Saturday, January 8, 2011

Constable drawings, the importance of drawing

I think I have reached the end of the Constable binge. But I want to point out what I think his "secret" was. It was his drawing ability. I know he made plein air sketches and full sized sketches and that was certainly important. But I think our contemporary predilection for looser work, conditions us to ascribe greater importance to those things than the they deserve. The same predilection encourages us to overlook that which his generation would have considered his strength, his drawing.

So many painters today are straight to paint guys (myself included) that it is easy to miss that Constables paintings are built on a scaffold of drawing that an impressionist painting is not. I think it was not only his drawing ability, but his preliminary drawings that really made his work go. I believe there is more from these drawing in his paintings than from his oil sketches.

The usefulness of these drawings to Constable was not quite the same as if they had been photos. The drawings are already carefully purged of the nonessential. They gave him a simplified reference from which to work.

I wrote the other night about copying a Church. Church's secret was also his drawings. If you can learn drawing skills like these, you could work like Church or Constable. Their art was more a colored drawing than the paintings most of us make today. We are not accustomed to the idea of landscape pencil drawings but that was the basic start for Hudson River school paintings, Constable, and all that went before impressionism.

I want to contend that drawing is the most important element in the landscape (excluding design anyway) When I teach, the the students ability to paint the landscape is the same as their drawing ability. Those who have had atelier training, before the cast, usually have the best results. Students who have drawn heads, or done lots of still life seem to do well also. I have had many students who just want to do the landscape and have neglected to do the studio work that builds drawing ability and they are more likely to flounder.
Even loose painters like Emile Gruppe or Seago have this strong drawing underlying their paintings. Abbreviated and simplified as their work may be it has a rightness to it that tells. There is more drawing in a landscape that has been designed and pushed around than in a more straightforward project. So don't think because you want to do loose or rapidly executed work you will skirt the need for sound drawing. You will need it MORE.

If you want to paint better landscapes I advise you to study the figure, do still lifes and whatever else that will teach you how to draw a subject in its proper proportions and values.Working from photographs will not improve your drawing ability! The ability to paint something is the same thing as the ability to draw it.


Tomorrow I believe I will go to a new subject, but I haven't a clue yet as to what it will be. I think it will be art technique for a while. I also am planning to do a series suggested by a reader, called 100 paintings that an artist should know.


Bill said...

Re: "Constables paintings are built on a scaffold of drawing that an impressionist painting is not"

I think this is pretty unfair to a lot of the impressionists, most of whom were pretty serious about their drawing.

Jeremy Elder said...

Thanks for this post! I have lately and gone back to work on my drawing skills since that seemed to be the weak part in my painting. I wondered if this was the right approach. Your post says YES! It is very encouraging to hear that I am doing the right thing.

You also answered another question I had. Is atelier painting help train you as a landscape painter? Another yes.

Anonymous said...

After binging on Constable, tomorrow promises to be a deprivation-type challenge. Time to pull some of my books off the shelf and continue the feast! Thanks Stape for every blog on Constable; I enjoyed them all. Wish that I could afford the cloud book too!

Judy P. said...

I've been struggling with this concept of rather tight drawing being a good foundation for painting; I admire the calligraphy of the bold dash of a brushstroke, and would think a detailed prep drawing would inhibit it. Like maybe one would be afraid to 'paint over' the lines. Also to me a good drawing has lots of accurate detail, and we are always told to not look at detail when painting, at least in general. So it's tough for me to reconcile it.

b said...

Not to step into Stape's territory but I took that comment a different way. I don't think Stape meant that impressionists can't draw, but that an impressionist work usually gets right to paint, and there is not a preliminary drawing done for the painting.

@Judy P,
I think you might be confusing details with good drawing instead of accuracy. An accurate drawing does not necessarily have to have tons of details, but the shapes and lines that are there should be precise and correct for the subject being drawn. Obviously there are other things beside accuracy that make good drawing, but in my opinion accuracy should be the first goal, since everything else is built upon it.

And to reconcile them to paint, if you can see and draw something accurately, then when you lay that bold brush stroke down it will be in the correct place, and be the correct shape for the area you are trying to describe.

Drawing is the physical manifestation of a well trained eye. If you can consistently see accurately then, even if the drawing is obscured, you will be able to recreate the obscured parts by referring to your reference or subject.

Of course, all of this is easier said than accomplished, but we can all hope to get there eventually.

And Stape, great post! Now I have to convince myself to draw more.

JonInFrance said...

Well, the last time you said this was back in Oct/Nov - and I resolved to spend a year on drawing (painting forbidden!) - and after only 2+ months it's been a revelation, a revelation! - and exciting/fun (I would never have believed it!) So, thanks to you, Stape.

PS: I have discovered the secret to the engine of your time travel machine (hint, it has something to do do with an ordered arrangement of chemical compounds on solar reflective panels aka known as canvases))


Bernie's Art said...

I've really enjoyed these comments on Constable. How about doing the same thing with his contemporary Turner.

re the drawing thing, one does forget that even a painter like van Gogh did lots of detailed drawings as well as painting.

Karla said...

Great series!

I hope you will address JudyP's dilemma with observe the details/don't paint the details. This confuses me as well.

Also, if you can squeeze in a post on the different types of white oils and why you prefer one over the other that would be great! said...

Drawing is something near and dear to my heart, brought to you by the hand.

I am privileged to be a critic twice a year for the Harvard Graduate School of Design's Drawing class. There has been a big debate there now whether or not to continue teaching hand drawing to design students when all design in the commercial world is done on a computer. Some of the students there have never taking drawing, having done all drafting and rendering on computer. And this is what I see:
computer=predictable and sameness
Hand drawing=surprises and discoveries through observation.

And it being Harvard, we artist types discussed the latest in brain imaging, where it was found that the activity of drawing activates mores areas, overall in the entire brain than any other single activity that you can do.

It's not just great for your's great for YOU!

Philip Koch said...

Drawing rocks. I totally agree with Stapes comments.

It is a chance to deepen your relationship with the outside world. Like the most skilled therapist you have to "listen" with your eyes to the nuances of meaning the shapes in the source are hinting at. It builds muscles for our creativity. A few years spent in the "drawing gym" is a must to pump up an artist.
Constable obviously had spent his time in there.

One of the tricky parts of this is that so much of what we admire in the best artists of the past was their ability to distort, alter, and change what they were looking at when that would strengthen their painting. But through years of practice they knew when when to truthfully report and when to paint in an alteration. That's always a judgement call.

Bill said...

@Bernie's Art - Van Gogh was the first painter I thought of in regard to the impressionists and drawing. Many of his paintings were carefully worked out in drawings first. Part of the problem is that the label "impressionist" is misleading when you consider the very different artists called that. Take Seurat for example, whose paintings are built on a scaffold of rather remarkable drawings and have little to do with expressionism or spontaneity.

Deborah Paris said...

I think you are right Stape about the drawings being given less importance in the "narrative" about Constable. Emphasis on the plein air work fits the art history progression much better for most art historians. I do think both were important though. Looking at these drawings you can see that strong love of place Constable had. These drawings are evidence of an intimate relationship, and one that gave him the confidence and ability to compose on a large scale.

billspaintingmn said...
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willek said...

I attend 2 sketch groups a week. One figure and one portrait. I am amazed at how the skills dissapate after missing one or two sessions. It may take 3 weeks to get back on track. This is MY experience, I wonder what others find.

Also, I have come to realize there are many ways to draw. Eg: as an end in itself. As a prep sketch like thumbnails for planning a composition. As a planning stage prior to painting to work out values, light and shadow. etc. As practice, prior to doing figures or animals, say, on a canvas. All of these kinds of drawing require different approaches.

jeff said...

Speaking of Van Gough, he drew from the Charles Bargue drawing course a few times. I'm not sure how many, but I read it was more than twice.
If you have ever seen this book that's a lot of drawing.

I think a good thing to do in the winter is to draw the trees as much as you can. You can see all the structure and then when the spring and summer comes around you're ready for the foliage.

I try to draw a lot. I take a long pose drawing class every Saturday.
It's great for the drawing chops drawing from the model for 14 weeks.
Been doing for about a year and a half. I recommend taking a good life drawing class as drawing the human form is the hardest thing to do.

Faith Te said...

I really enjoyed your posts about Constable, Mr. Kearns. I couldn't help commenting when I read the quote by Ingres though. I found it funny seeing that in many of his figure paintings, good drawing with proper proportion and correct anatomy does not seem to be very important. Did he do it on purpose? I just find this odd for a portrait painter as highly regarded as he is. Would love to see a post explaining that, Mr. Kearns.

Jim G. said...

I've been drawing for a long time, and expect I'll be drawing for the rest of my life, whether it's attending drawing sessions or out by myself. I can always do better.

Depending on what I'm after (or up against), sometimes I'll do a completed drawing before I begin a painting, and other times I'll Just start in with the paint.

Drawing does so many things for the visual artist, whether it's working out composition and values for a specific piece, or simply increasing hand/eye coordination in the use of one's medium.

No matter what style or medium one works in, improving drawing skills will increase the quality and success of the final work. I even know some very skilled sculptors who go to drawing sessions regularly.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gotta turn in early tonight. I answered a few out there on the blog. To the rest of you, thanks for commenting! I appreciate it when you do.

grovecanada said...

For the first part of my career, I was interested in the skill of drawing technically ...Then, I got too close...I was doing realism-just showing what I saw...So now I get to know my subject over the months, but retreat to a sketchpad when ready & draw from memory...I find the brain warps the subject, adding personal details about personality- depth, that can't be seen by showing a likeness...The finished drawings that I work from to paint tell the back story, but are not tied to realism...This is still the skill of drawing, but can take it to a deeper level...