Sketching a Posing Pirate: Figure Drawing Tips

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper

Pirate, Cutlass and Whiskey, Conte pencil on black paper, approx. 20×18 inches

After posing nude for a couple of hours, our wonderful male model dressed in a pirate costume, complete with plastic sword,  with sea shanty and pirate songs playing on the stereo. He was such a delight, with a warm smile and a white beard ending in a long, skinny braid. I used four Conté Pencils in white, black, sepia and sanguine on black pastel paper for this long pose (90 minutes).

I’m finding more ease with life drawing lately as I apply the techniques I’ve been taught over the years but that hadn’t “clicked” until now. Finally I’m willing to do a little measuring of lines, shapes and angles instead of “just going for it,” which is fun, but always wonky (not that my drawing isn’t still wonky, even when I do my best to measure—but I’ve also learned that “wonky” is what gives work our own style and I like my wonky.)

Three resources that have helped me learn to draw better:

  1. The book Sketching – from Square One … to Trafalgar Square that explains better than I can, techniques to improve your drawing.
  2. Sadie Valeri’s excellent student handout that I got when I took a workshop at her studio, which she has generously given me permission to share with you: sadie-valeri_draw_block-in_08-2013-2 (PDF Download).
  3. Sadie Valeri’s free video demonstration of how to do a “Straight Line Block In.” All of her videos are excellent, free or paid. She is one of the most generous and clear teachers that I’ve studied with. She is brilliant at lifting the veil between the subject, your eyes and your brain so that you can see what’s really there and draw it.

Here are the ways I practiced some of these techniques in this drawing:

  • first determined whether the subject is wider or narrower using a skinny stick (e.g. a bamboo skewer or knitting needle) held at arm’s length to compare both directions so I know whether to place the drawing and the paper in portrait (tall) or landscape (wide) orientation.
  • marked where I want the top and bottom of the drawing on the paper (to avoid decapitation or leg/foot amputations).
  • measured the size of the model’s head with the skewer, marking the size on the stick with my thumb and then moving down his body, measuring how many heads fit from his chin to the lowest part of his body (e.g bottom of foot). In this case there were 5 heads.
  • divided the space between the top and bottom marks on the paper into 5 equal sections, using the sepia pencil so it wouldn’t show much.
  • noted where on the models body each of those “head” divisions were (e.g. chin bottom, right knee top, left knee top, right foot bottom, left foot) and indicated that on the paper. I also noted how many “heads” wide the subject was at the widest part and marked that.
  • sketched the head in its section.
  • held up the skewer along the angles from the top of the head out to the sides to find the shape of the imaginary “envelope” that the pirate’s body would fit into and drew those lines lightly on the paper (see Sadie’s handout).
  • broke that envelope down into smaller and more exact shapes, looking for negative space shapes and angles to help find the shapes that made up his body parts.
  • continued doing the same, ending with the feet, which I didn’t quite finish as time ran out.
  • drew the whiskey bottle (which was actually empty) during model breaks.

The model asked to take a photo of my drawing at the end of class. That was a first…and a great payoff to practicing the tools!

Painting with Gouache: Color Charts, Zorn Palette, Brush Tests

Zorn Palette color chart in gouache, 10x8 inches in A4 Moleskine

Zorn Palette color chart in gouache, 10×8 inches in A4 Moleskine

In trying to learn more about gouache I made a few color charts. I’m using mostly M. Graham gouache which I like much better than the Winsor & Newton and Schmincke I used before. The Graham gouache is creamy and brilliant, rewets well and doesn’t smell (like the W&N). I found that using fresh-squeezed gouache is more fun to work with than rewetting dried paint, but frugality keeps me trying to reuse dried. The best solution is to set up a palette for each session, squeezing out tiny blobs, adding more as needed.

Above is an exploration of the Zorn palette in gouache, a limited palette using only Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, White, and Black. The black paint, when mixed with white, is meant to serve as blue since it is a cool color that can look blue next to warm colors. Next I want to try using it in an actual painting.

M. Graham Gouache paint chart, gouache in A4 Moleskine, 10x4 inches

M. Graham Gouache paint chart, gouache in A4 Moleskine, 10×4 inches

Above is a chart of my gouache colors straight from the tube and mixed with white and each other. Sadly when I removed the masking tape it pulled off some of the paper from the extra large Moleskine watercolor notebook that is my current journal. I don’t recall previous Moleskine WC notebooks having that problem but I’ve switched to low-tack tape now.

Before ordering any new brushes specifically for gouache I wanted to see how the brushes I already had might work so did the test below. I found a few that I liked and ordered a couple of others. I’ll do another post about my gouache palette and brushes I’ve settled on soon.

Old brushes-testing for gouache

Old brushes-testing for gouache

Two Sunflower Survivors with Process Chart

Two Survivors, oil painting of sunflowers and white vase on linen panel, 7x5 in

Two Survivors, oil painting on linen panel, 7×5 in

Persistence, patience, perseverance, determination, curiosity, courage, confidence, wonder…these are all qualities needed to become a better painter. Another essential is learning to really see and understand the subject. I titled this painting (available hereTwo Survivors because only these two survived from the big bouquet during the week I struggled with two previous sunflower “studies” (aka failed paintings). Sometimes it takes a while before the “blinders” fall away so that I can see the shapes, colors, and values instead of the named bits (e.g. petal, leaf, or nose) that interfere with seeing as a painter.

I was inspired by artist Chris Beaven (whose sunflower painting I purchased and love) by his Session Detail charts that he embeds at the end of each post (sample). I modified his chart to create one for myself to focus my goals and intentions for each session and the painting as a whole. Completing  the chart at the end of each painting session with image, results and plans/goals for the next session is making a big difference in my process and helps me avoid random, unfocused messing about with paint.

Below is the chart I used for this painting. If you’d like to see all three session charts for this painting with my notes about goals, composition mistakes and corrections, and corresponding images, click here to open 3-page PDF file.

Session 1 Detail Chart (Click image to enlarge or click PDF link above to see all 3 sessions)

I loved the original painting of the vase in Session 1 above, with wonderful warm highlights and cool shadows created by the new LED lightbulb I’m experimenting with. My intuition told me to leave the vase alone but instead I started adding the pattern from the actual vase. After a few strokes I realized I didn’t like it and tried to wipe the pattern off the still wet paint. Then I tried to return to the original shapes of color, temperature and value.

I revised the chart layout after this painting. In my next post (another sunflower still life) I’ll include the completed chart for that painting’s 6 sessions and a blank template for anyone who wants to experiment using or modifying it for their own artwork sessions.

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