Paint with your eyes!

 Helps you to see the world as an artist does.

In her book Painting on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards points out that all children draw, but over the age of about 10 only those who will go on to be an artist or artistic will continue to really see shapes as they truly are.

Most people learn symbols for what things look like, and will tend to draw these rather than the reality in front of them. So if they see and try to draw a hand or an eye, for example, they often end up drawing their learned symbol instead of observing and drawing the actual hand or eye of the model.

Maybe this explains why the ancient Egyptians painted profiles with the eyes facing us ! They’d learned a symbol for an eye and painted that instead of seeing that an eye from the side is a triangle…

…and painted heads, legs and feet in profile, while torsos were painted as if facing frontwards. Again, a symbol has been learned and repeated.

Having a learned set of symbols in our memories explains why foreshortening is so difficult to cope with – our brains keep telling us that limbs are long, not short or invisible as they truly appear when foreshortened as in these examples…

Thighs appear very short
Leg appears invisible
Arm appears distorted

To draw a convincing human figure ( or animal, or anything !) you really do have to observe and record the shapes in front of you, however unlikely. Think of the shape of a forefinger pointed at you, as in the Kitchener poster:

Drawing the silhouette of the figure / limb / hand helps with difficult foreshortening. Then fill in the details – this will be a huge help with these tricky shapes. Or try drawing the negative space around the limb / figure / animal, and this will keep your shapes accurate.

As lots of practice is the best way to keep improving your drawing, and you may not be able to do this all day long, ( !) a very good piece of advice is to draw with your eyes whenever possible. This means truly observing shapes, colours, light and dark effects ( shading) whenever you look around you during the day.

Really look at how shadows are formed, starting from the foot of the object.. and following the contours of whatever they fall on, as seen in Impressionist Pissarro’s brilliant painting Entering the Village of Voisins:

Look at the shapes and types of clouds – which are endlessly varied and constantly changing. See how the colours change towards sunset. 

Observe something and sketch it when you get home ! ( taking a photo as a reminder?) You’re training your visual memory, filling up your artistic memory banks.

Observe the shapes of different trees in summer, autumn and winter…

Look at how cast shadows fall from the foot of the object, or soft form shadows create the shape of a face ( or anything else)…

What you will be doing is improving your visual memory, so that when you come to draw or paint you already have a good idea of the shapes / tones / colours you need. Your work will be so much more convincing. You’ll be filling up your memory banks with images / shapes / tones / colours which you can use when painting, whether you are working from imagination/ memory, or from life, or from a photograph.

Photos flatten perspective, make all dark colours black, and give equal attention to everything – but a painting should recreate perspective, use a variety of rich dark colour for your deepest shadows, rather than black, and a painting can centre our attention on the focal point while a photo will usually include everything. Your visual memory will enable you to create a painting, leaving out inessentials, rather than just creating a complete copy of a photo.

Wild Sea, Costa Blanca. See my Gallery section The Sea.

Published by jancalderwood

I am an artist and art teacher working in beautiful North Northumberland. See the Meet the Artist page on this website

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