As I've said, we're conditioned from infancy to look at 'things', not shapes.  Our parents point to various things and tell us what they are: 'that's an apple,' 'that's a tree,' 'that's a face,' 'that's a hand,' etc.  This is great as far as enabling us to learn language, but it's a disaster for creating a visual artist.

Through the use of language, we see things conceptually rather than visually, and we separate each 'thing' from the whole.  Krishnamurti used to say that once a child learns the name of something...of a bird or a flower...the child never really sees it again.  

I noticed in teaching drawing and painting, one of the most powerful obstacles for the students in learning to see was that they were paralyzed by words.  They would say 'I can't draw faces', or, 'I can draw trees but I can't draw noses.'  And so on.

As visual artists, we must see shapes, not things, for it is shapes, not things, that create an image and a visual composition.


To understand the power of shape, it helps to look at great art, not only to become more visually literate but also to see how great artists through the ages have relied on the strength of shapes to make their statement.  Their final compositions are tight and the shapes...both positive and negative...fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.  

I shared with my classes great works of art that illustrated the paramount importance of simple shape in creating powerful, expressive images...

I showed the class examples of paintings like this one by Toulouse-Lautrec which showed his masterful use of shapes and I demonstrated this by making a simplified line drawing of his magnificent shapes.

I also had all of my students get an inexpensive copy of Edward Steichen's great photographic essay, 'The Family of Man,' for reference to work from.  It is full of powerful black and white photographs that lend themselves to being simplified into value and shapes...great for exercises in drawing the human form.  Working from photographs is a great way to learn to see and to translate the 3-dimensional world into the 2-dimensions of drawing.  A photograph is already 2-dimensional and the infinite values of the natural world have been greatly simplified.
I learned to draw when I was young by tracing photographs and turning them into simple line shapes...much like a coloring book illustration.  It was a fabulous learning experience that I never forgot.  It taught me the wonderful power of shapes and how pleasing they can be to create.

I had my students cut two 'L's out of paper and use them to frame compositions within a photograph...a really helpful tool...

As I said, the students would say something like: they could draw landscapes but not figures, or that they couldn't draw 'faces.'  And the truth is, they were right...you can't draw a 'face'...you can only draw shapes.  A great quote from Matisse nicely brings this home: a woman was looking at one of his paintings of a nude at an exhibition and remarked, 'That doesn't look like a woman!'  Matisse replied, 'Madame, that's not a woman, it's a painting!'  That truth is too often overlooked.

I got around the students' hang-ups by having them turn a photograph upside down and then drawing from it that way.  They had no problem.  It was their mind that was getting in the way.  They weren't looking at 'things' anymore, they were simply looking at specific shapes that had no names.

When you're looking at something upside down, you can't rely on your preconceptions.  It's as if you were looking at it for the first time.  Your ability to accurately see unnamed shapes sharpens your ability to draw and overcomes the 'hang-ups' you might have about drawing a particular thing.


Using the 'Family of Man' book, I had the students work from photos of their choice and create drawings of contour lines and basic shapes...


I would have the student first make a lightly drawn schematic drawing laying out the basic foundation of shapes in the subject.  This process laid out the foundation of the drawing and the position of shapes within it.  It was like a fence, or a boundary, (the orange lines) around the main forms...establishing their position without referring to any detail.  Also, the axes of the main shapes (the red lines)...i.e., the central direction of the main forms indicating their tilt in space on the page...

The shapes were first indicated in a very rudimentary fashion...like pieces in a picture puzzle...and students were asked to look for revealing shapes, not 'things.'   There were to be no details to distract from the basic shapes of heads, hands, chairs, etc.

I demonstrated by doing a series of compositional studies from the photos and then concentrating on single photos...

I was learning how to articulate these aspects of seeing and drawing while I was mastering them myself, and learning how to teach.  And these discoveries affected my own art.  I was thinking about and acting on things I had never quite mastered.  This made it all fresh and exciting to me.  

For me, in many ways, I was traveling in unknown territory.

Copyright (c) Donald Archer 2020  All rights reserved.


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