Monday, August 18, 2008

Drawing Made Easy

This book taught me how to draw. I relied on books because I never had a drawing teacher (except my older brother) until I was in my early 20s. I searched for the books on drawing that I could find. This was the one that helped me the most. And as I look at it again, I still think it’s one of the best.
The method was simple. Draw a simple outside shape first and keep that shape in mind as you subdivide the big shape into smaller details and shading. The shape is made of straight lines that enclose the form in a kind of envelope.

Although Drawing Made Easy was intended for children, the method is virtually identical to the way drawing was taught a hundred and fifty years ago in the French Academy. Charles Bargue’s drawing course (below) uses the same basic idea.

When I was still in grade school I ran across another book called The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaides. I was attracted to this book because it offered a serious regimen for teaching yourself drawing. And it introduced two simple-to-understand but contrasting methods: contour drawing and gesture drawing.

I diligently tried both of the methods that Nicolaides recommended. But I wasn’t happy with the results. My contour drawings came out terribly because by moving my eye like an ant on one small part of the pose, I lost track of the whole. My gesture drawings came out too unfocused and sloppy. Maybe I was doing something wrong. But my feeling was that this was the unnatural way to draw.

Although I couldn’t have articulated this when I was eight years old, I had a sense that the contour drawing idea was unhelpful because drawing is more a process of interpolation than extrapolation, of subdivision rather than extension. To put it another way, drawing is a hierarchy of successive approximations from large shapes to small shapes.

In the first steps of making a drawing, broad estimations of length and slope and shape give way to progressively smaller estimations. Those smaller measurements are always made with the original large view in mind. Turning that method on its head may give a momentary experience of an artist’s way of seeing, but, for me at least, it didn’t lead to good drawings.

And gesture drawing was not useful for me because drawing is neither all loose nor all tight. Drawing blends freedom and control at every stage.

I think I would have loved Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain if it had been available when I was in elementary and junior high school. She successfully reintroduces some of Nicolaides’ methods (and many other ideas) by interpreting the experience of drawing from the standpoint of modern cognitive science.

There’s no single way to draw, and no single way to teach drawing. But a lot of art teachers in the 1950s and 60s threw out the common-sense method of books like Drawing Made Easy in favor of other methods that were supposed to enhance expression. The big-shape analysis offered by Drawing Made Easy may not make drawing easier, but it yields results, both for imaginative and observational drawing.

Maybe our friends over at Dover Publications will consider bringing D.M.E. back into print.
Note: There's a current book series called Drawing Made Easy: Discover Your Inner Artist that has nothing to do with the original book from almost a ninety years ago.

E.G. Lutz also wrote about about animation that influenced Walt Disney, link.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain website, link.

Charles Bargue illustration courtesy the blog Learning to See, which has a nice post about his method, link.

ADDENDUM: Blog reader Patty has shared this link to an online book called "Practical Drawing" by E.G. Lutz which shows his methods presented to adult readers, link. Thanks, Patty!


patdzon said...

The first time I saw the use of the block-in using straight lines was in Anthony Ryder's book on drawing. The moment I saw his examples of using straight lines to describe the big shapes made me realize what I was doing wrong. My drawing teacher also kept on saying, "start from the general to the specific." It's the best advice ever.

mikemlz said...

Thanks for sharing the Bargue book with your readers. I just recieved my copy this past Fri. ,(It's only available from the Dahesh museum)
It's a real treasure. Hopefully educators might incorporate this in their classes.

jeff f said...

I was going to mention Anthony Ryder's which is excellent but patdzon beat me to it.

He moves from envelope to contour and it seems to me that this is only way that you can get an accurate contour drawing. He keeps subdividing the lines and measuring to arrive at the final contour.

I also like the Bridgman books which have the for me the best ideas on how to create figures using action, rhythm, and balance.

The Loomis books are great as well.

I like the Brague, but I think Ryder's ideas are more useful for drawing the figure. Brague is great for training your eye and hand.

The block in is the best way to draw I feel and it is easy to use the same idea when painting as you are your dealing with massing forms, general to the specific.

Sakievich said...

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was the book that was my first real drawing instruction I received. I don't remember if I asked for it or if it was just given to me, but it was very useful at the time and helped me relaxe my thinking to focus on larger shapes that could then be worked down to more managable ones. I'm working through the Bargue book on my own for now and find the copywork to be enjoyable and beneficial. I think that any drawing method that works from general to specific is the most beneficial to the most people. Then again there is that method that Schmid uses for his still lifes where he goes from one small shape to the adjacent ones, I think that would drive me crazy.

Paul F said...

It's funny, as soon as I saw this post pop up in my rss reader and saw the illustration from 'Drawing Made Easy' the similarity between it and the Bargue approach struck me and I hurried over to post a comment. Then I read the rest of the post and realised you'd already covered it :)

I like what you have to say about drawing being a blending of freedom and control. I would agree that the balance has been towards too much freedom perhaps, for a while.

I've done some practice with the sight size technique, aiming for as much accuracy as I can muster. There's no better training for observation I think. But personally I'm wary of the pendulum swinging back too far, and accuracy becoming an end in itself. Harold Speed would agree with you I think that good work has a balance of freedom and control, or, put another way, expression and accuracy. He sees the pursuit of accuracy and control as being in the service of expression, and has a nice quote regarding this in his book 'The Practice and Science of Drawing:'

"In connection with academic drawing, it is eminently necessary for the student to train his eye accurately to observe the forms of things by the most painstaking of drawings. In these school studies feeling need not be considered, but only a cold accuracy. In the same way a singer trains himself to sing scales, giving every note the same weight and preserving a most mechanical time throughout, so that every note of his voice may be accurately under his control and be equal to the subtlest variations he may afterwards want to infuse into it at the dictates of feeling."

ricardo said...

It's funny for me that when I was much younger though not a kid anymore, it ocurred me that it would be much easier to draw any subject if I tried to synthesize the form with straight lines. It wasn't a method of surrounding the subject, though, as proposed on this post. But today I think it was quite an insight for someone who hadn't had any formal training by that time.
Not that I've had much more training after that, nor had much discipline.

Erik Bongers said...

My experience:
Lot's of drawing from observation will help you to improve your observation and thus improve the drawing-from-observation result.
But nothing more than that.
Musically speaking you can become a virtuous performer.

But if you also try to 'understand' what you are observing, you can apply that 'understanding' to make drawings from imagination.
Musically speaking, you can become a composer.

Currently when I want to draw something that I don't know/understand yet, I just observe it (e.g. my hand in the mirror), try to analyze it (why does it look like that?), and then draw what I need from memory.
I feel that this way I gain knowledge that allows me to draw similar things (e.g. a hand in slightly different positions) without having to refer to observation again.

Compare it to GPS in your car.
If you rely on Rosemary's voice to get you from A to B, ten days in a row, chances are that in the end you still don't know that route by heart, but if you had looked it up on a map, memorized it, sweated and sweared it out on the first would probably be able to drive the trip blind-folded after 3 days.

I don't think the approach of 'analyze subject - memorize subject - master subject' works for beginners, but to me it's proven very helpfull.

Especially for e.g. comic books, where you can't rely on models for every single frame, this approach might come in handy.

I'm not sure if in this way I use the right or left side of my brain but it's defenitely the most durable side !

Ripsey said...

I had several similar books as a child, and loved every one of them. In my teens I moved on to tracing comicbook covers and trying to emulate my favourite works (which at the time were limited to comicbook and fiction covers)

I received Betty Edwards' book when I started college and was amazed at how quickly my drawing improved after a) reading that book, and b) drawing from life for at least 8 hours a week.

It seemed as if every three months I would look back and find hundreds of errors in my old work...

Great post!

Erik Bongers said...

About "Drawing on the right side...":

I had heard of that book a long time ago, perhaps even in art school, and it was really scorned by everyone, including me.
Actually I still believe that learning to draw with that book is a dead-end street as all it teaches you is how to turn of your brain and draw what you see like a robot. The results are what you can expect from that approach : dead drawings.

But, but but...

I've just been reading some blogs of enthousiasts that really are ecstatic with the progress they made thanks to this book.
And many of them proudly showed examples of 'before' and 'after' drawings. And I must say, for absolute beginners, the benefit is clear.
The thing is that people who haven't made drawings since childhood still draw in the typical flat and iconic way, just like children.
The book helps them to get rid of that knwolegde-based drawing and start from scratch.

I think that's the biggest (but only!) benefit of the book : it helps you to 'start from scratch'.
It helps you to learn to observe objectively.

Thus, an important starting point, but if you want to develop better skills, I really think you also need to learn to understand what you 'observe'.

So, I think a good approach to learning how to draw (gradually over many years) could be :

1. Forget what you know. (use the famous book ?)
2. Observe (buy the pochade box of the next topic?)
3. Understand what you are observing (buy a book on anatomical or perspective drawing and read Gurney Journey?)
4. Let all of the above become intuitive and then...
5. Go wild !

Andrew Wales said...

I agree with Jim that a lot of art instruction approaches in the 1950s and 60s (and beyond) threw out the common-sense method in favor of other methods that were supposed to enhance expression. As I began teaching in 1987, I was frustrated with trying to teach using the methods I had been told to use to students who did not know how to draw and I didn't know how to teach them.

Then I discovered a book that was a lifeline for me. I highly recommend it -- "Drawing with Children" by Mona Brookes. It emphasizes observation and urges the teacher to help students develop a visual "vocabulary" of shapes and lines and to teach them words that describe those shapes. For instance, "Draw a horizontal line -- now a diagonal", etc.

Using this book, anyone could teach any child to draw -- or teach themselves!

I don't endorse every word of the book as a method, but there's a lot of good stuff in it.

She also has one called "Drawing with Older Children and Teens". I wasn't as excited about that one, though it is a good resource.

Information about this book can be found here:

A lot of the drawing books mentioned would be great for kids who have an artistic bent. The Brookes method works for those who have no natural inclination at all, and can help them achieve some success.

etc, etc said...

In my opinion sight-size is a roundabout way of tracing for people who do not want to admit they are tracing.

Tim Dose said...

In my opinion there are two main approaches to drawing- starting with the 2D shapes and arriving at a 3D understanding, or starting with 3D shapes and moving towards a 2D understanding. Every drawing is some push and pull of these two methods.

I've always found the various methods that begin with 2D shapes (including sight-size and the envelope method) to be too heavily dependent on a totally immobile model, and all but useless for drawing from the imagination. In general, you're stuck copying what you see. It's too easy to gloss over the 3D understanding which is critical for learning to draw from imagination. This lack of three dimensional understanding also makes for some stiff art in a lot of cases. I've also found the 2D methods to be too cold and intellectual- I have to fight to not lose an important visceral connection to the subject.

That being said, I think it's important to learn both approaches, perhaps focusing on one more than the other depending on the type of work you like to do. Someone who just wants to paint what they see accurately would be fine sticking to the 2d approach, for example, but an animator would probably crash and burn.

James Gurney said...

I've been thinking all day about all your comments; thank you. It's always interesting to learn how each of you learned to draw. I had forgotten about the Ryder book; I'll have to check that one out again.

Ricardo, I appreciate the H. Speed quote. I think you and Tim and Erik and Etc. and some other commentators have brought out some important thoughts about the value of memory, imagination, and dimension in addition to the strict 2D observational methods. Erik, I want to try your observe-to-remember method! I'm really interested in these areas, and I'll try to do some future posts about them.

ricardo said...

"Ricardo, I appreciate the H. Speed quote."
Oh, that's from Paul's post. :D

Don Cox said...

I learned a lot from the series of small books called "How to Draw..." which were published by Studio in the 1940s and 50s. Each dealt with a particular subject such as figures in action, ships, planes, birds, etc. But they all contained general advice on techniques, and most importantly, good drawings by the various authors.

tlc illustration said...

Interesting post and comments.

I agree with much that has been said regarding the progression of of drawing techniques. I do know that Betty Edward's approach was invaluable to the adult students I've used it with - as grown ups who have never learned how to 'see' and translate that onto paper, this was a very quick and effective way to re-train their brains and hands. (And I still go back to some of her methods when I am using reference and find that I am drawing my 'symbols' for things rather than what actually *is*.)

But the techniques for analyzing and understanding - building visual memory and functionality - are what I am trying to work on now, myself. Good tips here. Calls to mind a quote in Beverly Hale's 'Master Class in Drawing': "Drawing is like studying Greek and piano - you can't speak or play in your conscious, which is clumsy. You must get it into you subconscious, which is graceful."

Luke said...

This discussion has an interesting parallel with a thread I was reading over at comparing two methods or categories of composition, carving vs. modelling. Worth a look if you have a free minute.

kib said...

Is that not the legendary Monty Python foot? Perhaps this book was Gilliam's source for his collage animation?

OMWO said...

I think there is a natural progression in this - and a natural complementarity. I think in this case opposition is only a mistake of our dualistic mind.

The first hurdle you face in drawing are the inadequate symbols in your mind. Hence, follow Betty - discard symbols, learn to look naively, learn to draw what you see. That means seeing in 2D, in particular. Then you can get sophisticated in the way you do that, and you go beyond Betty to do sight-size, or you block-in carefully a la Ryder, and that is the same approach, only more sophisticated: you draw what you see.

But if you only draw what you see you don't really learn about objects, only about particular views of objects, and you are unable to do with fleeting glimpes, with motion, with ephemera. Hence Nikolaides - you draw what you glimpse, what you touch, what you feel, what you guess. But still you do not understand the object in an intelectual way, you do not have a real model, and yes, as Jim said, you lose the ability to go top down, you lose scale and precision. And you still can't draw from your mind. You still can't draw what you don't see but know.

The way to draw from your mind and/or to observe less slavishly is to go back to the start and realise that models are not anathema, what you need are good ones - now that you have discarded the weak models that you were born with, you can build new and better ones. A man is not a stick with a circle on top, but it may be useful to see him as a bunch of ellipsoids, cilinders, etc, and to make more and more refined models of the kind. Hence constructive anatomy, and the path of 2D back to 3D. Hence Robert Hale and the like.

I think Robert Beverly Hale said it best: "first you draw what you see, then you draw what you know, then you see what you know". Meaning, after you train yourself in building good models of reality, they will allow you to see better. Naive looking might miss that small shadow over there but not when you expect it because after all the tip of the clavicle belongs in that region. And I think this is a fundamental truth: it is wrong to view these processes as antagonistic. Yes, they make statements that are mutually contradictory, but that is not because one of the methods is wrong. They are complementary. They allow you to see different views of reality. And although there is a natural progression from one to the other, that doesn't mean that one is made obsolete by the next. In fact, when you see a new object, you do all those steps again (ontology recapitulates philogeny)- you look at it, you feel it, you inquire upon it, and then you own it by modelling it. And you repeat endlessly the naive looking, the blocking in, the "touching" (a la nikolaides) in order to refine the model.

To ask which method is right and which is wrong (or even which is best) is like asking which is best between a hammer and a screwdriver. They are complementary tools and you should eventually have all of them under your belt to use at the right moment.

I find nikolaides methods invaluable when I draw people in motion on the subway and so on. I find constructive methods invaluable if you are the kind of person who insists upon thinking,and I find "naive looking", blocking-in, etc, to be simply useful beyond question - but you gotta know when to use a hammer or a scredriver - to sight-size a moving bird is just silly. Also, bottom-up has its uses, too.

Having said this, I confess, in shame, to never having done sight-size properly for it bores me beyond words. But I find that to be a character flaw on my part, not really a flaw of the method :). I find that when people champion a method as "THE" natural way to draw they are merely choosing the one that is more natural to them and trying to justify their natural laziness in learning the rest ;). (I don't need that, I embrace sloth without excuse ;))

This was a really interesting thread, Jim. The subject is extremely close to my interests, I am sorry I got here so late :p


James Gurney said...

Antonio, thanks for taking the time to really think this through. You've got it right: there's no "right" way to draw. What matters is what gives you the results you want in a given situation. Drawing people on a subway is a different challenge from drawing out of the imagination or careful etudes in the studio. My intent with the post was to question dogmatic approaches, not to assert new dogma!

Kib, now that you mention it, the Python song is playing in my head and I can't take that foot too seriously.

Luke, thanks for the link to the Concept Art discussion.

And thanks to everyone else. It's fun to rediscover those books that got us interested in drawing.

karen said...

I have this book and now I am an artist and teacher.


Urban Wild said...

And you might be amazed to hear that "Drawing Made Easy" is back in print!

James Gurney said...

Urban, thanks for mentioning that. I'm so glad it's back out, thanks to Darren Rousar, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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