colours within your set that suggest “energy” to you?

Using dilute ink or watercolour paints, add colour to your image in great sweeping strokes. You could leave the figure itself as white paper and create swathes of colour around him or her. Or you could apply colour to the figure itself. If so, be sure to apply the colour boldly, in as few strokes as possible. It is fine if your colour overlaps the lines of your drawing, or if white gaps are left between pencil lines and brush-strokes.


 Above and below: My own warm-up drawings inspired by the drawings of Auguste Rodin. I based these on photos of equestrian vaulters. Pencil and watercolour wash.


Warm-up no. 5: Continuous line drawing

You need:

a) Sketchbook or loose sheets of paper.

b) A life model, still life, interior or landscape to draw from life.

c) Any medium that flows across the page, e.g. pencil, flowing pen, graphite stick, etc.

When to do this warm-up:

Any time! Continuous line drawing helps to get rid of inhibitions while also switching the brain to an artistically useful way of seeing. This warm-up is therefore perfect at the start of life-drawing sessions. It is also good as a “mental ice-breaker” when you first get your sketchbook out in any situation, e.g. in a cafe or museum.

To do:

The aim is to create a line drawing while barely lifting your drawing tool off the paper.

Aim to include both foreground and background in your drawing. For example, if you were to make a continuous drawing at the start of a life drawing class, you would’nt just draw the model herself, but would include something of her surroundings. So your drawing could include the life model, something of the floor in front of her, and the wall / doorway/ easels, etc. behind her. You might even include other people within your drawing if you can see them in front of you.


Above: A warm-up drawing made just before a jazz concert.

Start drawing near the centre of your page. A good place to start your drawing is at a point where two to three lines meet. In a studio, cafe or other interior, that could mean starting at the corner of a doorway. If working outdoors, you might want to start your drawing at the point where a building meets the horizon, or at the point where strong tree branches cross each other.

Let your pen flow across the page. You might, for example, start drawing the edge of a doorway, and then let your pen glide from there into drawing the edge of a person who is standing in front of that doorway.

To get your pen from one edge of the figure to the other, you can make up an imagined line that crosses the inside of them, perhaps following the folds of their clothing or the edge of a shadow.

You might, at times need to double back on yourself to take the pen back to a point at which a fresh line should branch off.

The drawing should look quite scribbly. Don’t worry – it is only a warm-up.

To maintain some sense of reality in the picture, try to include the edges of things as they slope away from you into the distance. In an interior, that means including edges such as where the walls meet the ceiling and floor as well as door-frames and windows. In a landscape, try to include the edges of paths, roads and hedges as they slope away towards the horizon.


Above: This sketchbook cafe drawing started as a continuous line warm-up. I then added a few lines of a different colour in the foreground.




Warm-up no. 6: A warm-up for the oil painter

You need:

a) A small piece of primed canvas or canvas paper or gessoed board. It should be about 25 by 18cm.

b) A set square and pencil.

c) Oil paints, brushes, palette, turpentine or other thinner, etc.

d) An object to draw, e.g. a piece of fruit. You might want to put this onto a piece of white or coloured cloth.

e) A stopwatch

When to do this warm-up:

At the start of an oil-painting session, especially if you are returning to oil painting after a long break and need to get back into the swing of it again. This is my longest warm-up exercise. It takes a full hour of intensive painting if you paint the full six views!


Above: My clementine warm-up in oil paints


To do:

Use set-square and pencil to divide your canvas into a grid of six equal rectangles or squares. By all means, leave a rim of blank canvas around the edge if this makes it easier to measure out. Rectangles of 8cm x 6cm would be fine.

The aim is to paint the object very rapidly and simply in an alla prima fashion. Time yourself a strict ten minutes to paint the object within one retangle. Then rotate the object and paint a fresh view of it. Continue until you have filled your grid.

Before you start, I suggest that you make a decision about which colours to use. It is generally best to restrict yourself to just 3-5 colours, plus white, as you’ll be working rapidly here. For example, a palette of cobalt blue, alizarin crimson and yellow ochre plus titanium white is successful in many situations. Or you may have your own preferred combination.

For each little image of your object, decide how to place it within its allotted rectangle. If you wish, draw a quick outline using turpentine-thinned paint on the tip of a brush. Then proceed boldly, blocking in dark and light tones of thicker paint where they occur on the object and on its immediate background. You may like to half-close your eyes in order to see the tones on the object more clearly.

If you can multi-task at this speed, make simple decisions about where the colour of the object and background are “warmer” (i.e. more orange) and where they are “cooler” (i.e. more blue) and apply juicy brush-strokes of colour accordingly.

Top tip: Don’t try to match colour exactly. Just aim to clarify where the lights and darks are and, if possible, where warm and cool areas are.

Adapt this warm-up: You can do this warm-up with acrylic paint instead of oils:


Above: My bananas warm-up using acrylic paints

If you are impatient, then by all means restrict yourself to a series of just three views of your object:


Above: My limes in oils. Just three views this time.

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Warm-up exercises for artists (1)

January 4, 2013

Some good ways to start your session in the studio


Above: Guercino “A nude woman, seated, embracing a child”, 23.4×18.1cm, pen with brown ink, brush with brown wash


Why warm up?

Warm-up exercises are important for artists just as they are for athletes and musicians. There are three main reasons to “warm up” at the start of a drawing or painting session:

1) Physical (control of your drawing/painting hand)by-da-vinci-front-view-study-of-the-proportion-of-horses

Drawing and painting require good hand coordination.  The quality of pen and brush strokes improves with practice, and will improve within the session if you focus on them for a brief period before tackling your main drawing or painting.

Some types of mark (e.g. fine cross-hatching) require a steady, very controlled hand. But more informal styles of work also require a technical warm-up . Loose, freely-drawn lines require the artist to move the arm in a sweeping fashion without losing control of the pen, pencil or paintbrush. The drawing hand needs to be relaxed without gripping, yet retain control of the drawing tool. Practice makes perfect, and it is good to remind your arm and hand muscles of what is required before you get going with the rest of the session.

Right: Leonardo da Vinci front view study of the proportions of horses, showing remarkably delicate line control. Click on the image for a closer view. 


2) Perception training (remind yourself how to look at the world!)

There are many different ways of looking at the world. When going about our day-to-day lives, we need to view our surroundings in a functional way in order to cope. We recognise shapes, patterns, and snippets of this and that in order to get through the day, whether we are walking on a busy street, recognising and greeting our friends or shopping. On the other hand, for most types of drawing and painting, the artist needs to view the world in a whole different way.

When we enter the studio and embark on drawing or painting, we need to switch from functional everyday perception to a different way of seeing, and this can take some preparation.

What do I mean by the artist’s way of looking and seeing? When working from life, many artists concentrate closely on one or more aspects of their subject. For example, they may look at shapes, tonal values, colour contrasts or proportions.

If I asked you to put your phone on the table and draw it, you would need to look at it in an analytical, focused way while completing the task. Whether you embarked on a realist or semi-abstract image, your perception of your phone would be quite different to the way that you saw it the last time that you took a call.

3) To reduce worry and inhibition

The task of producing a masterpiece from a blank canvas or sheet of paper can feel daunting. Warm-up exercises are completed for themselves rather than being destined for the gallery wall, so they can get you going in a more relaxed way at the start of your session.


Some warm-up ideas

These warm-up ideas are intended to help prepare you mentally and physically for a session in the studio rather than providing you with a creative idea for your next project. I suggest doing just one or two of the exercises at the start of your session. A useful warm-up could take from one to about twenty minutes. If you spend much longer on such exercises, you risk procrastinating and avoiding the main creative task of the day.

Warm-up no. 1: Lines from Old Master drawings

When to do this warm-up: This is a good all-purpose warm-up exercise. It is particularly useful if you intend to draw from a photo during the remainder of your session as it is very freeing. I also recommend doing this warm-up before copying any Old Master drawing as it helps to train your hand to make marks similar to those of the original artist.

You need: A copy of any drawing that you admire, preferably one with sweeping lines. I particularly recommend using drawings by Guercino, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Leonardo da Vinci or Rodin, but the list goes on and on. Pick a medium similar to that of the original artist, e.g. pen and ink, pencil or compressed charcoal stick. You also need your sketchbook or a loose sheet of paper.


 Above: Eugene Delacroix study for “Liberty leading the people”, graphite with white heightening on wove paper, 32.4×22.5cm

To do: Fill a page of your sketchbook with marks copied from the Old Master drawing. You should end up with an abstract page of scribble. Do not copy sections of the original drawing. Just pick out individual marks and copy these as best you can.

As you copy the lines from your chosen picture ask yoursef the following questions: Are the lines sweeping, flowing, stabbing, curved or straight? If curved, then how much do they curve, and in which direction? Do the lines start faint at one end, then get fatter and heavier in the middle, then fade out again? Do the lines in the original picture vary in strength, or are they all the same?

Your page of marks may look something like this:


Above: My warm-up marks copied from the Delacroix drawing shown above


Above: Auguste Rodin “Red-haired woman standing”, pencil and watercolour wash, 30x19cm, n.d.

Below: warm-up pencil marks copied from this Rodin drawing:


Tips and hints: Whenever I try this exercise, I am always surprised by how difficult it is for my hand to copy another artist’s marks. Don’t be disheartened! Experiment with letting your wrist or elbow go more floppy and moving your pencil with a sweep of the whole arm. Also try out different pencil-holds. Try standing up, or sitting more squarely in your chair. If you are right-handed like me, then you may find it frustrating trying to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings because he drew with his left hand.

Start off by trying to copy the original artist’s marks but, in the end, the character of the lines is more important than an exact copy. Be aware of what the artist was aiming at with each line (a sweeping line or an elegant loop) even if your own hand doesn’t make quite the same mark.


Above: Guercino “Bathsheba attended by her Maid”, pen and brown ink, 25.5×17.9cm, 1640

Below: Marks copied from the Guercino drawing. I have used a dip-pen and brown ink:


Adapt it:To warm up before a painting session, you can copy brush marks rather than drawn lines. Do this exercise on a piece of canvas paper or old board, or work over the top of a disastrous picture that was heading for the rubbish bin anyway.

Try filling the space with marks copied from your favourite painter, e.g. Rembrandt or Constable. Aim to copy the length and direction of the brush strokes. Are they curved, sweeping or stabbing kinds of marks? Do they merge into one another, remain separate or overlap?

You can use totally different colours from those in the original painting (perhaps use paint from yesterday’s palette if there is any left over) but aim for a similar consistency of paint as the original artist as far as possible. You may want to blend a painting medium (e.g. Liquin Impasto medium) into your paint so that your brush strokes leave clearer marks on the canvas.

Warm-up no.2: Potassium permanganate observe and draw

When to do this warm-up: To loosen you up, to reduce inhibitions and to inspire your curiosity.

You need: A pyrex jug or bowl (e.g. 1L volume). A tablet of potassium permanganate. You’ll only need one tablet at most for this, but a pot of them can be obtained over the counter at chemist shops in the UK as Permi-Tabs. You’ll also need a kettle to boil water. Disposable gloves (or tweezers)are useful for handling the potassium permanganate and a craft knife is required if you are going to cut the tablet up.


Choose your own art materials for this. You could just opt for pencil and paper. Or for a more bold graphite stick and paper. Or use one or more pastel sticks (colours of your choice) on paper or on gessoed card.

You could even use oil paint if you wish. In that case, use one or more large brushes, well-primed canvas or board, and paint of your choice. I suggest using just one or two tube colours plus white. The chemical itself will appear vivid pink, but you could paint in a completely different colour if you wish.

To do: Have your art materials ready (see above). Boil the kettle.

I use just a quarter of a Permi-Tabs tablet in 1 litre of water. Wear disposable gloves and use a craft knife to cut the tablet. It may stain surfaces, so rest it on a bit of old disposable plastic or similar when cutting.

Pour boiling water into your Pyrex jug or bowl. Drop the small piece of potassium permanaganate into the water. The tablet starts off as almost black, but produces billowing, vivid-pink swirls as it dissolves:



Now just start drawing something of what you see. Rather than attempting an exact copy, start simply by suggesting the direction of the chemical streaks. If using pen, pencil or other drawing medium, then you may like to make flowing, sweeping lines to suggest these streaks.

If using pastel or paint, then you could either draw with your medium and make sweeping lines, or you could create bold zones of colour that merge into one another.

As you watch the chemical, the pink areas will move within the jug. You will probably see streaks emerge from a dark centre in a rather interesting way. Don’t attempt to create a photographic image of what you see at any one moment. Instead, see if you can create an interesting design on your page that is inspired by this vortex-like motion. You could start at the centre and work outwards, but there are no hard and fast rules. Notice how far from the original that I have strayed in my example, below:


abstract_warm_up_drawing_based on_potassium_permanganate_dissolving

Above: Abstract image inspired by potassium permanganate dissolving in water. I have used Unison pastels.


But don’t do: Don’t get the undiluted chemical on your hands or anywhere near your face as it stains skin and can be irritant. Don’t be tempted to draw with potassium permanganate itself – it produces an unpleasant brown mark and damages the paper.


Warm-up no.3: Tonal perception

When to do this warm-up: This is a good one to do now and again before embarking on any composition as it’ll put you into the right frame of mind for the task of picture creation. It’ll get you thinking about tone and shape.

You could do this before you even arrive at the studio, or as you first walk in. I suggest setting yourself a time limit on this warm-up so that you don’t get sucked into it for to long, e.g. 20 minutes.

You need: A digital camera, preferably one that you can set to shoot in black and white. If working indoors, I recommend using a camera on which you can disable the flash temporarily.

Or sketchbook and pencil.

A location of your choice (e.g. your garden, your studio, a room of your house or a section of your street).

To do: Let’s look at the camera option first. Set your camera to shoot in black and white. Look around your chosen location for interesting shapes of light and dark tone. If you see a pattern of tones that could be interesting then view it through your camera. Can you point the camera to fill your shot with an interesting balance of light and dark shapes?


Use your camera like an artist’s rectangular viewfinder, and decide which view is most balanced and pleasing. You can look from any angle.

You can look from a distance:


Or zoom right in close:


Remember to look at shapes rather than objects. For example, folds of a jacket combine with their own shadows to create interesting dark and light shapes:


The purpose of this warm-up is simply to get you thinking about tone and shape in a rectangular picture format. You are taking these photos in order “to practise seeing”. The plan of this warm-up is not really to find soure material for your work that day.

Don’t upload your photos or print them out during your warm-up period. This would only waste time.  You can view and evaluate your photos much later if you wish (e.g. the next day), before filing or deleting them. But this exercise does not aim at producing a gallery-worthy photograph!


Practical tips: If possible, avoid using flash on your camera for this exercise. This exercise is possible using simple automatic cameras and cameraphones (my art group have done this successfully). However, some control over your camera settings is preferable if you are shooting in dim lighting.

When shooting indoors, set the camera ISO number to as high as possible (e.g. ISO 1600)  and reduce the f-number to quite low (e.g. around 6). As you can see from my jacket picture above, I put up with a slow shutter speed and nasty camera shake as long as this avoids me having to flood my picture with flash light. These pictures were taken on a Canon SLR 1000D.


If you prefer to draw rather than to shoot photos, then use your pencil and sketchbook and make a series of little “thumbnail sketches”, each about 4cm by 6cm. Draw a rectangle or square as a picture boundary for each of these before you start. Find a view of your environment that has interesting shapes of light and shade.

Draw a few lines within your rectangle to show where things should go. Look at your subject with half-closed eyes to help visualise shapes of light and dark. Then “block in” the shapes of dark tone within your rectangle using bold pencil cross-hatching. Leave paper white to show where the lightest shapes of tone should go.

Adapt it: If your interest is colour then by all means use colour photography. See my own examples of this by clicking this link: Things seen on Walking the Dog.


Other warm-up ideas

I’ll share more ideas for warm-ups in my next blogpost. There will be a line and wash warm-up, a continuous line exercise, and a warm-up for the oil painter.

My plan is to draw and paint more and to talk less, so I expect these blogposts to become a little less frequent, perhaps every two to three weeks. If you would like future blogposts to arrive in your email inbox then just add your email address to the box at near the top of the page and click “Subscribe”. This service will of course always be free of charge.

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