Drawing Class – Week 9

Last class! We presented our final projects (two drawings) and discussed our strengths and weaknesses. Only seven people showed up for the required final session. A couple more had a valid excuse. Some just didn’t get the final project done; they had better have been taking the class for no credit! With only seven projects and presentations to go through, we had a very relaxed pace and were still done a bit early.



I tried for a contrast between the dark, almost brutal rendering of the euphonium and the delicate rendering of the violin. The class seemed to like it, too.

For each student’s final project, we played a little guessing game. The other students would try to guess at the connection between the two drawings. The “musical instruments” connection between my two was perhaps the most obvious. Nobody got that I’d zoomed in on one of the two parts of each instrument where the action happens (valves, bowing area on the strings), and cropped out the other center of action (mouthpiece, fingering area of the strings). Nobody could have known that both instruments are Michelle’s.

Some parts of the euphonium picture really look like brass tubes. Other parts aren’t so polished. Both drawings were done in the last two days before the deadline, thanks to some other projects and the usual procrastination. They could have been better if I’d allowed more time, but overall I’m pretty pleased.

Drawing Class – Week 8

For our penultimate class session (with no corresponding homework assignment, to leave us time to work on the final project) we touched on portraiture.

As demanded by tradition, we started by drawing skulls. We’d draw a profile, a three-quarter view, and a front view of the skull, in whatever order we could get the angles on the two model skulls. The last drawing would then serve as a reference for a portrait from life of a classmate. We weren’t to waste time on drawing the teeth. Even so, time seemed very short to accurately sketch and then render each view.

I got a three-quarter view first.


Then the profile.


Finally the front view. I can’t show you that skull, though. It disappeared beneath the live portrait.

The skulls were based on a white male. My portrait subject was an lovely Asian female with quite different proportions. I solved this problem by toning the paper a middle gray first, which essentially obliterated the skull drawing which was supposed to serve as the bones of the portrait.


I didn’t get as far as most of the others. I had a fairly decent nose nicely drawn, but it wasn’t really her nose, so I had to redo it. I also had to reshape the face. Her face is pretty broad, but I think I was afraid to draw it that broad for fear of ending up with an caricature. When I ran out of time, the right eye was just a sketch and the left eye (partly obscured by hair) wasn’t even started.

No homework this week. Final projects and presentations due next week.

Drawing Class – Week 7

In the seventh class we learned an additive/subtractive technique with charcoal. We’d first tone the paper a medium gray with compressed charcoal. Then instead of sketching with vine charcoal (dark on blank paper), we sketched with a plastic eraser (light on gray). From there, we can get lighter shades by removing charcoal with any of the various erasers, or darker shades by adding charcoal. And in both cases, we can get delicate tonal gradations by smearing the charcoal around with our fingers.

The first exercise was a notoriously difficult thing to draw: draped fabric.


We didn’t have time to get very far with this drawing. We just tried to get a few of the folds to start looking like fabric. I’m not sure I really got there. “It’s starting to happen!”

Then we put the fabric aside and tried to draw some random objects again, with the same additive/subtractive charcoal technique.


Pickings seemed slim for interesting compositions at my end of the table. I latched onto the roll of paper towels with a few sheets crumpled up. I put it barely off center, knowing I’d need to justify that decision with a strong center of interest in the crumples. This might have worked, but I didn’t get far enough along to prove it.

In the upper left is an example of a sketch done with the plastic eraser that has had no shading at all. It’s the rear view of a little plaster bust. Ugh.

The homework assignment was to try again to render some draped fabric. We weren’t required to finish this drawing, just a section of it that successfully communicates the sense of fabric. My subject was my baby blanket — the one I had when I was a baby and have used continuously ever since. They don’t make baby blankets like that anymore.


Homework 7. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: You’ve got it!


Drawing Class – Week 6

In the sixth class we continued with crosshatching.

Pia set up another bunch of objects for us to draw.


The objects were mostly white. It’s tough to get convincing light grays out of a Sharpie.

Like most of the drawings done during class time, this one is unfinished. The big arch is a piece of corrugated conduit tubing, which would be a much stronger graphical element if I’d had time to shade it, for instance.

However, notice that this is the first drawing we’ve done from observation that isn’t just an outline. So, we must be ready for the final project, right? Pia showed some examples and gave us our final project assignment. Two drawings, connected in content and done from observation using any combination of materials we’ve used in class. Also, an in-class presentation using three or more example drawings to discuss your strengths and weaknesses. Three weeks left.

The homework assignment was to pick four or five objects that vary in shape and scale, make up a composition with a directed light source, showing the ground plane. Then draw it as a value study using crosshatching. Pia wrote “This drawing will take time and patience.” Yup.


Homework 6. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: Very nice! I have a slight problem with the shape of the helmet coming off the edge – somehow doesn’t feel quite the right size & shape for this grouping, but it might just be me!

I didn’t try to use the “Fine” Sharpie for the homework. We were given flexibility to choose just about anything penlike, so I picked a 0.7mm pigment liner pen. I feared one pen might not finish the project, so I bought all five they had at Artist and Craftsman Supply. Good thing, too, because it took four pens to finish this drawing. I like the finer line, though. It’s much more forgiving of small slips while crosshatching.


Drawing Class – Week 5

Week five of drawing class was something of a smorgasbord, as Pia tried valiantly to fit the basics of drawing into a term with only nine class meetings.

Ellipses. What is an ellipse? Pia asked me and got a somewhat-garbled analytic geometry version of the definition, but only because I couldn’t remember the conic section version of the definition off the top of my head. That wasn’t what she wanted, though, so she asked another student, who also turned out to be an engineer, and who gave her an even more mathematical definition. Ha! In the end Pia had to tell us the artist’s definition: an ellipse is a circle seen in perspective.

That’s a little bit surprising, actually. Go ahead, look at some photos of circular things. Better yet, try to sketch some circular things the way you think they ought to look when seen from funny angles. You’ll find that either your drawings look curiously distorted in a way you can’t quite put your finger on, or else all those circles, no matter how funny the viewing angle, end up as perfect ellipses. Cool!

Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t make drawing the ellipses easy. We filled up a page with freehand ellipses, and they mostly look terrible.


Then we learned to wrap the ellipse in a rectangle. That at least keeps the proportions right and make it pretty easy to put the apexes in the right places. For practice we put circles (ellipses) on the top and bottom of a cube.


Then Pia set out some round bowls, vases, and bottles so we could put a few more ellipses to work. I ended up drawing the Goldschläger bottle I brought in.


Next up, shading. With charcoal we tried to turn a circle into a sphere. We didn’t have an actual sphere to look at, other than Pia’s example of a shaded drawing of a theoretical sphere.


The lighter shadow on the underside of the sphere is supposed to be reflected light from the white tabletop.

I used a lighter palette of tonal ranges than most of the others. This was pretty consistent for the rest of the course.

Now that we’d admitted that shades of gray exist, the next thing was to learn a new way to make grays: by crosshatching. We used a “Fine” point Sharpie marking pen, which isn’t very. We started by creating a set of sample patches of various darknesses, and then tried to shade another sphere, followed by a cube. We didn’t have time to finish this in class, so it ended up being the first part of our homework assignment.


Homework 5, Drawing 1. Grade: Check+. Pia’s comment: Very good.

As you can see, the hatching I used on the sphere ended up having very little to do with the hatching I proposed on the sample patches. Doing the sample patches first meant they were my most naive guess at how to crosshatch.

I tried to use curved strokes to crosshatch the sphere, to emphasize its roundness. Pia was worried it might end up looking like a hairball, but I think I avoided that problem (mostly) by using many lighter strokes. The “Fine” Sharpie wants to make bold black lines, but if you wield it lightly you can get smaller lines with lighter ink coverage. Maybe that’s cheating on a crosshatching assignment.

I probably would have tried to do some light crosshatching on the top surface of the cube, but the assignment said to leave it paper white. The eye fills in the rest of the cube. Or does it?

The other part of the homework assignment went back to the ellipses. We were to set up a nice composition using at least five round vessels of various heights and sizes, including a transparent glass partially filled with water with a knife in it. Contour lines only, no shading yet.


Homework 5, Drawing 2. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: Gorgeous! again!

I learned that not everything is an ellipse, because not everything is a circle. In two places, the varying weight of the glass walls distorts the shape. The top surface of the liquid in the wine glass isn’t round, because of the shape of the wine glass. The base of the wine glass is round, of course, but it’s grossly distorted as seen through the glass walls of the tumbler.


Drawing Class – Week 4

One-point and two-point perspective occupied our full attention for the fourth class session.

Pia set up a cityscape of boxes, all parallel to the tile squares on the floor, and seated us on the floor along the sides of the studio, so we had a view more or less parallel to the streets of the city. That gave us a pretty close approximation of a one-point perspective view of the city. Pia told us to just assume that all vertical edges were vertical, and to frame our drawing so that the eye-level horizon line was within the picture plane.

After lots more measuring and sighting, a vanishing point emerged and guided the rest of the drawing.


Then we moved to the corners of the studio, and drew the city in two-point perspective. The horizon line was still to be within the picture plane, but the vanishing points were beyond the side edges.


The homework assignment was to make one drawing of a deep architectural space. The suggestion was to use parallel (one-point) perspective, or, if using angular (two-point) perspective, to choose an exterior view to keep the vanishing points on the outside. However, it was permitted to try angular perspective for an interior view, for an extra challenge, “but only if you really feel you understand the principles very well”. Several students chose to take on the extra challenge, including me.


Homework 4. Grade: A+. Pia’s comment: Paul – excellent work! Let me just say one more time, ANY of your works that you are willing to donate to my collection (at end of quarter) will find a very appreciative home. But again – no pressure – just if you want.

This was the first homework assignment that really ate up a lot of time. I had been thinking of doing a building exterior, but when the deadline loomed, the day was rainy. I had to work inside, and at home. I almost despaired of finding a suitable deep architectural space at home. These modern homes are full of short walls, funny angles, and curves. In fact, just outside the frame to the right is a diagonal wall that I had to crop out to keep everything rectilinear.

The sketching part of this assignment took a long time. It took several tries to get the scale right and fit everything the way I wanted it. The composition is pretty fragile — it needs the pony wall across the bottom, but it can’t spill over onto the diagonal wall to the right, and so on. It ended up with more blank ceiling than I would have preferred. Left to my own devices I would probably have trimmed off the top, but it seemed like we were supposed to stick with 18×24 inch paper.

Ah, those shutters! They really pull the perspective together in this scene, but look at all those details. I spent a significant fraction of the time just filling all those lines in, even though I made some compromises with reality and omitted some of the more difficult details. As you might imagine, my living room wasn’t really that neat and tidy, either. Now there’s something drawing has over photography: you don’t have to draw the clutter.

It was just luck that the right-hand vanishing point ended up on the paper. That made it much easier to get the shutters right. I constructed them with a straightedge. It would have been impossible (or at least very time-consuming) to get them right freehand. They don’t look too perfect because I did the final charcoal pencil contour lines freehand.

There wasn’t supposed to be any shading in this drawing, but the wording of the assignment didn’t explicitly prohibit it. I couldn’t resist shading the black stone around the fireplace and the black leather recliner and footstool, because the shapes didn’t really parse with just the contour outlines. The three-legged stool ended up shaded too, because its legs are so narrow the lines ran together.

Comparing the drawing to reality in retrospect, the chairs and sofa are too small. There’s a tee-shaped cross bar between the legs of the stool that I completely forgot to draw. Otherwise, ignoring the missing clutter, it looks pretty much like that. The ceiling fan isn’t a small one, but it really does get swallowed up by lots of blank ceiling.

Drawing Class – Week 3

The third session of the beginning drawing class was about sighting and measuring. Both techniques involve holding up a straight reference object like a pencil and using it to capture objective information about the subject as projected onto the picture plane.

Sighting captures an absolute angle on the picture plane. You hold the pencil up so it’s parallel to the feature you want to capture, and also parallel with the picture plane. Then you move it over to the paper and transcribe the angle onto the drawing. Somehow, you’re supposed to be able to hold the pencil at the same angle while moving it to the paper. I found it difficult to make sightings accurate enough to be useful.

Measuring captures a distance, as projected onto the picture plane. You choose a convenient feature of the subject to serve as your reference distance unit. Then, holding the pencil at a constant arm’s length and parallel to the picture plane, you mark that distance with a finger on the side of the pencil. You can then use that as a sort of ruler to count out relative distances elsewhere on the picture plane. In particular, you can measure how many distance units your entire subject spans, horizontally and vertically. With this information, you can first choose a portrait or landscape orientation of the paper, and then compute how large your reference unit should be on the paper in order to fit.

Presbyopia doesn’t make this any easier. I wear eyeglasses with progressive lenses. That means I have to tilt my head to focus at different distances. But when I tilt my head, it screws up the line of sight past the pencil to the subject. To make a measurement this way, I have to choose a compromise focus distance somewhere between arm’s length and the distance to the subject, and just accept that both the pencil and the subject will be a bit blurry.

Because you’re actually measuring and not just eyeballing it, it’s easier to avoid fooling yourself with mistaken assumptions about what the subject ought to look like. And, because you always hold the pencil parallel to the picture plane, you are measuring distances as projected onto the picture plane, not actual distances in space. That means you automatically get foreshortening and perspective for free, to whatever extent your measurements and sightings are accurate.

Our test subjects for measuring and sighting were stacks of three boxes. How very static.


You can see I got the scale about right, but the centering is off. We colored in the top surfaces to help evaluate how well we had reproduced the shapes: not all that well. The extra line on top of the middle box shows where its far edge ought to have been, relative to the top box.

All this measuring and sighting is very time-consuming, especially when you’re new at it. Unusually, I was a little faster at this than some of the other students, so I had time to start a second drawing.


The homework assignment was to do the same thing again: draw a stack of three boxes using measuring and sighting. Fill up the picture plane. Center the biggest box. Shade the top surfaces. Don’t erase the construction lines.


Homework 3. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: Excellent!

I didn’t really intend for the top corner of the top box to kiss the edge of the paper like that. Tolerance buildup. Lesson learned: allow more margin for error.

This is the first time I had to draw straight lines (not counting the blind drawing). These aren’t even freehand lines, they are drawn first in vine charcoal and corrected as necessary, then traced over with charcoal pencil. And the lines are still somewhat wobbly.

The last segment of the class was devoted to a video presentation on one-point and two-point perspective. It treated them as radical innovations discovered by great Renaissance artists. Pia and the video both emphasized that perspective is just one way of representing depth. I can’t deny that other traditions have used other conventions to show depth, but I can still argue that perspective isn’t just another convention. Perspective is how the world actually works. The proof is in every photograph ever taken. I find it difficult to believe that people before the Renaissance couldn’t see that their art wasn’t realistically drawn, or that talented artists were unable to reproduce what was before their eyes.

Drawing Class – Week 2

Tonight was the second session of my beginning drawing class.

We learned about contour drawing. This is a style of line drawing where the you slowly and steadily move your attention along the edge of the subject, while simultaneously moving your pencil across the paper. The idea is that you can accurately reproduce the shape of an object this way. The method forces you to see the actual shape of the object, and not the shape you know or imagine it to have. As an exercise to demonstrate the power of this technique, it’s sometimes done without looking at the paper at all: blind contour drawing. This is not very practical for any but the simplest scene, so we were allowed to peek when necessary to re-establish pencil position or manage overlapping objects: modified blind contour drawing. Once again Pia set out a variety of objects. Shoes, this time, some of which had been brought in by students. We were to pick a view including a few of these shoes and (try to) draw their outer boundaries using modified blind contour drawing.


That big blobby thing in the middle was one of my motorcycle boots. Notice there are multiple erased drawings still visible on the paper. Pia encouraged us to sketch and erase, sketch and erase. So I can’t really show you all the drawings I made, just the last one on each piece of paper.

I guess that wasn’t hard enough, because next Pia set out a bunch of sticks and twigs and we tried our hands at modified blind contour drawing those.


Hmm, that almost looks like sticks.

The other style of drawing we learned about was gesture drawing. Here the idea is to be quick and fluid, recording overall shapes and impressions expressively. We started with the lights out and eyes closed. Pia called out evocative words and we were supposed to make some marks on the paper that expressed them.


This was done rapid-fire, so I can’t remember any of the specific words or which marks were supposed to relate to them. We didn’t critique these or follow up on any of the ideas about marking styles. We were left (throughout the course, for the most part) to use the materials in whatever way seemed right to us.

Oh look, under the barrage of marks you can see one last exercise at blind contour drawing: a profile drawn from a classmate’s face. Not very flattering, alas. When I looked down at the result, it seemed that I had about the right vertical motions but all the horizontal distances were compressed.

Pia posed for us to practice gesture drawing. She held a number of poses for what seemed like several seconds each. We erased each drawing before going on to the next, so most of these are lost.


A student or two also posed for gesture drawing practice.


I really wanted to work longer on that one. It seemed like it had some potential.

The homework assignment was to set up at least three objects from the kitchen drawer. We were to do quick gesture drawings to experiment with composition until we had a good one. Then, erase the gesture drawing and do a modified blind contour drawing with charcoal pencil. I wasn’t satisfied with the first one I completed.


So I did another one to turn in.


Homework 2. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: Very good. Would you be willing to donate to my stash of “samples” for future classes? If you would rather not, that is fine!

Drawing Class – Week 1

Tonight was the first session of my first-ever drawing class, ART 40166 at UCSD Extension. The course title is Drawing: Focus on Perception (Beginning) and the instructor is Pia Stern.

(Actually, I’m writing this after the end of the course, but I chose this journal format to string the narrative together.)

The class was completely full. There were about 22 registered students there, plus several who were not registered. When everybody who had registered actually showed up, Pia sent the standby students home. There just wasn’t enough room in the studio for any more people (with each person at a drawing table). As it was, Pia was worried about how she’d be able to teach such a large group.

Aside from the usual overhead (course mechanics, no credit options, finding out everybody’s name) the main focus was on positive and negative space. We started with white Conte crayon on black construction paper. Pia arranged a number of objects on a central table, and we were to pick a grouping of several objects and fill in white wherever the objects were not.


Each student taped their drawing to the wall and we discussed them, a pattern that would be repeated throughout the course. Pia took this opportunity to start talking about dynamic composition. She set the ground rule that we’d be trying for dynamic compositions in this course, basically because they’re harder. Static compositions come naturally, but the eye for dynamic composition usually has to be trained.

This is familiar terminology, but with a specialized meaning. Dynamic refers to power (originally) or to motion or change (more commonly). Neither meaning is literally applicable here, but either one can be interpreted rather easily as a metaphor. As a semantic opposition, dynamic and static seem to refer to motion and stillness, but here we mean something only indirectly related. That something is not very precisely defined. Asked to give a definition of dynamic composition, one might be tempted to quote Justice Potter Stewart and reply, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

We were sent back to the drawing boards (!) to do basically the same exercise again, this time with an eye toward composition.


And once again, this time with charcoal on newsprint.


The class wrapped up early, and the homework assignment was to do two drawings. One white on black, and the other black on white. In each case, we were to fill in the negative spaces, without including any detail in the subject, which was to be “irregular and/or organic”. I chose plants from my backyard landscaping for both drawings.


Homework 1 Drawing 1. Grade: A. Pia’s comment: Nice work!


Homework 1 Drawing 2. Grade: B+. Pia’s comment: A little less dynamic, but still, nice.

Cave Paintings

Trying to catch up on a serious backlog, I was just reading LensWork #24 (Feb-Apr 1999). In that issue is a piece called Letter To A Young Photographer by Michael A. Smith. In it, he says in all apparent seriousness,

Different cultures and centuries provide different experiences of the world. Yet there is a common thread that runs throughout all humanity. It explains why we still thrill to the music of Bach, and why we find the cave paintings so powerfully truthful, even in reproductions in art history textbooks.

He may have a point about Bach, but cave paintings? Powerfully truthful? Please.