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Drawing from Life Made Easier: A Lesson from Seurat

Updated on July 2, 2013

A Lesson from Seurat

One of the wonderful things about drawing from life, or drawing from direct observation, is that you don't have to draw from a photo!

But (you may ask) isn't drawing from a photo easier? The camera, we think, records with unerring accuracy. In actuality, though, photographs present images that are distorted from the way we actually see with our human eyes. This is partly because a camera sees with one eye, while we see an image fused by our brain from the twin inputs of our eyes. Also, the camera records images on a flat piece of film or electronic chip, while our eyes "record" images on the curved inner screen of our retinas. I will save for another hub a more in-depth, technical explanation of why these differences cause a considerable difference between direct eyesight and eyesight via the photographic image.

Anyhow, unless you are an artist/illustrator with considerable experience in such matters, making a drawing or painting that is based on a photo will probably yield results that fall far short of your artistic potential, although you may not realize it. Also, it denies you the opportunity to cultivate your powers of observation and perception to their fullest. So--- DON'T let the thought of drawing from life intimidate you! If you prepare properly, it can be an experience of surprising intensity as you learn to channel those powers of perception and observation. You will feel like a superhero feels when they learn to harness and control their superpowers! And I think you will find, after a little practice, that it's easier than you think!

How to prepare? Well, for starters, you can learn several methods of "making it easier to draw from life", by studying for a few minutes the above drawing by Seurat. Suerat is more widely known for his pointillist paintings, in which small dabs or dots of pure, unmixed paint are applied to a canvas. When seen from very close up, the viewer may see just individual "dots". From a few feet away, the viewer's eyes "blend" the colors optically.


The Simplicity of Seurat

Drawing Made Easy!

Of course, the pointillist technique seems like a slow, laboriousprocess. On the other hand, Seurat's drawing technique seems verylabor-saving!

Notice also how Seurat is able to achieve a wide variety of effects with his technique, as can be seen in the additional three drawings shown at the right. How does he achieve it?

Well, first the drawing media he used: strongheavy-textured paper, drawn on with a somewhat oily, chalk-like contecrayon.

Next, notice the way he simplifies the forms in a manner thatis realistic and representational, yet somewhat abstracted, emphasizingthe underlying geometry and structure. He does not spend time getting bogged down in small details (although these drawings are accurate enough to serve as studies for a very detailed image).

A key to such simplification and"representational abstraction" is the way in which Seurat LIGHTS thesubject. A skillful artist can to some degree create or adjust lightingeffects that are not actually present in the real scene. However, Ibelieve that when Seurat made this drawing, the model was actually litby a strong directional lighting from one or more real light sources.

Noticehow the patterns of light and dark make it easy to break the figure andbackground up into interesting shapes. Some areas of the drawing havestrong contrasts: a dark edge against a light background, or a brightedge against a dark background. Yet there are also areas where Seuratallows "lost edges", such as the bottom center of the drawing, where itis hard to see the exact boundary between the model's dark pants and the dark pool of cast shadow below. Look at the drawing long enough,let your eye roam freely and naturally over the page, and after awhileyou will find your eyes "adjusting", in a way that may remind you of the way your eyesadjust after you enter a darkened room. Although the visual adjustment is notliterally the same kind, the feeling is similar, because you start todistinguish details and interpret the meanings of shapes that weren'tvisible to you at first.

So, if you want to follow Seurat'slead in achieving bold results, yet with economy and simplicity, Iwould recommend first of all learning to control lighting. You may actually want topractice at first with a still life, before working your way up to ahuman model. Every-day objects like bottles, cans, boxes, pots, pans,etc. etc. can be set up to make a still life arrangement. You don'thave to make it complicated, especially since you can use lighting tobreak the forms up into even more interesting patterns of light anddark. If you are using items that are "throw-aways" you can even applya coat of white paint to them. This makes it easier to focus on lightand dark, rather than having to worry about many shades of color atfirst. (This is similar to the idea of learning to draw from whiteplaster casts).

Most drawing studios at schools have tracklighting arrangements, as well as free-standing lamps, that can bepositioned and switched on or off for various lighting effects. If you are working at home and don't have an elaborated studio set-up, youwill probably still have plenty of lighting options to choose from.Besides normal overhead lights, you can use a corner lamp, or a desklamp. Of course you can also take advantage of sunlight. If you do use sunlight, indirect light from a north-facing window will make it easier to avoid rapid changes in the direction of the light that you would get from a south-facing window (as well as over-intensity).

You can also take a lesson from photographers, and usea REFLECTOR, which can simply be a piece of white posterboard positionedsomewhere outside "the picture" to reflect more light back onto thedarker side of the subject. Think of the intense direct light as the "sunlight" of your picture, and the gentler light bounced back from the reflector as the "moonlight".

Once you have set up your still life arrangement andlighting the way you want it, you will need the paper and drawing mediayou plan to use. You don't have to use conte crayon, although Seuratcertainly made very good use of it. Other options would be some kind ofcharcoal or pastel. A stick of charcoal or pastel or conte crayon withflat sides is good for labor-saving purposes, because you can use theentire length of the side to lay down broad strokes or sweeps of tone.Keep in mind that if you are using paper with a heavy texture, a lighttouch will be enough to transfer tone from a soft piece of charcoal.

Youcan start with light pressure, and as the basic composition takes shapeoverall, return to some areas to lay down darker and darker tones withheavier pressure. In a way, it will be like watching a photographdevelop. As for paper, eventually you'll probably want to find somegood quality, acid-free paper on which your drawings will last for along time. But when you're just starting out, one way to save money atfirst is to use something like coarse newsprint, or brown kraft paper(the kind often used for wrapping parcels). These types of paper arenot acid-free, so drawings made on them won't be archival quality. But,you can afford to practice more, and therefore might be able to improvemore rapidly and thus sooner be ready to invest more money in morepermanent types of paper. Anyway, the newsprint and kraft paper willstill hold together for quite a few years.

Another way to workquickly and in a labor-saving way is to first lay down a tone all over the paper. You can do this with charcoal, pastel, or even powderedgraphite, rubbing it into the paper somewhat with a chamois. Then usean eraser to "draw" areas of light (or brightness) into the dark tone,and charcoal etc to add areas of darker tone. You can experiment withvarious types of erasers, because different types pick up tone indifferent ways and at different rates. You can also experiment withusing other media such as colored pencil to add finer detail to yourdrawing.

Seurat's amazing drawings


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    • Amez profile image


      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Again, Just thought I'd let you know I'm almost finished with that project you suggested on doing Palette Knife Painting, I did how ever add a bit more. I'd like to add this site as link, not sure if you'd mind are if I actually know how to do it. But I truly appreciate your confedence and support to my new found Hbbie, Writing. Ed

    • Amez profile image


      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Ah, once again, you have added some points of interests, The first was the camera with one Eye and the fact we have two. then the graphite and erasure effect, I use my eraser to build layers in my shading, this might make that a bit easier. I'm going to read your works a lot to exsorb your smooth and tangible expression in your wording or better put in your choice of words used in what you say.If it can just cause me to strive deeper to do something simular, I'd be well pleased.


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