For anyone wishing to learn about representational art, drawing is an essential building block. The foundations of any art that aims to represent real objects, people or animals can be found in the use of a simple pencil and piece of paper. The real challenge is re-learning how to truly see what is in front of you. Our minds get in the way and tell us certain features are larger or smaller than they actually are.
This is the true story of the day I really learned the difference between what I thought I saw, and what was actually in front of me.
When I was 17 years old, I started taking my first life drawing classes. My first life model was a large man in his late 40s, he had an enormous belly and quite happily wandered around our studio in his birthday suit, oblivious to the embarrassed art students around him. Without exception every student including myself would draw his belly very large on paper.
My art teacher stood next to me and examined my work, he looked hard at the model sitting with his arms crossed resting on the top of his belly, and then back to my drawing. Then my teacher closed one eye and held a pencil up in front of him at full arms length, in a way I am sure you have seen many artists do on TV. After a couple of quick movements he told me do the same: to hold the pencil so one end was in line with the top of the models head, and to measure using the pencil the distance from the top of his head to the bottom of his folded arms, to mark with my finger on the pencil the point at which his arms met his belly. Then, holding that distance on my pencil he told me to measure the size of the models belly. I was astonished! The distance from the top to the bottom of his belly was the same as from the top of his head to the bottom of his folded arms. On my drawing I had made his belly almost twice the size it was in real life. I suddenly realized how much my personal judgement was affecting my drawing. I had been drawing what I thought I could see, not what I actually saw.
By drawing from life regularly (whether it is a still life fruit bowl or real people) and using the pencil method to check our measurements, we reinforce the practice of truly looking at the world around us, we learn to switch off (or at least fade down) the affect our conscious judgemental mind has on our art. Using a pencil to measure distances helps to check and recheck against what really is in front of our eyes. To truly draw realistically we need as little “mind” as possible getting in the way between our eyes and our hands. The mark of an accurate artist is that they spend more time looking at their subject than they do at their drawing, these artists are really looking.
You can use a pencil and thumb to measure not only distances but proportions and angles too, check every assumption your mind makes between sending messages from your eyes to your hands. In time you learn to “see” more quickly and your judgement becomes more accurate.