How to Draw Well

How many of you have a sketchbook? How many have it within 5 feet of you right now? I carry a sketchbook with me at all times. Ideas, images and nice buildings pop up around every street corner and, seemingly, at every café I find myself spending any time. Some friends over at the RISD Graduate School of Architecture invited me to give a talk about how to draw. I normally don’t think about how to draw, I just draw. But, this exercise in self-understanding was informative, and made me realize that I had not thought in detail about artistic technique since teaching drawing class at the University of Miami with Rocco Ceo. Thanks again to Emily and the RISD Graduate Architecture Program for making be ask myself how I draw. It starts with the sketchbook.

Lesson One: Strengthening Your Mind’s Eye

 

As a kid I had a large, almost cartoon like, art teacher who talked about your mind’s eye. This was an abstract idea at the time, but I have carried the concept along with me throughout my education and into professional practice. To draw well you need to be able to see well. Your visual reference library must be extensive, and your powers of observation finely tuned.

Here’s a little test. Pick an object in view. Give yourself a few moments to really look at it, don’t worry I’ll wait. Study its shape, color, details, ornament and all the other unique features that make it memorable. Now, close your eyes and reconstruct the object in your mind. Keep them closed for 30 seconds. Open and without looking at the object again draw it… How did you do? Now try it again, but this time instead of just looking at the object make a quick sketch of it in your trusty sketchbook. The simple act of observing and documenting helps upload the object into your minds reference library.

Building these reference images is a vital part of being able to draw well. However, the simple practice of trying to copy something with pad and pencil is just as important. As a designer and urbanist I have come to enjoy not only observing our built and natural environment, but also sifting through the city or university libraries for volumes of plans and images. If one strikes my fancy I make a quick sketch of it. With careful observation, I copy the details, proportions and signature elements of a design. Hopefully, through the process learning not only what makes the design remarkable, but also committing those elements to memory so that one day in the future I might come to reference them again.

There is only so much you can learn from sitting in a library sketching from books. One needs to travel to further enhance the mind’s library. The images associated with this post are from several of my travel sketchbooks. Over the years, I have come to find that there is valuable urban and architectural design lessons to be learn all around us. Documenting these lessons with watercolor, pen or pencil has been essential to strengthening my mind’s eye. I have found that the best sketchbooks for the field are Moleskins. This is no surprise to those who have used these books before. They are sturdy, well sized and have good paper options.

Too often today the digital photo is taken in exchange for the field sketch. Photographs will not improve your drawing abilities, and most certainly will not strengthen you mind’s eye as much as a field sketch. Now, I am not saying don’t take photos. I have built up a photo library of thousands of images. Buildings, streets, squares, retail, homes and everything else that I find both inspiring, and regrettable, has been photographed and archived in a digital library. As this database has grown it has become a great addition to the travel sketches. However, make sure your digital library is well organized with tags and a smart folder structure. Having had to rebuild my library a few times, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a smart way to organize your photos that allows for quick searching. Building a great digital library in addition to your mind’s library is great, but only if you can find what you are looking for with minimal effort. I’ll post more info on the details of my Aperture digital library in later posts under this topic.

There are a lot of other great exercise you can do to strengthen your mind’s eye. If you are interested in some of the theory behind this you can check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence.

To review: carry a sketchbook, draw everything, travel and document what you find inspiring, and set up a well organized digital library to supplement the one between your ears.

Stay tuned for “How to Draw Well Part 2: The Power Sketch” and “How to Draw Well Part 3: Draw Stories, Not Lines”. Here are a few more travel sketches for your enjoyment… let me know what you think.

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