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Some Notes on Learning to Draw

by Henri Ruukki

Many times I've thought that woodcarvers might benefit from some advice on
drawing. Between 1990 and 2002 I studied to become an artist, and spent quite
a lot of my time learning this skill. I'd like to share some thoughts and pointers
The first thing to realise is that there is no 'correct' or 'proper' technique of drawing. The main thing you'll
need your drawing to do is convey an idea, and we can only judge the drawing by whether it succeeds in that.
Obviously, if you want the drawing to depict and convey what you have seen in a realistic way, we need stricter
criteria but, even so, you don't need a 'correct' technique. If you have a look and compare the sketches of Rembrandt,
Van Gogh, or Edgar Degas; or a craftsman like Ettore Maiotti (whose books on drawing are great but in my opinion a
bit too strict); or the Swedish master Anders Zorn (whose prints look messy close but come alive from a certain distance)
you will quickly see what I mean. My point is that you can basically do whatever you like, as long as it produces a
result you like - so relax and enjoy!
While on technique, here's a good, quite free-spirited one that actually resembles painting:
Draw the outlines and other important features as well as you can, spray lightly with fixative, let dry, and smear charcoal
all over the paper. Add some darker shadow to where you need it
and then bring out the light where you want with a sharpened
eraser. I think a white Läufer is great for this. You can also use
kneadable eraser (I don’t remember any brands, but it resembles
clay or chewing gum), and rags for more general smoothing or
wiping of excess charcoal. I made my best charcoal drawings this
way, generally going back and forth with those tools until I was
satisfied, or the time ran out. I did the same with my pencil
drawings. You should actually try what works best for you: another
way is to first smear the charcoal, then draw the outlines and do
the rest, and only use fixative when the work is almost ready. I
think it’s easier to bring out the light spots if fixative has not been
Here’s one of my nude studies, probably one of the best I made in 1997.
It took only about 3 hours to finish. That’s another reason I recommend
this way of drawing - it’s quick. The highlights have been brought out
under the left knee, in the hair, on the little finger and a few other
spots. While the outline is too rigid here, otherwise I’m still satisfied
with it. Height approx. 1m

A much more important thing than technique is seeing: being

able to convert the subject from three-dimensional world into the
two-dimensional medium (paper or canvas). There are a few major
things you need to think about, all equally important:

First, perspective.
The principle is simple: objects closer to the viewer look larger
than objects farther away. Additionally, the illusion is linear, so
that equally tall vertical poles, say, on a level surface and at different
distances from you appear to diminish in a regular fashion towards
'vanishing points' on the horizon. Much has been written about
perspective, check out your library and the web. Perspective doesn't
have to be very strict, but if there's something seriously wrong
with it, the illusion of the drawing will suffer. Dealing with perspective
is actually planning. You can basically decide where to put your
vanishing points, as long as the result looks plausible. A good idea
is to use two vanishing points - both on the horizon, of course. You will easily get an idea of perspective if you print
out a photo of some buildings and draw lines on it, like in one of the pictures in the end of this article. Note that
all measures diminish gettig closer to horizon, not just height.

Second, the general forms of objects you want to depict.

In other words, if you manage to catch a form correctly on paper, the viewer will instantly recognize it.
Think first impressions. I think characters in animations and comic books are a good example of this. You won’t be
able to mistake the silhouettes of, for instance, Shrek or Donald Duck if you have seen the characters a few times.

Third, details.
Details can be tricky. I had a teacher in a croquis class who taught me a quick and easy way to see and draw them.
('Croquis' is the quick and sketchy drawing of a live model, usually taking only a few minutes, after which
the model changes pose and another croquis is drawn.)

I'd strongly recommend a croquis class if you can find one. The technique I was shown was drawing without
looking at the paper at all - not a glance! It seems pointless at first, and the drawings will be messy.
However, do it at least twice a week (for a couple of hours) and you will learn to see the forms more clearly; your hand
and eyes will learn to work together, so to speak. Looking at the paper ruins the concentration, since you naturally
start worrying about the outcome. With this practice, you learn to see what really is there, instead of what you think is
there, and that's the most important thing.
I noticed that even my first 'blind' croquis drawings were full of perfect detail. It really doesn't matter
that the details are not interconnected - the only reason for this practice is to develop the eye and coordination.
In fact, I'm fairly sure that if you train this technique long enough, the drawings will begin to gain coherence
-but even if they don't, it doesn't matter. You will gain confidence for longer studies.
Fourth, light and shadow.
Just like carving, drawing is about light and shadow. The outlines are there to make drawing easier, and to add
some strength to the most important features. A drawing could be made without outlines, but it would take far
more time, and the result wouldn't be as bold as with outlines.
A valuable practice is to start with simple forms, such as a cardboard cube (or any other cubical object, for instance a
light-colored matchbox), and try to lay down its perspective and light values. When you master such simple forms well
enough you can turn to more complicated objects, like the human figure.
And here, a good idea is to draw statues first - they never move!

Just like any art form, drawing requires a lot of patience and, of course, practice. Prepare to spend some years
with it before you are satisfied. I made the mistake of thinking learning to draw well would be quick and was
very frustrated at times. If you are not satisfied with a drawing, just draw another!
Unless you attend a drawing class, a good idea is to buy some books on the subject and really try the methods.
As I said at the beginning, there are many methods and approaches so spread your net: you will have a richer
experience and are likely to stay more interested and focused.
I think the main thing, for a carver, is to learn to generalize and convert ideas - and also to stylize.
Let’s say you are starting a project from scratch. You have your subject matter and you want to make it into
something carveable. Here's what I would try:
1. Draw some primary sketches, in many different styles: realistic, romantic, exaggerated, caricature,
dramatic, angular, smooth. See how many different versions you can come up with.
2. Play with the subject. Add and subtract features; anything you can invent is good,
since it adds to your own interest.
3. Let it rest for a while, and then pick one or two styles you like best. It's almost always a
good idea to have pauses from the work. The subconscious mind often comes up with results all by itself.
4. Make further drawings in those styles, this time with more time and effort. Do this until you're
satisfied, or don't want to continue.
5. Give it another rest - as long as you like, need or can. Then try to find the final form.

Of course you can pick more styles than just two; this is not a strict method, just an idea. Also, you can naturally go
more rounds if you feel like it.The main thing is to work at drawing your subject until you deem you have what you
need for carving, then stop. Too much and the process can become tedious.
As a further method you can also try this:
1. Start by drawing quick caricatures, or sketches, of the subject. Exaggerate as much as you want to.
2. Study the subject deeper, and go as far as you feel necessary.
3. Have a rest (days, if your subject is such that you can)
4. Draw the caricatures again.
5. Repeat the process if you feel necessary - as many times as you need.
At some point you’ll see the caricatures have improved. This way you approach the subject from two directions: realistic
and exaggerated. At some point, you will find a useful balance, and will have a sketch ready for carving. To avoid
impatience and tedium it’s good to have several such projects going at the same time, just like with carving.
There are many books on drawing that will give you much more detailed methods and different ideas than these.
In particular I'd recommend beginners to Ettore Maiotti, for technique. The Drawing Handbook is a very tight
package of things you need to know. Also, Jeno Barcsay’s Anatomy for the Artist is great when you need ideas of the
muscles working in a drawing. I started out by copying many of the drawings in the book. A book with photos is not
quite as good as one drawn. With the latter, you also gain some insight to drawing technique. If you can get hold of
some books with drawings by masters, they are also great to copy. You can copy the technique as closely as you
like, or just copy the general features and use your own technique. You can easily measure and plan the pictures
when you use books. I was lucky to get a hold of a book with drawings from the Russian academy of fine arts or
some such, from the end of the 19th century I think. The technique in them was just brilliant. I took a leap forward
after spending a couple of days copying them.
Try many different sorts and brands of charcoal. There are big differences. A hardened charcoal leaves a darker line
than natural, and is good for outlines and darkest shadows. Always use the best possible paper - except for croquis and
other sketches. Again, try different sorts and brands. The same goes for all equipment. Get a good easel.
Draw in all sizes. I think the larger, the easier. A 50x70cm paper is all right in the beginning, since the area
is easier to handle than a larger one. However, I suggest drawing the long studies at least 1m high. You can
try even larger, but for me for instance 140cm high is already too large for convenience. When you want to
study details, shadows and such very carefully, take a large paper and draw only part of the model.
Take a step back!
This one should actually have two exclamation marks. Looking at your work from a few steps further back is absolutely
necessary - be it drawing, carving, painting or sculpture. You will see the whole instead of concentrating on some detail,
and most often will be delighted at what you have already made. Also, look away from the work and let your mind rest
from time to time.
When drawing a long study:
There’s no need to get the outlines correct on the first go. First sketch in the primary features, and start adding
detail and drawing the final outlines only when the position is correct and the general mass is in place.
Draw everything, everywhere, quick and slow.
The quickest drawing can be only one minute long, and the longest studies as long as six hours or more. Draw
from the nature, draw buildings, animals, people, anything. Also draw from memory - it’s very good practice
for sharpening your visualisation and planning skills! Draw all your ideas.
Forget self-criticism right now!
This was another piece of valuable advice given to me by my teacher, Antero Paavola. His words: ‘It’s no use
criticizing yourself. Others will take care of all that.’ Also remember: time and practice are the best teachers.
Finally, the main thing:
have fun drawing, and remember: every picture you draw is a step forward!
These are all ideas I have tried at some time or another, and all of them have worked for me. I actually started
drawing cartoons when I was, well, about four years old, and never tried anything serious until I was around 25 or
30. I don’t know if it was good or bad otherwise, but it gave me something important: If I started taking art too seriously,
I was able to ‘loosen my grip’ - in other words, I just drew things that made me laugh and forgot about skills, art and
success. A method like that will put things back in perspective if you get stuck, and then it’s easier to rest for a few days
and restart.

On the next page there are two of my drawings, and a photo with notes on perspective.
The blue lines tend toward one
vanishing point, the red ones toward
another. There’s also a third vanishing
point somewhere high up (green lines),
but if you were to draw a comparably
low building like this, you could ignore
it. The picture looks more solid if the
verticals are vertical.

It took me about four years of serious
study to reach this stage. This one
was also drawn in three or four hours.
Studying the Russian masters had taught
me another trick: as I didn’t have much
time, I left part of the drawing at sketch
stage. Here I decided to leave the legs
and feet unfinished.
Height approx. 1m

Top right:
A good idea is to put stronger
contrast to features closer to the viewer -
in this case, the elbow.

Bottom right:
The highlights in the hair have again
been brought out by erasing the charcoal.

The strongest outline is on
the supporting arm, giving
it some extra solidity. Again,
the higlights have been brought
out with an eraser.
Width approx. 1m