Drawing: Where it began and how I use it today

Seventy three thousand years ago ancient Homo sapiens picked up pieces of ochre and used them to scratch marks into stone. These are now known to be amongst the earliest drawings made by human hand, that we have found so far.

Today this behaviour is still very much recognisable to us. As children we pick up pieces of stone and scratch marks into other pieces of stone, and it seems that we simply like making marks, we like looking at things that we have made and we have a desire to communicate ideas.

There is a huge range of drawing materials available to us now, the lead pencil being the most common, although it’s not lead, it is graphite mixed with clay and baked. Sometimes we don’t even bother encasing it in wood, one of my favourite drawing materials is a solid stick of graphite. I have a thin one which is about the size of a regular pencil, and chunky one that looks a bit like a child’s crayon, and it is probably the most forgiving drawing material I’ve ever used. I can make the quickest, most random sketches and for some reason the tonal range and quality of line nearly always perfectly describes what I’m trying to achieve. It is my material of choice if I’m sketching the landscape through the window of a train or bus as it’s so easy to quickly capture something meaningful as it disappears from view.

Both of these sketches above are in graphite stick and very quickly drawn from the top deck of a bus, as you can see in the second sketch I'll sometimes make colour notes of the paint hues that come to mind as I'm looking at the landscape.

Drawing materials are available in many colours today, however amongst the most popular are charcoal and conté crayon, which are either monochrome or earth tones, very reminiscent of the earth pigments used by ancient humans. Whilst there are many artists who specialise in drawing in colour, artists in general seem to prefer to keep their drawings simple in colour, but varied in tone and weight of line. Brushes and pens are also very common and I particularly like drawing in a range of different pens. The quality of line differs greatly between the mediums used.

These three sketches are in ink using a brush, they are sketchbook studies drawn from my own reference photographs with no preliminary pencil work. I find that for sketchbook work it really helps to get the feel of the subject by not mapping it out in pencil first, the line is much more spontaneous which goes a long way to further the description of the subject. In this case I found the free brush work helped to convey the movements of the animals. These sketches were never used for any finished work, it was just fun and really good practise. I did a few and not all were successful, the drawings that don't work out help you to understand why.

Here are two more sketchbook studies from photographs, but this time I've used a mixture of images from textbooks, some of my own photographs and my knowledge of the subject as I've drawn them before. The first sketch is with a fountain pen and the second is in silverpoint, which I've written about in a previous blog. Fountain pens have a beautiful fluid line, quite different to a dip pen or fineliner. I have used a sharpened stick dipped in ink, most things are worth trying at least once, materials could be found objects as used by our ancestors.

Recording information or communicating ideas in the form of drawings or sketches develops within the individual depending upon the intended purpose. Early humans had the idea to mix pigment with water or oil, even spit, to make a liquid form from the pigmented stones, and developed this in much the same way we modify our materials today. We spend a good deal of time experimenting, using materials in a new way, or on different surfaces and we do this to either convey information that more accurately describes our ideas or to push our abilities and hone our skills to try and create something that we want to achieve. I tend to use the act of drawing to practise looking and even though I may never look at those sketches or use them when working on something else, I feel that they have served their purpose in that my understanding of how form or perspective functions has developed and my paintings have benefitted from repeated looking and recording what I see.

In this painting I was unsure of the form of Scarborough Castle as I had not drawn it from life or studied it in any particular detail. The painting isn't really about the castle, the idea is to show the very many trees that we have in our towns and cities that support a vast ecology and that we live and work in this ecosystem. The castle needed to be in the background so that distance could be shown in the painting, nevertheless I wanted the building to be recognisable and accurate.

To achieve this I practised drawing it in my sketchbook first. Technology is a wonderful invention at our disposal and I was able to enlarge my photographic reference to study the castle in detail and make a tonal drawing and a basic line sketch to become familiar with it and decide how the building would fit into the landscape and the rest of the painting.

These drawings were then referred to alongside the photo reference during the painting of the finished piece.

I find that once I’ve drawn something then I can draw it again much more easily. I don’t always sketch out the composition on my canvas with a drawing medium, I often prefer to start a painting by drawing with paint, the lines might be bold blocks, but in my mind they are still lines and I treat them as such, and then the painting develops from there.

In this case I find it useful to plan the painting through a series of tonal drawings, compositional sketches and line drawing plans. In the photographs here I have been able to make decisions about where the dark tones are, how the eye moves through the painting and where the main focal point of the picture will be. I keep these sketches visible throughout the painting and find they become more valuable as the painting progresses, more than the other reference material that I may be working from. They act as a reminder of what I wanted to achieve. It's very easy to get lost in a painting, which is great if it develops in a way that enhances your ideas, but not if perspective and focus is compromised and details or meanings are lost.

I haven't finished this painting, and I may not pick it up again for quite some time, but when I do I will have these sketches to refer to and be able to make decisions about where I want to make changes and how I want it to continue.

If you would like to further your reading about the origins of drawing, I found the article in this link an interesting place to start.


I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take some time to read the others and look around my website, shares and comments are always welcome and you can use my contact page if you want any further information about what I do.

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