Monday Morning Art School: practice makes perfect

Beautiful brushwork rests on a foundation of good preparation.

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, is in my show, Fantastic Places and Magical Realms at the Camden Public Library, month of December.

I recently came across the sketch below, of two wolves. I was surprised and pleased, because it’s something I drew about a decade or so. It became the subject of a painting I finished Friday, called Ravening Wolves, above. (You can see the whole show in the video here.)

The sketch for Ravening Wolves was much older, and was based on a personal crisis.

Stop thinking of drawing as something you have to get through, and start doing your dreaming in a sketchbook. You never know when you’ll use the images thus created.

“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. The paint creates movement and expression. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.

This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.

Christmas Eve, 6X8, is a memory of driving home from my grandmother’s house in deep snow.

The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.

That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estes and Sandro Botticelli are both linear.

Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. Acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.

The Hunter and the Hare started life as a demo. It ended up being a portrait of our midnight race to leave Patagonia

How do we develop painterliness?

First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.

Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.

Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.

Many times, artists only realize their painterliness in old age. That is when Titian started painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. However, Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness, and he died at 37.

Great painters all end up doing their work in a specific way:

  • They figure out a composition based on line, form, and value masses;
  • They transfer that to their paper or canvas;
  • They paint colors in a predetermined order, established with the invention of their medium.

In oils that protocol is:

  • Fat over lean;
  • Dark to light;
  • Big shapes to smaller shapes.

In watercolor, the order of operations is:

  • Washes to detail;
  • Dark over light (not written in stone).

Practice until you get it perfect.

Marsh paintings and why they can be truly terrible

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

I had finished writing a lecture I’d mentally subtitled “why am I torturing you like this?” That’s hard work, so I whirled away a few minutes on the internet. I came across a painting that took my breath away, for all the wrong reasons. It had no focal points, no energy, no depth of field. At the same time, the brushwork was easy and assured. It was obviously not this painter’s first rodeo.

I’m not interested in embarrassing another artist, so I made a fair copy of it while teaching my class. (That way you can laugh at my bad painting, not someone else’s.) I did mine on cheap demo paper, which means there isn’t much staccato in the scumbling, but that’s really the only difference. That I could copy it while talking about something else is a good indicator of its lack of complexity.

My fair copy of a boring marsh painting.

This is an example of what I call “marsh painting.” I really need a better term, for there are brilliant painters of marshes. My pal Mary Byrom is a great example. She reduces the salt marshes of southern Maine into simple shapes that are dynamic, colorful and evocative. The secret, of course, is that Mary draws brilliantly and works tirelessly at her craft.

The bad marsh painter is visually lazy. He or she does not look at the marsh as a surface that recedes in space, but as a series of flat bands that overlap the horizon. Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer demonstrated that it’s possible to do this very well, but neither of them did it in lieu of drawing.

Inlet, 9X12, available through Camden Public Library.

A marsh painter may have heard that he “needs a path into the painting,” and will put a stream running back in S-curves to the distance. This recommendation was meant as a visual, not a literal, recommendation. It really means that you need some kind of compositional structure to anchor your painting. If that’s an S-curve, it ought not be as blatant as a lazy river.

The marsh painter shies away from anything difficult. Houses, people, automobiles, and boats are all tough to draw. It’s far better to stick to trees and grasses. And there—they believe—they’ve found their métier, in the tireless (and tiresome) representation of blades of grass and branches. But detail is never a substitute for good painting.

I don’t begrudge people painting for fun, but I assume you read this blog because you’re interested in being the best painter you can be. Learning to draw is the first requirement. Anyone who’s not mentally handicapped can learn to draw. Period. And drawing will give you the courage to tackle more difficult subjects in paint. Since I can’t teach everyone, I recommend this book.

Prom Shoes, 6X8, Carol L. Douglas. $435 framed. It’s all about that negative space, baby!

But, moving beyond drawing, there are basic principles to good painting:

I’ve just given you a reading list that will keep you out of the bars until Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

You can’t abstract if you can’t draw

Try reducing one of these paintings to a notan, and you’ll realize just how much drawing underpins this seeming simplicity.

Plein air painting by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

“Why are you teaching us self-portrait?” a student recently asked me. The human face is the most demanding subject to draw, because very slight errors make a huge difference. It teaches the artist to use angles and distance to measure. And we might as well start with our own faces, since they’re the ones we know best.

“But I’m interested composition and color, not drawing!” my student responded. That’s like saying you’re interested in literature without first learning to sound out your letters. Drawing is the foundation of everything that follows.

Tara Wills’ lily pond painting from this week, courtesy of the artist.

Yesterday, I came across the above plein air painting by Tara Will, a pastel painter from Maryland. I don’t know Tara well, but what I do know, I like—both personally and professionally. We met doing plein air events, where she created work that seemed fast, effortless, and stylish. That’s deceptive; her work is underpinned with strong fundamentals, and she works hella hard at it.

Like all great literature, Tara’s lily pond painting is a complex story told with great economy. Count the shapes; they’re limited. She’s abstracted her subject to its absolute essentials. That’s where uninformed critics of modern art sometimes go off the rails; they think simplified drawing should be easier than working out the details. In fact, it’s the culmination of years of thinking and winnowing.

Tara started with a perfectly-executed perspective drawing of the surface of the water. Note how she draws you back along that plane before crashing headlong into the far shore. Without that draftsmanship, the painting would have collapsed into an unintelligible mess. Lesser painters sometimes conceal their lack of drawing skills with a muddle of details. These ‘marsh paintings’ are drearily similar and uninspiring.

Plein air painting by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

It would be nice to be able to buy a box of pastels and immediately tap into this sort of vibrancy, but color is more complicated than that. Resting under Tara’s effortless explosions of color is a complex and well-reasoned value structure.

It’s been said that “value does all the work; color gets the credit.” That’s an absurdity, because value is just one aspect of color, along with hue and saturation.

However, it is true that value is the first thing the human eye and mind read when they see a color pattern. Our brains are strongly programmed to interpret value patterns, and great artists have always taken advantage of that. Think first of value, and you can substitute a range of hues and saturation for what’s really there. The viewer’s mind will interpret the pattern, and have fun doing it.

Plein air painting with strong contre-jour, by Tara Will, courtesy of the artist.

But, again, that rests on a solid foundation of drawing and pattern making. The more Tara deviates from what’s there in terms of hue and saturation, the more she needs a solid value anchor. That’s especially true of contre-jourpainting, where the light comes from behind the subject, as in the painting above.

I picked out four of Tara’s recent plein air works to share with you. Her studio work is here. Try reducing one of these paintings to a notan, and you’ll realize just how much study underpins this seeming simplicity.

Verisimilitude

Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

I’m in Boston waiting to board a plane. Logan International Airport bears scant resemblance to the historic city it serves (except for the inexplicable popularity of Dunkin’ Donuts). I can say that because I know Boston.

I’ve never been to Houston, but I will see it from the air since I have a layover there. I know it only by reputation: it’s big, new and southern.

Beauchamp Point, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, is available through the Camden Public Library.

If I were to write a novel set in a contemporary city, which of these would be the sensible choice?

“Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unexpected, short cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.  

We’ve shortened that to the pithy statement “write what you know,” but that loses the point of Stevenson’s pronouncement. Intimate knowledge is a spur to creativity, because it places facts at the disposal of your subconscious brain. (It also stops you from making stupid mistakes, but that’s really the lesser consideration.)

Home Port (Rockport), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 24X36, is available through the Camden Public Library.

The same is true of painting. To paint well, you have to know your subject. When my show opened at the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library last Friday, my very first visitor asked me, “Are you from Maine?”

That’s a loaded question; it usually means “Were you born here, and your parents and grandparents, up to and including seven generations?” The answer, of course is, no—I’m from Buffalo and proud of it.

She was surprised. “You’ve caught the Maine of my childhood,” she said. “The real Maine.” I heard variations on that comment several times over the evening, enough that I started to consider what it meant.

Clark’s Island, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 8X10, is available through the Camden Public Library.

In Maine, people talk about ‘the dooryard.’ That’s a fine old term that’s fallen into disuse in the rest of America. It means that area around the door that everyone actually uses (which is not generally the front door). Paint Maine houses enough, and that dooryard emerges as something important. It doesn’t matter if you can articulate how or why you’re thinking about it; it will become a focus of your painting in a form louder than words.

That sort of truth-telling starts with careful observation, and observation in painting means drawing. We’ve somehow dropped that from our toolbox, but learning accurate drawing is the basis of all visual communication. It’s no different (or more difficult) than learning your times tables or how to sound out letters. And it’s just as basic and useful a skill.

“When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work,” wrote artist Howard Ikemoto. “I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’”

I’m on my way to Mexico for a family wedding. I’ll be back on the weekend.

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 Dürer, 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 Dürer, 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 Dürer, 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 Dürer’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.

The four steps of landscape drawing

Being technically accurate frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.
Observation

I once took an artist on a long loop to see all my favorite painting sites here in midcoast Maine. “But there’s nothing to paint,” she wailed. She was suffering an extreme case of sensory overload. We all experience this to some degree when we’re forced to buckle down to work. We’re asking ourselves to choose one subject among an infinite number of possibilities. And the obvious and iconic may not make the best (or most interesting) painting.

We all want to jump quickly into painting, but the better path is to spend some time relaxing and looking. I prefer to do this with a sketchbook and a lawn chair. If you’ve spent 10 minutes just drinking in the beauty, and then do four thumbnails of different scenes, you haven’t ‘wasted time.’ You’ve saved yourself immeasurable amounts of work on mediocre paintings, by answering the following questions:

  • Where does the visual strength in this composition lie?
  • How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  • How can I crop my drawing to strengthen the composition?

Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed.

Measurement

At some point, you need to get precise. Fast, loose painting rests on a base of good drawing. If you haven’t been taught to measure with a pencil, start here, hereand here.

People tell me all the time, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” It depresses me, because drawing is a technical exercise, and anyone can learn it, just as they learn to write or do arithmetic.

I recommend the book Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard E. Scott. It’s a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation. Books and classes that focus on the interpretive side of drawing are not useful for the artist who needs to get things right, so before you sign up, make sure that teacher, video, or book is actually teaching drawing, not some form of self-analysis with a pencil.

Beach erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Interpretation

Being technically accurate, oddly enough, frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see. We all paint through the filter of our own experience, values and aspirations. That’s why one artist will edit out the power lines and trash cans on a street scene, and another will focus on them.

But there’s a deeper level at which this happens, and that’s in the colors, forms and shapes themselves. They’re tied to your subconscious. Within the rubric of ‘good composition’ or ‘good taste’ are infinite variations. What you perceive is highly individual, so your interpretation will also be individual.

Marshall Point, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Reiteration

The first three phases are all essentially input—identifying, measuring, and analyzing the subject you’re painting. The final business of producing a work of art is collecting all that input and restating it on your canvas or paper. If you’ve done the first three steps conscientiously, this last step should be relatively relaxed and free. It should also go quickly. Your own ‘handwriting’, in the form of brush or pencil work, will be unfettered and loose.

Are you a tortoise or a hare?

The person for whom drawing comes easily may not end up being the best draftsman.

Shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

One of my students is a retired violinist. We were musing on the question of technique last week. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” she said. “Perfect practice makes perfect.” An aspiring violinist can spend hours dragging a bow across strings, but if someone hasn’t told him about rosin, the resulting caterwauling will be awful.

As a hater of school and generally bad student (I never could sit still) I was probably more self-taught than I was educated. But, to be honest, there’s still very little ‘self’ in my education. My father taught me to draw and paint when I was a child. I then revised my technique at the Art Students League in New York. Whenever I come up against a technical barrier I can’t get over, I find someone who has solved that problem and I study their technique, either by taking a workshop from them or reverse-engineering one of their paintings.

Baby monkey, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

This past week, I promised my Zoom students the most difficult class they’d ever work through. (You can read it on my blog here.) I also assured them that, if they were patient and mastered what I was teaching, they would immediately be much better artists. That’s because most painters trip up in the drawing phase. Angles and measurements are the root of all drawing.

When people say someone is ‘talented’, they usually mean that person can draw well. But that’s not an innate skill; it’s learned, even by those of us for whom it seems almost intuitive. There will be some of us who can push our skills to become NASCAR drivers, but the majority of us can learn to draw as fluently as we can drive.

Saran wrap and stuffed toy, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m someone for whom drawing comes easily. It’s taken me a long time to realize that can actually be an impediment to real skill. Because people like me can see spatial relationships quickly, without having to think through them, we don’t always take the time to measure. That’s great, except when our intuition fails us—and it will. The human mind is stubbornly attached to regularity. Left to its own devices, my brain will shorten long distances, generalize the shapes of trees, and otherwise cut corners. Artists who rely on their intuitive drawing skills will never understand why all their rocks look the same and their trees have no character.

Meanwhile, our tortoises struggle to draw an ellipse, and find the business of measuring difficult. Still, they persevere and practice. They draw through their daily lunch break, taking fifteen minutes a day to measure and depict the most prosaic things—a box of tissues, their keys. Suddenly—aha!—the idea of angles as a tool of measurement makes sense. They suddenly understand that the same technique they used to measure their car keys can also be used to mark off the rivulets and turns of a river valley, or a mountain range. It takes them longer to get to the stage where they can draw anything, but—unlike our intuitive draftsman—they learn to draw those things accurately.

Happy New Year, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

Cornelia Fossonce told me that her painting teacher made her draw a matchbox one hundred times. Today, she is able to play with paint handling and composition precisely because her drawing is so perfect.

I have to admit that I didn’t like that lesson when Cornelia handed it out, but I’ve come to appreciate it. If you want to be a better artist, sublimate your inner hare. Be a bit more of a tortoise. Take the time to learn to draw accurately, and your painting will improve immeasurably.

Monday Morning Art School: anyone can draw

Drawing is a series of actions, rather like dance. It can be learned, just like any other process.

Teachers sometimes tell their students to hold the pencil fully outstretched. I disagree, because moving it up and down and sideways makes you move in an arc, as Sandy demonstrates, above. 

Drawing starts with measurement. Get that right, and everything else is just details.

1. Put yourself a few feet from the object you want to draw. Make sure you’re comfortable.

2. Hold your pencil between your thumb and fingers as shown. Most art teachers tell you to do your measurements with your arm completely outstretched; I prefer to have my arm loose and to visualize an imaginary plate glass window I’m running my pencil along.

Instead, hold your pencil loosely and comfortably, as if there were a plate glass window along which you were running the pencil. You will have to recheck your measurements frequently, but you should be doing that anyway.

3. Close one eye and focus on the pencil.

4. Holding your pencil upright and straight, align the point of your pencil with the top of the vase.

5. Slide your thumb down the pencil until it is at the bottom of the vase. This is now one unit of measurement in space.

Your pencil is your ruler. You are measuring ratios and then transferring them to the paper. (Note: my ratios look slightly different from what Sandy was seeing because I drew the picture later, from a slightly different angle.)

6. Put marks on your paper where you want the top and bottom of the vase to end up. This is now one unit of measurement on your paper. It doesn’t have to be the same size as your unit of measurement on your pencil.

7. Go back and line your pencil up again with the vase so that it fills the pencil from the point to your thumb. Now raise the pencil so you are measuring the flowers. Are they as tall as the vase?  Twice as tall? Half as tall? When you’ve determined this, add another mark to your paper to indicate where the top of the flowers should be. This should be the same ratio on paper as it was in space. But one unit on your pencil does not need to be one unit on your paper. What you draw can be much bigger than what you measure, as long as they are proportional.

Recheck the height with your pencil and then flip it to see how the width of the vase compares. It’s that simple. 

8. Go back and recheck the measurement on the vase height. Then just flip your pencil sideways and see how wide the vase looks in comparison to its height. Is the object as wide as it is tall? Twice as wide? Half as wide? Once you’ve determined this, go ahead and put horizontal marks on your paper to represent the width of the vase.

9. Turn your pencil to the side and observe that the flowers are about 2 or 2.5 times as wide as the vase (depending on where you’re standing).  Make those marks on your picture.

It really doesn’t matter where you start measuring or what order you measure in. You will figure out a system that works for you.

10. Once you have the proportions of the objects marked out, mark in the big shapes with a light pencil and then start breaking them down into smaller shapes. You are well on your way to drawing the object. 

Once you have the measurement hash marks in place, draw in the big shapes and start breaking them down into smaller shapes. The rest is just details.

Your assignment is to practice this. The more you practice accurate measurement, the better your painting will be. Next Monday I will talk about using angles and negative space to measure.

Go ahead, Senators. Doodle.

If you’re fidgety, it will help you hear better.

Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
“I just heard on the news that Rand Paul has been sketching during the impeachment trial. One of the reporters added that Paul was really good at drawing,” my pal texted me last week.
Paul has been good at keeping his drawing on the low-down, however. Neither my friend nor I could find any examples online. (Perhaps that’s because there was a mid-century advertising art director named Paul Rand, whom Google likes better for art.)
Drawing is much better than a fidget-spinner, I said to a friend. He strongly disagreed. “They should be paying attention!”
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
As a former hyperactive student (they hadn’t invented ADHD back then), I know that not all of us are wired to sit still and listen. I’m married to a church musician, which means that occasionally I sit through two services. I can do it because I also draw in church. I’m paying enough attention that I could tell you—in some detail—how the pastor changed up his sermon between the two services.
That’s a little different from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who read a book during the trial. “Busy mamas are the best at multi-tasking. Try it,” she tweeted.
She’s flat-out wrong. You can’t hear and read words at the same time and process them both. They’re using parallel channels in the brain. To some degree, multitasking is a myth. Yes, you watch TV while folding laundry, but when you try to do two high-end brain tasks at once, you’re overflowing your working memory, inhibiting creative thinking, and reducing productivity.
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
Occasionally, my students will mention that they see things differently once they start to draw or paint. That’s because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action.
Before the invention of the camera, all educated people were expected to know how to draw. Being able to depict something was almost as important as writing. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line.”
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
That’s why I still love this old news from Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
Kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Why they stop is not well-studied, but cultural factors surely play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Church sketch by Carol L. Douglas
I sketch in church because I process words better when my hands are in motion. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit. But try applying that principle to school or some workplaces, and rationality breaks down. The modern answer to restlessness and anxiety is drugs. That’s criminal.
Dr. Landin knows that drawing an object cements it in the mind in a way that simple observation cannot do. My experiences drawing in church tell me that the same thing is true about abstract concepts like grace or community.
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Society would do well to remember that.

Monday Morning Art School: ellipses with a recipe thrown in

Learn how to draw a pie plate, dish, cup, or vase. I’m throwing in my pie crust recipe, so you can learn to make a pie, too.

When drawing round objects, we have to look for the ellipses, which are just elongated circles. Ellipses have a horizontal and a vertical axis, and they’re always symmetrical (the same on each side) to these axes.
The red lines are the ellipse and its vertical and horizontal axes. The two sides of the axes are mirror images of each other, side to side and top to bottom.
This is always true. Even when a dish is canted on its side, the rule doesn’t change; it’s just that the axes are no longer vertical or horizontal to the viewer.
Same axes, just tipped.
As always, I started by taking basic measurements, this time of the ellipse that forms the inside rim of the pie plate. (My measurements won’t match what you see because of lens distortion.)
This was where I learned that I couldn’t balance a pie plate on the dashboard in my husband’s old minivan.
An ellipse isn’t pointed like a football and it isn’t a race-track oval, either.
It’s possible to draw it mathematically, but for sketching purposes, just draw a short flat line at each axis intersection and sketch the curve freehand from there.
The inside rim of the bowl.

There are actually four different ellipses in this pie plate. For each one, I estimate where the horizontal axis and end points will be. The vertical axis is the same for all of them.

The horizontal axis for the bottom of the pie plate.

Next, I find the horizontal axis for the rim, and repeat with that. It’s the same idea over and over. Figure out what the height and width of each ellipse is, and draw a new horizontal axis for that ellipse. Then sketch in that ellipse.

Three of the four ellipses are in place.

Because of perspective, the outer edge of the rim is never on the same exact horizontal axis as the inner edge, but every ellipse is on the same vertical axis. We must observe, experiment, erase and redraw at times. Here all four ellipses are in place. Doesn’t look much like a pie plate yet, but it will.

Four ellipses stacked on the same vertical axis.

If I’d wanted, I could have divided the edge of the dish by quartering it with lines. I could have then drawn smaller and smaller units and gotten the fluted edges exactly proportional. But that isn’t important right now. Instead, I lightly sketched a few crossed lines to help me get the fluting about right. It’s starting to look a little more like a pie plate.

The suggestion of rays to set the fluted edges.

Now that you’ve tried this with a pie plate, you can practice with a bowl, a vase, a wine glass, or any other glass vessel.

Voila! A pie plate!

Meanwhile, here’s my pie-crust recipe. Nobody in their right mind would ask me to cook, but I can bake.

Double Pie Crust

2.5 cups all-purpose white flour, plus extra to roll out the crusts
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons lard, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.
8 tablespoons butter, slightly above refrigerator temperature, cut into ½” cubes.
7 teaspoons ice water
Thoroughly blend the dry ingredients. (I use a food processor, but the process is the same if you’re cutting the fat in by hand.) Cut in the shortening (lard and butter) with either a pastry blender or by pulsing your food processor with the metal blade. It’s ready when it is the consistency of coarse corn meal. (If it’s smooth, you’ve overblended.) Sprinkle ice water over the top, then mix by hand until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough seems excessively dry, you can add another teaspoon of ice water, but don’t go nuts.
Divide that ball in two and flatten into disks. Wrap each disk in wax paper, toss the wrapped disks into a sealed container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.
Don’t worry if the dough appears to be incompletely mixed or the ball isn’t completely smooth; mine comes out best when it looks like bad skin.
Let the dough warm just slightly before you start to roll it out. And while you don’t want to smother the dough with flour when rolling, you need enough on both the top and the bottom of the crust that it doesn’t stick. If you’re doing this right, you should be able to roll the crust right up onto your rolling pin and unroll it into your pie plate with a neat flourish.
(If you’ve never rolled out a pie crust, watch this.)
I use this crust for single- or double-crusted, fruit and savory pies.