Be Systematic & Aim Small

“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P

There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.

Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.

For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.

Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.  Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.

Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.

Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.

Pencil portrait drawing
2B propelling pencil and 8B graphite stick, on A2 paper.

Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.

Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.

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