Quick Portraits at the ACR 2016 Review Course + A Visit to the National Gallery of Art

At ACR’s 2013 Review Course, as a first-year rheumatology fellow, I sketched quick portraits of the speakers in pen and pencil while they lectured.  I hadn’t drawn them since.  At this year’s review course in Washington, D.C., I sketched them again, broadening the range of media to watercolor pencil and ink brush pen:

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While there, my girlfriend and I were hosted by and visited with dear members of my extended family.  We also visited the National Gallery of Art, where Dutch/Flemish drawings for paintings were on display.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of drawings as the basis of paintings.  For example, drawings by one artist (Pieter van Laer) were possibly acquired by another (Philips Wouwerman) in stealth so he could base his paintings off of them.

William van de Velde the elder drew a meticulous portrait of the ship, “The Royal Prince,” that was on display alongside a later painting by his son, who used the drawing to help depict a battle at sea.

Other drawings were displayed next to the paintings that resulted from them.  It was interesting to see how often portraits (especially noses, which can be particularly difficult to draw) differed from drawing to painting.

In one case, an extremely detailed freehand drawing of the nave of Saint Bavo’s church had incorrect perspective–the arcade at the right of the nave was much lower than at the left and the far windows were too small–which the artist (Pieter Jansz Saenredam) later corrected with ruler and compass for the painting that resulted from the drawing.

What interested me most about the drawings on display was the use of sanguine, or red chalk, on prepared paper.  Sanguine, a red-brown iron oxide chalk, “allows for a degree of subtlety and control beyond what [modern chalk equivalents] offer.”  It was used for sketches and studies by the “Old Masters,” among them Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A rough modern approximation of chalk is colored pencil.  A closer equivalent is probably charcoal or pastel.

However, red chalk appears capable of more subtlety, warmth, and power than colored pencil for quick sketches.  It also appears easier to control than charcoal or pastel.  I’ve never used it.

Later, in the gift shop, I was not surprised to see that John James Audubon used mixed media in his paintings.  For example, his masterpiece of Carolina parakeets was created with watercolor, pastel, crayon, etc., not just transparent watercolor.  It’s difficult to convey a lot of detail in focused natural history paintings with transparent watercolor alone.  Modern wildlife artists who use watercolor, such as Roger Tory Peterson, use transparent watercolor and acrylic together or just gouache (opaque watercolor) for detailed, scientifically accurate paintings.

More Sketches in Graphite

I drew the following with a clutch pencil.  Some artists claim they don’t use anything other than clutch pencils to draw in graphite.  They value the stability of these instruments–unlike wooden pencils, they don’t change in length nor much in weight as you use them.

basket of pears

A basket of pears, above.


jianzi I picked up in Houston’s Chinatown.


My clutch pencil has a built-in sharpener.  The graphite shavings from this sharpener can be used to add tone and to vary value, as in the above drawings of my eye, thumb, and foot.  Without a clutch pencil, one would have to resort to a graphite block or regular pencil and rubbing with a tortillon, blending stump, or piece of chamois.  This risks damage to the paper, which some artists consider unacceptable.  (Other artists don’t care as much.)

Highlights can be lifted out with a rubber eraser (I prefer the Pink Pearl by Paper Mate) or with a kneaded eraser.

How to Draw Trees, Hair, and Other Very Complex Things

A large tree can hold millions of leaves and at least thousands of branches (if you count the twigs).  A human head can have more than a hundred thousand hairs on it.  You’d be a fool for trying to draw a tree or human hair photorealistically, right?  Well, yes and no.

A couple years ago, inspired by the majestic trees I saw while hiking in Yosemite National Park,  I tried to draw a photorealistic tree.  This is the result:

Unfinished pencil drawing of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
Unfinished pencil drawing (4B graphite on Bristol board) of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Circa April, 2012.

Yep, I gave up.  Although I was still learning to draw at the time and this was good practice for me, it was too painful to continue!  In retrospect, I was going about it the wrong way.

I was trying to draw every single detail as I saw it.  How painful is that?!  Let’s just say that I’ll never do that again.

You can draw trees or hair or anything else photorealistically in a freehand way (instead of tracing)*, but you’d be foolish to try to draw complex details exactly as you see them instead of drawing the general pattern that you see.

Drawing the general pattern is the key to drawing hair and foliage photorealistically without driving yourself nuts.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s not easy to draw anything that has a lot of detail.  Photorealistic pieces are very time-intensive.  For example, Paul Lung, an artist who uses a mechanical pencil to create photorealistic drawings of cats, supposedly takes 40-60 hours per piece.

However, it simplifies things and speeds you up, if, instead of drawing exactly what you see when you look at something extremely complex, you draw the general pattern.  The result will still be photorealistic.  (Note:  this might not work for portraits, because our brains are designed to pick up on very subtle facial differences.  This is one reason that drawing portraits is harder than drawing other things.)

If you simply want to give the impression of something complex, like a tree, hair, or fur, then you should give only as much detail as necessary and leave the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.  Unless your aim is photorealism, you should stop when you’ve suggested enough to the viewer that they can identify your subject.  As Betty Edwards says, you shouldn’t overdraw.

Respect for negative space is important when drawing trees, as is remembering a few key heuristics:

1. Branches should get thinner as they extend farther from the trunk.

2. Any branch must be thinner than the branch or trunk it’s growing from.  (Otherwise, it will not look realistic).

3. Vary hue, value (very important), and chroma when painting leaves.

4. Depending on the type of tree you’re drawing, branches will grow out at different angles at different heights along the trunk.  Usually, though, this angle is more acute higher up and closer to horizontal lower down.  Don’t forget to draw in branches that face toward and away from the viewer!

5. If painting in watercolor, consider using a natural sponge to quickly paint foliage.

Here’s a quick sketch I made (with a Pentel Pocket ink brush pen and black ink) of a pine tree at a nearby park, back in January:


Here are a couple imaginary trees I sketched by following the above heuristics:



Here’s a digital painting of oak trees (initially posted here):


When drawing human hair, focus on large masses of color and try not to get bogged down by drawing too many individual hairs.  Keep the outer edges of hair (where it meets the air) somewhat blurry, except where hair meets the face, which can be drawn in some detail.

After some practice, it all becomes easier and more natural!  Artistic skill (or any skill, really) is all about quantity of practice!

*Many photorealists avoid drawing freehand and instead use grids or projection techniques to trivialize the transfer of correct perspective.  Personally, I’ve always drawn freehand because I enjoy the challenge!

Drawing a Devil’s Claw in Charcoal and Graphite

Drawing of a devil’s claw in charcoal and graphite on 11″ x 14″ Bristol board

“What is that?!”

That’s the usual reaction I get to the dried fruit of the Proboscidea (plant, not the order of megafauna with trunks).  It’s also known as the unicorn plant.

Here’s the same drawing in different lighting:

Drawing of a devil's claw seed pod in charcoal and graphite on 11" x 14" Bristol board
Drawing of a devil’s claw in charcoal and graphite on 11″ x 14″ Bristol board

This is the actual devil’s claw:




The devil’s claw/unicorn plant is considered a holdover from the Ice Age, back when giants last roamed the Americas.  The dried fruit has large burs with which it used to hitch rides on the fur of Ice Age megafauna.  It can also hitch a ride on your shoe or, if you’re not careful, inflict a pretty bad puncture wound.

My particular seed pod was a gift from a friend who found it at a farmers’ market in Wisconsin.  In return, I gave him my drawing.

The drawing was one of my first charcoals.  It was difficult to use charcoal on a smooth surface! Bristol board, being very smooth, is best used for pen, marker, and fine pencil drawings.  Also, I had some trouble using charcoal with graphite.  Charcoal has a matte finish, while graphite is glossy, so it can be tricky to use them in combination.  Many people think that charcoal and graphite shouldn’t be used together at all.  However, this hyper-realist disagrees.  (His book is excellent, by the way.  If you’re at all interested in realistic representational drawings in graphite and charcoal, you should check it out.)

Since then, I’ve used Strathmore 400 Series drawing paper.  Although commonly available in the US, it took me a while to discover that it’s excellent for charcoal, pencil, or other dry media, and is pretty much the consensus paper to use for practice drawings.  It’s acid-free but not archival-quality; according to Hillberry, it might yellow over time.  He recommends using 100% rag paper for final drawings. Dedicated charcoal paper exists, and some artists use pastel paper, but I haven’t yet used either.

Mixed Media Sketch of a White Tern

White Tern.  Sketched in pastel, ink, charcoal, and white colored pencil
White tern. Sketched in pastel (~3 analogous colors), ink, charcoal, and white colored pencil

I sketched this on cheap construction paper from a dollar store immediately after a party a couple years ago.  It was my second drawing using pastel–I haven’t used it since, but would like to!  Pastel drawings can really approach the nuance of oil paintings.  Also, and this may surprise you, pastels are chemically the most stable of all paintings.  E.g., they’ll last the longest if they’re not physically disturbed (which is, unfortunately, very easy to do, even if you spray fixative onto them).

You can’t mix pastels the way you can mix paint, so you need many colors on hand if you’re depicting subtle changes in hue, intensity, or value.  Another thing is that pastels other than oil pastels break down into fine particles that may be dangerous to one’s health, so it’s important to take precautions, such as working outdoors or wearing a face mask.

How to Draw Anything You See, Part 4: Perspective

We’ve reached the fourth and final part of my little series on drawing:  perspective!  Of the major elements of representational drawing, perspective is the most challenging and is probably the main reason that people give up on drawing.

“Perspective theory” can be pretty complicated.  There’s one-point, two-point, three-point, four-point(!) and even zero-point(!!) perspective!

I recommend completely ignoring this daunting theoretical stuff and instead doing a simplified version of what Vincent Van Gogh did during the years he spent mastering perspective.  Before we get  to that, you should watch this drawing video by Betty Edwards starting at 1 hour, 0 minutes to about 1 hour, 20 minutes:

When I was learning how to draw with correct perspective, I initially tried to use the Betty Edwards method, but I soon ditched those training wheels and started using my pencil, stylus, or some other straight edge to approximate relative sizes and angles while drawing.

The “basic unit” idea, that she discusses in the above video, can be pretty useful.  All it means is using some arbitrarily chosen length in your composition as a reference length to which you compare the rest of the composition.

I’ve found that using several basic units can be much more useful.  This just means that, while drawing, you constantly gauge relative angles and sizes between different elements of your composition.  Instead of relying on a single reference point, everything in the composition becomes a potential reference point.

Remember that you’re drawing some chosen composition in your view, and that your view is, for all intents and purposes, two-dimensional.  Close one eye–and always the same eye during any drawing session–while approximating relative lengths and angles.

If you use a single basic unit as a point of reference, then it is drawn first.  Everything else is drawn relative to it.  As stated above, this is less accurate, in my experience, than just constantly comparing relative angles and lengths between different elements of the composition.

This heuristic generalizes: multifactorial knowledge is most important; life is rarely one-dimensional.

Don’t obsess with getting the perspective perfect:  consideration of negative space is at least as important.

When using your pencil, stylus, or some other straight edge to estimate proportions, distances, and angles, ensure that the straight edge remains parallel to your “two-dimensional” view.  Otherwise, your perspective will be off.

Perspective has a steep learning curve, but, if you keep at it, you’ll soon be able to draw quickly and accurately!  Remember that you’re an artist, not a photographer:  you’re not trying to record every tiny detail (unless, for some reason, you specifically want to do so).

For quick sketches in the field with accurate perspective, consider using boxes or spheres around the major body parts of your figures oriented correctly to one- (e.g., head-on) or two-point (e.g., 3/4 view) perspective.  For example, you can sketch birds quickly with three spheres: head, body, and rump.  You can orient these balls differently to come up with new poses.  When you’re satisfied with your composition drawing, you can transfer it to your final paper without transferring the boxes.  I’ll talk about how to do this in a future lesson.

How to Draw Anything You See, Part 3: Value

In our first two lessons, we created line drawings of what we saw.   We focused on contours and negative spaces.  In this lesson, we will learn about value, a color’s lightness or darkness.

Value is one of the three components of any color.  The other two components are hue and chroma and will be discussed in future lessons on color theory.  Value is also known as tone.

An appropriately varied value distribution is the most important element of any successful representational drawing or painting.  It is so important that many artists will create a value study (a grayscale drawing or painting) before starting any serious painting.

The Old Masters of painting used only a few hues in many of their paintings.  Most of these hues were at low intensity, which means that they were dull.  (Intensity is another word for chroma.)  Bright, high-intensity hues were used sparingly.  The painters of old relied heavily on changes in value to achieve timeless, powerful effects:

Rembrandt’s 1657 St. Bartholomew
Rembrandt’s 1659 Self-Portrait
John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage

Let’s take color out of the equation and focus on black-and-white (grayscale) drawings for now.  (We will tackle color in future posts.)  The crux of drawing in grayscale is to create a controlled tone somewhere between black and white.  It often doesn’t matter how that controlled tone is achieved.

This is a public domain line drawing of a rose:

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Real objects don’t have actual lines denoting their boundaries from other objects.  Contrast the above line drawing with this charcoal value study of a rose, on watercolor paper, that I created a couple years ago for my mother:


The rose in the charcoal study looks more realistic because it relies on gradations in value rather than on boundary lines.

The artist can depict changes in value both directly and indirectly.  Direct methods involve laying down an actual desired value, which is more straightforward in painting than in drawing, where the materials (appropriate paper, appropriate hardness and darkness of media, etc.) are important.  Indirect methods hint at the desired value and, from a distance, replicate it.  Indirect methods are ideal for pen drawings.  They include hatching, cross-hatching, and stippling, among others:

Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.58.59 PM

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Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.57.02 PM

This is an excellent ballpoint pen sketch by Xiaonan Sun, done almost entirely by hatching and cross-hatching:

Hatching and cross-hatching take some practice getting used to.  You may want to use these indirect techniques to practice shading circles to make them look spherical and rectangles to make them look cylindrical.

Although, as mentioned above, it usually doesn’t matter how your controlled tone is achieved, it can be advantageous to create marks parallel to the contours being shaded, because such marks suggest the contours and their associated values.  Finally, you can suggest certain textures better with some mark patterns than with others.

There’s much more to the study of value, of course, but this will do for a primer!