Monday Morning Art School: drapery

Drawing drapery isn’t a dated skill; it’s as fundamental to the t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today as it was to the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, undated.

I spent a lot of time painting the human figure at the Art Students League, but I never studied drapery, unless you count the drapes that might be behind a model or still-life. That’s typical, but unhelpful. In the real world, artists are far more likely to draw the clothed figure than the nude.

“The masters must be copied over and over again,” wrote Edgar Degas, “and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.” In that spirit, I’ve illustrated this post with a series of drapery studies by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. I suggest you copy them not on paper, but in creating a drape—and then draw from your draped copy.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, 1506.

The t-shirts and skinny jeans we wear today are worlds apart from the gowns, kirtles, jerkins, doublets and linen chemises of the 16th century. Modern clothing is more formless and forgiving than ever. But the principles, regardless of the fabric, remain the same.

Wherever fabric is held down or comes into contact with the underlying support, it creates a pivot point. That point is a hub from which folds radiate. That’s easiest to see if you hold a towel in your hand and let it drape. Where you’ve pinched it is the hub from which all folds originate. If you hold the same towel in both hands and let it drape, you’ll see the collision of folds from two pivot points.

Drapery study, Albrecht DĂĽrer, undated.

In clothing, there are often several points of contact, creating several different hubs. Across the back of a shirt, our two shoulder blades strain the cloth in opposition to each other. In jeans, our knees, ankles, derrieres and hipbones are all in contact with the fabric. Even in tight jeans, there will be folds, albeit subtle. Wherever the figure presses against the fabric, it makes a hub for folds.

A person and his clothing tend to move and act as one. Not only does our clothing conform to our bodies in the moment, it carries the memories of past movement. Think of the knees of your favorite jeans. That’s one reason it feels strange to borrow another person’s clothes, and why we develop old favorites we’re loath to get rid of.

This is my favorite of Albrecht DĂĽrer’s drapery studies. Undated.

To draw folds accurately, you need to see them as having shape and volume. It’s useful to see each fold as having three surfaces: a top and two sides. The valley between folds is the base from which the folds arise. You may not always see both sides, because one might be folded back, but they’re always there.

It may be difficult to puzzle out whether you’re seeing the top or sides of a fold. The answer is really immaterial, as long as you’re drawing the fold as a three-dimensional object. Folds are infinitely variable, and sometimes the top will take the form of a sharp crease, or a side will disappear for a while. Even when that happens, bear in mind that you’re drawing a three-dimensional object. Folds are never simple lines drawn over the surface of fabric.

Like the rills on a hillside, folds have a way of transmogrifying into other shapes. They twist and turn and merge into other folds, or vanish entirely. It’s helpful to block out drapery as a whole before you start drawing. Just as if you were drawing a hillside, start by measuring the big shapes and checking angles.

In your first pass, don’t worry about subtleties of shading. Think of your this phase as a plan from which you’ll draw or paint. In other words, make it clear, concise, and accurate.

When you’ve finished, you can test the accuracy of your drawing by dropping a contour line across it. Imagine a bug crawling in a straight line from one side to another. Trace that line with your pencil. When your imaginary bug hits a fold, he’ll crawl into it and out the other side. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out where your bug should go, you’ve made a drawing error or been unclear. Go back and resolve that.

Why paint that?

My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go make masterpieces on your own.
Ken, by Carol L. Douglas. Modern clothing can be so difficult to paint attractively.
Yesterday I was leaving a meeting and a friend asked, conversationally, what I’d taught in class that morning. “Drapery,” I answered.
She paused. “Drapery? Why?”
She’s a musician herself. Had I had been thinking, I could have told her, “It’s like doing voice exercises. It may seem pointless to the outsider, but it’s a technical exercise on which other skills are based.”
I prefer to teach outdoors, but there are days that’s impractical. It’s 7° F right now and by tonight it will be raining. There will be a stiff wind out of the southwest, with gusts up to 30 mph. It’s one thing to put on my insulated boiler-suit and snow boots and go paint in bad weather, but quite a different thing to ask a student to do it, or for us to have an intelligent conversation in the midst of a storm. For those working in water-media, winter conditions are particularly difficult to manage.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas. Michelle may be beautiful, but how about that sheepskin?
If there was nothing to learn indoors, I’d tell my students to just stay home on weeks like this, but a good painter should be able to paint whatever is thrown in front of him or her. That’s the virtue and fascination of January’s annual Strada Easel Challenge, where artists are encouraged to paint daily for 31 days. If you’re on Instagram, follow #stradaeasel.
Sometimes these daily exercises have great emotional depth. Yesterday, Julie Riker painted an old-fashioned electric percolator. It evoked an instant emotional memoryof the sort made famous by Marcel Proust and his tea-soaked madeleines in Ă€ la recherche du temps perdu. I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s house. 
Those percolators made darker, more-complex coffee than modern drip machines, and it smelled heavenly in the early morning before I headed off to school. We would have to wait patiently as it gurgled through its final rigamarole. There were no timers on coffeemakers back then.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. The coat over a chair is a motif of our age.
Julie may have been just painting an old percolator, but it touched a chord in me. In this case the subject was the key, but it wouldn’t have evoked without great skill in rendering the chrome surface and the awkward power cord. You can’t really call yourself an artist unless you can take any object in front of you and arrange it into a pleasing pattern.
How does knowing how to paint draped fabric make you a better landscape painter? Of course, fabric might make it into your landscape art. More importantly, there’s a specific kind of skill required in rendering fabric. It’s very low in contrast, and often dull in color, and its variations are subtle.
And then, one day, you get the opportunity to paint a silk and gold mantilla in a commission, and, bam!
Drapery plays peek-a-boo with forms, whether it’s reefed to a spar or thrown over a chair or over the shoulder of a portly man striding through the airport. Studying it is an exercise in the lost-and-found line that is at the heart of the mystery of painting, that elevates it above photography.
My job as a teacher is not to drive and correct my students into creating a perfect result in my classes. If you sign up for that, you’re going to be very disappointed. My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go on and make masterpieces on your own. If I succeed in that, my mission is complete.