Week 6 summary – Learning to draw

Reflections on week 6

Week six of my one year journey in learning to draw was a lot of fun. It is also the first week where I missed a day of practice (day 37). Day 37 was a very busy day, and the only way I could have fit in a practice session would have been to forego sleep.

Skipping sleep is never a good idea

Missing out on sleep to do cool stuff seems like a virtue when you’re younger. In the past I would have said something like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and just pushed on. That’s all fine until you push yourself into a burnout. (NB: Here we’re talking the real deal, severe mental and physical exhaustion and depression that can kill you if you don’t get professional help.) I had a major burnout in 2006-2007. Since then I’ve recovered, but so far there is a part of me that got crushed into oblivion…a part that hasn’t come back yet. Unfortunately it was the confident, social part of me. But I digress…let’s talk about this week’s drawing practice!

RSI is not your friend

This week I learned that many artists fight an ongoing battle with RSI. I learned that this week because I discovered that my aging body REALLY doesn’t like doing the same movements over and over again for hours at a time. It’s only been 6 weeks, but I’m already having problems my wrist and hand on my drawing side. On the non-drawing side, my neck and upper back also start to complain once I’ve been working for a while. So unless I want my enthusiasm for practicing to cripple me, I am going to have to figure out the root cause of the problem. It could be posture, tension, the position of my wrist and hand…hell, any number of things.

Breaks are a necessary evil

Taking breaks is hard for me. Really hard.

When I’m in a deeply concentrated state, I HATE being interrupted by ANYTHING. Unless the house is burning down, I don’t want to know. In fact, I’ve engineered my life to minimize interruptions and distractions (which is obvious if you’ve ever tried to IM me – days can go by without my checking my phone.)

Drawing is something that very easily sends me into a flow state where I totally lose track of time. If I’m really into it, 90 minutes or more can go by without my noticing. Reminding myself to stop every 10 – 15 minutes is inherently incompatible with being in a deeply concentrated, deliberate practice style flow state. Thus the need for an external cue that can’t be ignored.

One step in the right direction was ordering a simple kitchen timer to force myself to stop and take breaks. I silence my phone for my practice sessions, and don’t even want to touch it even to set a timer. So a single-purpose mechanical device like a simple kitchen timer is the answer.

So what did I work on this week?

Week six practice exercises

This week was more practice with basic shapes, but this time Brent Eviston added the challenge of trying to see volume as well as 2D lines. There was more practice with circles and ellipses, but we moved on to using them to help draw volumetric spheres and cylinders.

Drawing freehand volumetric spheres

I had to draw 50 of the volumetric spheres as you see below. It is harder than you would think. I did see a difference between the first 10 and the last 10, though.

The first spheres of 50

Note that here I am trying to draw using my shoulder, and using the rough side of tissue paper as my drawing surface because I can’t justify wasting even newsprint paper on exercises like these (it’s about 12 Euros for a block of 100 A2 sheets of newsprint). It’s harder than you’d think to draw nice circles and ellipses. And I was supposed to only darken the ellipses on the side facing me, which I really couldn’t do for the first few spheres. I started by using a heavy Koh-i-noor mechanical pencil with a very soft lead 6mm lead (I think around 6B). It was really hard for me to get the soft lines I was going for with that pencil, so somewhere midway through I switched to a 2B mechanical pencil with 2mm lead. Compare these first ones with the second image, which were the last ones I did.

Last spheres of 50

And this was my warm-up paper from the beginning of my practice session the following day.

Warm-up spheres from next day’s session.

My spheres are very far from good, but the important thing is that they got better.

Real deliberate practice (according to Kathy Sierra, whose book BADASS is one of my all-time favorites) means breaking down a skill to a “fine grained” component that you can improve (or ideally master) in one to three 45- to 90-minute practice sessions. If you don’t see improvement after this, you have to break down the skill even further and try again.

I try to keep this in mind during my practice sessions. If I don’t see improvement in 1-3 shorter practice sessions, I’m doing something wrong. I either need to break down the skill into something even smaller and just work on that, or solicit expert feedback to see if there is something obvious (to an expert but not to me) I can fix once I know how to see it.

Another task for this week was to draw 100 cylinders. These were REALLY hard for me to do from my shoulder. I do a better job working on smaller paper flat on the table and drawing from my elbow/wrist.

To dras a cylinder you have to have good control of the size and placement of your ellipses. It’s one thing do draw an ellipse willy-nilly anywhere on the page. To draw ellipses to precisely fit the cylinder you’re going for is a whole other thing. But in any case, I did see some improvement here too over the three sessions it took me to draw 100 cylinders.

Below are my first cylinders of the bunch. The important think to note is that at this stage it took me a long time to draw each cylinder. And controlling the pencil when it came time to darken up the lines was really, really hard. Not to be blaming ny tools, but the graphite on tissue paper is really slippery and hard to control. I’m hoping that will make real paper seem easier to draw on.

first cylinders

Below you see my final 10 cylinders of the “draw 100 cylinders” assignment. It might be hard to see a big difference, but I can see that some of the ellipses are better and overall the lines are straighter. But the biggest difference is that these were much faster to draw compared to the first 10.

My final page of cylinders…finally got to 100!

Below you see my skills practice pages from a couple of days. I’m keeping samples of everything to review at the end of my year of drawing practice. It wouldn’t be reasonable to keep EVERY page…sometimes I fill a whole page with random straight lines, or random circles and ellipses. But I will save one of those pages every now and then too so I can see if there is a difference over time.

Pages of cylinder and sphere practice.

Dynamic lines

You can do a lot more with a pencil than I would have thought, and I really enjoyed the lesson on dynamic mark making. As a beginner you’re just focusing on getting the basic outline right — the shape and proportions of the thing you’re trying to draw. But the lines themselves can be very expressive. This is something that I’d never thought about before. A couple of my practice pages are below.

A cup with “dynamic lines”

Lines can also be used to suggest perspective. More detail and contrast in the foreground, and less detail and contrast in the distance. I used a photo of my back yard as a reference for practicing this. This is pretty awful as a landscape drawing, but I learned a lot from doing it.

Dynamic lines for perspective exercise with reference photo.

Using new skills

This week I also used my new skill to actually make something for somebody else. There were a couple of gifts I needed to wrap, and I used plain brown paper and drew personalized designs for the decoration. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of them! It was fun to actually apply my humble new skills to something useful.

Skills into practice – sketching a dodo

To put my ovals, circles, lines and ellipses into practice, I decided to try to draw a dodo. I have always loved images of dodos and it’s a creature that I’d like to learn how to draw. I chose a painting as reference. For this attempt I focused on getting just the basic forms, but ended up doing a bit more mainly because I wanted to try using the side of my pencil. This was all done with the overhand grip, apart from a bit of tripod grip around the eye.

I was really unhappy with how the eye turned out, so I did a separate study of just the eye. Again, I’m working with graphite on tissue paper. These aren’t drawings intended for anyone else to see…they’re just for my own practice, so there’s no point in wasting nice paper.

Graphite Sketch on tissue paper – Dodo

Here you can see my reference image.

Reference image for dodo sketch.

And here is the detail of the eye.

Detail study of rendering an eye

My drawing setup for the dodo sketch.

Note that for much of the process I hung the ipad over the top of my drawing table so I had a better line of sight.

Using a color painting as reference felt difficult. My notes for that day suggest that I try creating a monochrome version with bumped up contrast to work from. I plan to revisit this same sketch in a month or two to see if it will be better.

Thoughts going into week 7

I like how things are progressing overall. My biggest thought going into week 7 is that I need to pay attention to my body and figure out what is causing the symptoms of RSI. Having to stop altogether because of pain or injury would suck beyond words.

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