Making Connections Creating Harmony

One of my students said her still life looked as though each object belonged in separate drawings. How could she get them to look related? She'd drawn only the objects, and hadn't dealt with the tabletop and surrounding space. When she applied subtle values in those areas, her recognizable, individual style, or touch—also known as an artist's "hand"—energized her still life by knitting positive and negative spaces together.

While the artist's personal, sensitive hand can unify a drawing, conversely, lines drawn in an unfelt, "I'm bored" manner, can have a negative impact on a drawing, resulting in disharmony. This doesn't mean that some lines can't be quick and more casual, even within a polished still life. But caring and involvement, translated directly through the hand, seem to be decisive in making all the elements of a still life connect harmoniously.

Another consideration in creating harmony in a still life is the proximity of objects to one another. The space between them becomes activated if they are somewhat close, or in intimate contact. Still-life elements can also be connected by values taken from the surface and/or background as a unifying bridge. Cast shadows or light also provide links.

Harmony means elements of your picture are in balance as integrated parts of an entity, but not necessarily quiet, serene, or soft. You can create a harmonious arrangement of the most ragged, active elements. When balanced, the viewer's eye keeps moving over the composition, rather than being led out of town or stuck in a large negative space. Think of a successful composition as akin to a well-played game of pinball. The object is to return to big payoff areas toward the center, and move freely around the drawing without getting stuck.

EXIT LINES

We have established that the focal point of a composition should be near the center. Therefore, most effective still lifes keep high-contrast areas and emphatic lines in that area. What about the sides of the drawing? Strong exit lines can be like a posse leading out of town, which is impossible not to follow with the eye. Instead, to keep your viewers returning to your chosen focus, soften contour lines and value contrasts on the outskirts of the significant elements of your drawing. As the artist, that decision is yours; it doesn't matter if the object doesn't actually disappear.

Strong horizontal lines-in a still life, usually in the form of a tabletop-not only draw the eye out of the picture but rivet it as though to the horizon, especially if the line is very bold. To maintain central focus, keep that table-top line soft, diminishing it where it wanders far from the subject.

THUMBNAIL SKETCHES ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES

Beginners intuitively give boundaries to their still life once "schmutz"—those useful value shapes-are added to negative space. An overall border, or frame, emerges in a subtle way, determined by the outside edges of those shapes. However, even such subtle boundaries require planning, which can be made easier by using a primary compositional tool: the thumbnail sketch-a preview device that helps you avoid stepping into common compositional problems. These shorthand sketches are simple, blunt, and undeveloped. They're called thumbnails because they're usually small.

Drawing a frame around your thumbnail establishes decisive borders to define negative-space shapes clearly. In effect, you determine the borders of your still life rather than accept the edges of the paper as the boundary authority. Artists often do several charcoal thumbnails to see which boundaries work best for a drawing and arrangement of negative space. As a general rule, reducing excess negative space strengthens a composition, bringing attention to the drawing's focal point. Charcoal is preferred for thumbnails because it is so direct, decisive, and easy to alter. Those qualities may be unappealing to you if you like to work slowly and want everything to be polished and in place. The mere look of messiness may signal ineptness to you, but the ability to size up all elements quickly to capture the essence of what you see is a skill worth developing. So take advantage of the following exercise to explore the benefits of working with thumbnail sketches.

"Charcoal let me get down on paper quickly what I thought I was seeing. "

-student ann porfilio ..

Thumbnail Sketches Still Life Setup

A charcoal thumbnail sketch like this is an excellent way to plan a still-life composition and define its borders. Thumbnail "frames" are notations for the artist, but do not appear explicitly in a larger drawing based on them, drawing by student sherry artemenko

"I actually really like these drawings, because when I look at all of my work together, they have more energy. The others were more

Static." —student kim nightingale

EXERCISE: THUMBNAIL SKETCH

A thumbnail should include basic shapes and important values. If a black olive is the darkest thing in your still life of cauliflowers and eggs, even though it's small, account for it in your thumbnail. A common pitfall is making a teeny detailed drawing rather than a fast, direct impression that gets to the point. Work quickly. It will force you to let go of conscious control and perfectionism. Use charcoal and newsprint, and have a timer with a loud bell on hand to keep you moving—no more than fifteen minutes for each thumbnail sketch. Refer to the accompanying student examples as you review your own.

"I forced myself to work fast, even though it was really hard, because I was into doing detail. Everyone wound up liking those fast ones best."

-student helen lobrano

1 Set up a casual still life, one you don't have a lot invested in. Use newsprint with your drawing board or your 14"-x-17" pad.

2 Set your timer for fifteen minutes. Draw your first thumbnail on about half of a sheet. Include the whole still life.

3 After the timer goes off, draw a frame around your work. Take your time with this part. Step back to see if you need to adjust the frame to trim unnecessary negative space.

4 Set your timer for ten minutes. Draw your second thumbnail on about a quarter of a sheet (as below). Focus on just an interesting aspect of the still life, not the whole setup. Add frame marks and evaluate.

5 Set your timer for ten minutes or less. Choose an unusual view of the still life—perhaps cropped at an odd place, and draw your frame there. Evaluate.

"I forced myself to work fast, even though it was really hard, because I was into doing detail. Everyone wound up liking those fast ones best."

-student helen lobrano

Thumbnail Sketches Still Life SetupFast Draw TimersWww Life Draw
Adjusting the border on her thumbnail sketch reinforces the focal point of this artist's still life, drawing by student Stephanie seidel

You may find potential compositions within a larger sketch, as this artist has done (below), drawing by student jane wolansky

This artist used pencil in her small sketchbook to try out a composition before rendering it in bold charcoal values, drawings by student rita walker copping

This artist has cropped out one section of the larger thumbnail (above) to see how she likes it as a closeup (right). Which do you prefer? drawings by student sherry artemenko

You may find potential compositions within a larger sketch, as this artist has done (below), drawing by student jane wolansky

This artist used pencil in her small sketchbook to try out a composition before rendering it in bold charcoal values, drawings by student rita walker copping

"I was more successful In timed exercises where I had to react and not think too much. I find if I am reworking something too much, I need to set it aside and start over." —student iim hohorst

USING A VIEWFINDER

Similar to a thumbnail sketch, a camera's viewfinder also creates compositions, letting you cut out of the frame what you don't want. Look through your camera and "take pictures" without film to reinforce your sense of framing a still-life image. Take closeups to experiment with their impact. An empty slide mount is also a wonderful viewfinder. Two L-shaped cutouts allow you to make an expanding and contracting frame held in two hands—or compose your still life with the viewfinder that's always right at hand: your own fingers held up to form a frame.

CONSTRUCTIVE EVALUATION

Step back to review your sketches. If you have large areas of negative space, crop them or add some "schmutz" to break them up. Or do you need to add more space around objects? Rearrange your still life and try the exercise again. If you dislike the "mess" of thumbnails, give yourself time to get used to the results. Keep them. You may find appealing small drawings within larger sketches.

Look for nice arrangements of positive and negative space in the drawings you've done so far. As you look, think of your paper's edges as electrified fences: harmless until you get near them-then, watch out! Compositional tools are critical, and by now, you know why: to keep attention on the focal point of your still life. But there are other reasons why they are important; you must dictate where the creative space of your picture begins and ends. If you don't, a framer will, and can ruin the look of your work. As you develop as an artist, composition will play an increasingly significant role. Even now, an awareness of composition will add to the quality of your informal drawings, as well as deepen your understanding of the art you see in museums and galleries.

One sketch (above) led to a finished drawing (right) when this artist discovered the subject she really wanted to draw within a sketch, drawings by student barbara kops

One sketch (above) led to a finished drawing (right) when this artist discovered the subject she really wanted to draw within a sketch, drawings by student barbara kops

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Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Freehand Sketching An Introduction

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