And a hint: I don’t know how to draw either. If we cannot draw as well as Ingres or Durer, we’re not there yet.
[Ingres drawing of a girl in a chair above.]
How you draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw is that you focus your mind entirely upon what you’re seeing and then let your hand follow your visual thoughts. It takes some daring to follow this path because what you see may not actually find its way accurately into the drawing, and we are oh so cognizant of what other people think, are we not?
[sketch made from a still life by Huysum at the National Gallery of Art above]
The essence of the blind contour is that it trains you to observe more keenly. Let’s say that I’m drawing my still life objects. I notice the various contours. I follow them with antlike thoroughness. (Remember that ants can run; this needn’t be a slow process.) I can notice the contour as a flat silhouette against its background. But maybe there’s a tea pot with paintings of fish swimming across its surface. My eye can jump to those and the ant can follow those silhouettes without having bothered to finish the other one.
Let’s say we’ve got an ant that can jump as well as run. What if you notice a flower at the top of the picture, then a design near the bottom? What if you note that a sinuous line created by the adjacent edges of several different objects seems to go across the whole image? You can draw that. If you are “just looking” you can draw anything and you need not reference whether the feature you’re drawing supports the illusion of the picture. Some things we perceive may actually confuse the illusion of the picture sometimes, in certain contexts. But how does an artist know the worth of visual information unless he tries it out first? You may not even know for a long time what the significance of a line is, or a color, or a form.
You can observe objects and make a drawing that gathers psychological information, that takes you through your subject, that explores its various potentials. When we see the works of great masters in the museum and find their pictures full of an amazing verisimilitude, what we don’t see are the drawings, sketches, studies, pochades and whatnot that directed and supported the form the finished painting would take. Much unseen information lies behind a highly finished painting. In studies, sketches and incidental drawings a contemporary artist can gather his own (or her own) information in the living moment.
What do you want to learn about the things you paint that is separate from a finished painting? Remember too that what you learn is drawn in your mind, drawn with your thoughts. There’s a keenness of perception that is exhilarating in itself. Let yourself have this freedom to roam mentally through the veil of light before your eyes. It has its own great worth as lived experience. And then too, it also teaches you things that cumulatively can find their way into finished works.
To draw with great skill when you don’t yet have the level of skill you desire means that you sometimes develop your perception first. You put aside the schemes of the art classroom (centers of interest and whatnot) and let your mind simply roam while your hand records the path as best it can — as perhaps a blind contour, or better still as simply a brave drawing — one in which the mistakes are let to be what they are. It’s a leap of faith. But recall we said that this ant can jump.
[Ants in a still life by Huysum. Photo credit here.]