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How to stop yourself drawing things

Tintoretto, drawing the light that falls across a head rather than the head.

When we set out to draw and paint we have to struggle with a myriad of fiendish devils who will beset our progress. A familiar one is the demon who draws things. The inexperienced hand, when asked to draw what it sees will identify the motif, an apple for example, and briskly produce an outline, probably with a satisfying bum shape at the stalk end, cheerfully coloured red or green. As time goes by this will become more refined, we look and discover more detail, the contour may be more accurate, the colours nuanced. We look at other artists and our apples may begin to look a bit like theirs.

All good. And yet, our work, no matter how many apples we paint, lacks a certain something. What we are drawing is our understanding of what we see as much as what the eye perceives. The demon who draws things is retrieving all that is known about apples to describe the apple that is being seen. Sometimes that means that the apple described is not really the apple seen but a confection of memory and understanding.

There is of course nothing wrong with this, the history of art is laced through with wonderful assemblages of what are essentially pictograms. For all that, it may not be what we are after personally in our work.

At a certain point in history, possibly around the time that optics were discovered, some artists noticed that instead of engaging the demon who draws things, they could carefully describe the different coloured shapes that light made as it fell across the surface of things, rather than the thing itself. In so doing they found that the ‘thing’ would emerge on their canvas unbidden and what was spectacular was, that it had a quality of newness to it, as if seen for the first time.

Betty Edwards had yet to be born so there was no one to point out that this was essentially a way of drawing with the right side of the brain. The demon who draws things is a bit of a bully. When an apple drawing task is presented he will push to the front and say ‘I’ve got this, I can do apples’ and then, because looking is actually a bit of an effort, pop out the same old apple he’s always drawn. The quiet artist, normally associated with the right brain, face palms but being wordless can say nothing.

We exploit the demon’s laziness by forcing ourselves to look at our motif and see it as a mosaic of different coloured shapes. The demon, unconvinced by what it sees as a pointless task, goes off for a snooze and the quiet artist can get on with the faithful description of the shapes that light makes when it falls across things.

Most artists will work in this way to some extent. Betty Edwards makes it sound very scientific but artists learn from each other, seeing how problems are solved, pinching ideas, absorbing the visual culture. That is one reason that it is so helpful to paint alongside others, both when we begin and as we progress as artists.

Solvent abuse

If being a more sustainable artist is important to you and you don’t want to be assaulted by the solvents you use Michael Correia has kindly pointed out this book by Gwendoline Fife on the effects solvents can have and some alternatives.

Alone at Sea

Clare Haward has a solo show at the 155A Gallery in East Dulwich from the 6th – 17th July – you can read more and sign up for the private view here