a personal art course, but with too many words and not enough drawings

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Basic Shapes and Forms, Part 1

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My apologies for the long delay between Line Quality, Part 1 and this post – there was much more to do in China than I’d anticipated, and then some stuff over the new year. Thanks to those who sent me reminder messages 🙂 Quite a substantial number of exercises in this post to make up for the delay, so the deadline is in 2 weeks, 18 Jan.  The illustrations for this post are done digitally and are hopefully easier to see. I’m crap at drawing from scratch on the computer though, might have to look into getting a proper scanner.

So, basic shapes. These are the building blocks of pretty much everything that can be drawn, so taking some time to understand them is important. The three big shapes (2D) are the rectangle, triangle and ellipse (oval). From these you can get basic forms (3D): cuboid, prism (many kinds), cylinder, sphere and ovoid.

Why think in terms of simple solids? With basic forms we can break things down into planes, which helps immensely with shading. It’s hard to shade a horse from imagination, but it’s easier to do the same thing with ovoids and prisms. A poorly executed example:

‘Random shading’ looks sort of right, but also sort of iffy – ‘Semi-random shading’ looks a little bit more solid. The shadows cast by the nose and hair are wrong, by the way – sorry, wasn’t really thinking.


When just starting, it’s easier to copy from pre-drawn samples, because a) they usually show ‘pure’ basic forms, and b) the artist has already translated the 3D form to a 2D image for you. Copying then helps familiarize you with the actual process of drawing those forms. Attempting to draw directly from life may result in a lot of flailing about and wasted time because you don’t know what to do. But drawing from life is also one of the best ways to progress in drawing once beginning hurdles are out of the way, and pretty much the only way beyond a certain standard. Anyway, if you have access to books or images (e.g. the ones in assignment I) , you can try doing some copies.


I. Look at these renders of basic shapes under strong light sources: (these renders by ChristerMLB and these by Henrik Wann Jensen: 12). You can draw copies of them if you have the time – should be pretty useful.

II. Find some objects that closely resemble the basic shapes, e.g. book (cuboid), computer mouse (ovoid), tall glass (cylinder). If you have a table lamp (like the kind in the Pixar logo) or a flashlight, set the objects up, dim the lights and just move the light around, watching what happens to the shadows – which sides get darker? Where does the light fall? If you want to draw them, assignment IV has instructions.

III. Now get a photo of a fairly simple subject – simple buildings, stuff on a desk etc. It can be digital or physical, doesn’t matter as long as you can see what you are doing over the photo. Try breaking the forms in the photo down into the basic forms covered above. Architecture is good for this, because you have not only blocky cuboids but also spheres/hemispheres (domes) and prisms (pediments, roofs) to work with. If you’re using more organic subjects, like a pony or a person, you’ll be working more with circle-based forms: sphere, ovoid, cylinder.

An example. This is a photo of a lovely hotel in Hangzhou, which I’ll be posting 5-star reviews of once I remember its name. First, draw in shapes that face the same direction (the right):

Breaking 3D forms down into 2D shapes isn’t enough. So add in the sides to turn the shapes into forms.

We also have to actually be able to imagine what they are like in 3D space. What would it look like from another angle? With a different lighting setup?

Here is the fun bit, which is easy to do on a computer and a bit harder if you weren’t working on tracing paper: choose a direction for light, and use just one dark tone to put in shadows. Ignore cast shadows (= shadows cast by something on another object) for now – they’re complicated and hard to do without reference. In my first image the light comes from the right; in the second it shines from the left. If you have trouble figuring out where to put the shadows, try using the objects from assignment I to construct an approximation. That provides a model for shadows, and also helps you to feel the depth and relative position of the basic forms. This is also why ‘drawers’ see improvement after trying out sculpting – it makes you think in 3 dimensions, not ‘one curved line here, an ellipse there, some hatching, another line…’.


Another useful thing to remember when breaking down weird forms is that all polygons can be broken into a number of triangles.

IV. Try to draw one of the objects from assignment I…from life (dun dun dun!). If you’re up for a challenge, pick a more complex object that’s made of several basic forms joined together. Eleanor has also suggested an alternative of sorts, which you can also apply the basic form idea to:

one or more careful studies of a stuffed toy. They’re brilliant subjects for wannabe cartoonists as the proportions are made but they still have their own sense of weight. One can pose them, or, if one knows a child, scatty toy collector and/or dog one can likely find one ready posed in an hilarious ‘crime scene’ like fashion. I’ll own that there’s a possibility that not everybody in the thread has accesss to a stuffed toy but you can get some goofy ones dirt cheap or usually find somebody to lend one to you. Temporarily.

First draw in basic shapes, then build up to the basic forms underlying the object (post a photo and ask if you’re not sure), and then add details on top in a darker color. You can shade as well, but keep it simple and only shade the large masses. For instance, there was a lighter shadow on the unshaded side of the harmonica case, but it only made things look confused, so I didn’t include it.

Ellipses are my nemesis, so naturally I picked two cylinder-based forms for the demo -_-||| Also sometimes drawing a basic form container doesn’t actually help, as in the cup handle, so just use them as you see fit. Here’s another example (which ended up deviating significantly from what I saw – bad!):

By the way, construction isn’t something that comes naturally when drawing from life. For more rigid forms (buildings, manufactured objects) like in the example above, constructing the basic forms before laying on details is a great way to ensure things look more or less ‘right’ in the final drawing. But doing it for organic forms is, in my opinion, a waste of time, and isn’t going to get you anywhere. When drawing from imagination, however, construction is your best friend.

Example of what I do when drawing from life (or in this case, a photo I took):

Get rough outline – I recently started doing the enclosing-box thing, and it helps for irregular shapes.

Add details.

Sigh and hit Delete (or you can continue refining and shading).


No seriously, one of my goals is to get accuracy to a passable level. I don’t believe in measuring obsessively (sight-size, I’m looking at you) because it generally screws things up for me and takes all the life out of a drawing. But this level of inaccuracy is really quite unacceptable, especially for someone who’s setting exercises and doling out advice.

Resources is a place to find pictures to draw from, though I’ve stopped going there as it’s usually overrun by pictures of babies and/or family gatherings and/or weddings. Also try looking under Stock/Resources on deviantART, and Google Images for private practice. (If you’re going to post it publicly, make sure you credit the photographer – if you don’t know who did it, best not to post).

Whew! Long post. Have fun – I’m looking forward to doing these.

P.S. I have Skype and MSN in case anyone wants to talk about drawing.

James Gurney on creative block

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Source: Birge Harrison's Landscape Painting, reposted from Gurney Journey

Somewhat related to the last incomprehensible post about being crippled by uncertainty, here’s a reply from James Gurney from his blog. Yes, I quote him often and I should really look into diversification. Call me a fangirl but it’s truly a treasure trove of excellent advice and inspiration. After you finish reading the posts – I for one don’t think I’ll ever be able to finish reading everything there (goodness knows I’ve tried) – look in the comments for even more discussion from the other artists that frequent his blog.

A comment from me. I’ve really got to start putting what I say into practice more.

I need more people like Tom Hart to remind me to stop worrying and start drawing! It’s good advice. I feel like it’s too easy – especially for beginners – to read all the advice there is but not actually apply it, because after seeing the generally splendid work that comes with such advice you are paralyzed with the fear that your work will never be able to match up to that standard. Every mark you put down on canvas makes you feel like a failure. At these times it’s important to remind yourself that every mistake you make is going to help you improve on your next work.

My favorite art-related quote now is the oft-paraphrased “everyone has a hundred thousand bad drawings in them, so start drawing now and get them done with”.

A few days later I went back to save the post in Evernote. To my delight I found a reply:

Jess, what you say is so universal to everyone who wants to do art after spending time being a fan of art. The critical facility gets sharpened to a high degree, but the practical, intuitive, hand-skill side of us takes a while to catch up. I think it helps to lock the internal critic in another room for a while to let yourself play and take a few chances.

To this I add one caveat: Make sure not to lose the key.

Click here for the full post in which he answers some questions from a diligent high school student.

Written by krysjez

December 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm

‘Sticky’ acrylic paints

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Helpful notes on acrylic paint from Ilaekae of the ConceptArt forums. I went searching after noticing that my acrylic-painted Sculpey dinosaur was still sticky after a week.

I think what you’re questioning isn’t a “drying” problem as much as it is a natural tendency for many plastics to be “sticky” or “soft” to the touch. The copolymers used in painting don’t become “hard” the way an oil painting or varnish does, especially in heavy straight applications, but have a through-and-through softness that is normal to the medium. That’s why your fingernail mark pops back out to some degree, and why you can make a mark in the first place. This causes problems with dirt and nicotine/smoke in the air collecting on the paint surface faster than with varnished pieces and oils. It also causes MAJOR problem if acrylic paintings are stored face to face, or pushed up against each other front to back. NEVER stack paintings on canvas panels on top of each other–the weight of the pile will make them stick together enough to damage them when you try to separate them. This isn’t as big a problem when additives (sand, glass beads, dirt, etc.) are added to increase the texture/thickness of the paint since it breaks up the slick uniform surface.

Written by krysjez

October 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Posted in Painting, Tips

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Ignore the clutter!

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tl;dr – read the blockquote

I’ve got a viva voce-type thing tomorrow, where I’m supposed to talk about (“pitch”, apparently) my art coursework for this year. Except most of the class is only in the middle of coursework, and we’re at that stage where we haven’t got enough material to present for fifteen minutes yet. They couldn’t have held it right at the start, when everyone was relaxing after the holidays, or after everything is over, when we’d have a substantial body of visual work to present. No, instead we’ll just be showing sketchbooks and somehow turning 30-odd (probably around 15, considering that my style is to move to the next page once the previous one has markings on it, no matter how few) A5 pages of sketchy pencil doodles into a 15-minute sales pitch.


Anyway, the point of this post is something I discovered only today, and far too late. I stumbled upon this revelation while desperately trying to pump out studies this evening – I’ve only done three small ones (less than 10x10cm) – in preparation for tomorrow. It seems to me as though the system here places more emphasis on blindly copying photographs in vast numbers than any form of visual study that engages you on a more practical or artistic level.

I’m not saying that photographs are bad – I don’t think I could ever bring myself around to that stand, considering how useful they have been to both amateurs like me and countless other accomplished artists. Rather, it’s how being a photocopy machine gets you grades around here that irks me.

Great, I’ve managed to add another few paragraphs between “the point of this” and the actual thing that I wanted to share. Well, I shall tarry no further; here it is:

When gathering visual reference (with an idea of the final work already growing in your mind), your studies don’t necessarily have to be a slavish copy of your model. Gather what is useful to you, and omit visual clutter. Especially when you’re on a tight deadline.

To me, “visual clutter” encompasses a variety of things:

  • When gathering conceptual reference (for lack of a better term)
  • For costume reference, if I can tell that the original artist didn’t use reference for the drapery, then I’ll save myself the trouble of painstakingly replicating the folds and just note down the style and kind of fabric that’s on my model. I can always do my own drapery studies later, when I know how exactly the clothes are to interact with the surrounding forms.
  • If I’m trying to work out how the planes of, say, a face, should be (to help me with lighting it from imagination, for example) then my shading doesn’t have to be that photorealistic – just enough details and value separation for me to understand the way the form turns.
  • Architecture obviously has to be more detailed in some regards, and it’s a pain in the ass for me to draw. When short of time, I find it useful to just take note of the general structure and make one or two detailed texture/structure studies of things like roof tiles.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel it’s silly and a massive waste of time to expect information-gathering studies (as opposed to, say, technical or figure studies) to contain every bit of detail that was in the original. The kind of visual shorthand that I prefer – sketchy and incomplete but rife with the information I need (just noting down one tile of a repeated pattern on a dress, maybe, or reducing an elaborate carved pattern to its basic lines) – is what I feel makes the most sense for time-starved students like us who just can’t afford to spend a disproportionate amount of time on art.

Perhaps if you work mad fast and draw like a man possessed it would be a different story. But this is my take.

(Or maybe I just have bad time management. I read a fairly long novel in one sitting this afternoon. Probably should have spent it drawing.)

Written by krysjez

September 15, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Inspiration, Tips

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Which acrylic medium should I use?

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This is what happens when you set me loose on the internet while I’m studying for my SOVA (Study of Visual Art) exam tomorrow.

I love the Winsor & Newton web site because there are a lot of good articles on both artmaking and the history of art materials. As can be expected the articles usually refer only to W&N products, but many of the basic products can be found in other manufacturers’ catalogs as well. Today’s post is a  handy diagram from their guide to acrylic mediums page:

Some other products mentioned that might be useful to you in your own work:

Due to its creamy consistency, I often use it instead of white paint because it blends so much easier…I prefer it to Titanium White…

  • My hero James Gurney uses acrylic matte medium to seal his pencil drawings first before beginning to paint. As the chart shows it “decreases gloss” and “reduces consistency” if you mix it with your paint.

I’ve been trying to do a bit of impasto in the middle of a painting but the impasto effect is proving ridiculously hard to achieve. I could use some of that modeling paste about now…

Written by krysjez

July 2, 2010 at 3:59 pm

What the hue?

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An old, but still useful post about “hue” in paints by Mark Golden (of Golden Paints):

I do understand that many hue designated colors are less expensive imitations of the hue and chroma position of more expensive colors. In fact we make replacements hue colors for the Cadmiums and the Cobalt pigment. These are important colors, especially for Universities that are required to keep the heavy metal Cads and Cobalts out of their waste streams. There is a significant difference using a Cobalt Blue Hue versus a real Cobalt Blue or a Cadmium Yellow or Red Hue versus a real Cadmium. It is wonderful that teachers want students to use the real thing. But professors please tell your students that buying a Hookers Green Hue is a much more appropriate choice than using the old – non-lightfast, real Hookers Green.

Full post here:

Written by krysjez

May 31, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Posted in Painting, Tips

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Process Tour?

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I messed around in Paint Tool SAI yesterday. My second time using the program. The first time was an utter failure.


Screenshots of the process of creating this are behind the jump.

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Written by krysjez

April 28, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Posted in Digital Art, Tips