One Drawing Process

A painter friend and I were discussing our work about a week and a half ago. She pointed out one piece of hers and said, "I don't know where that came from," referring to a figure with a candle coming out of her head. The artist said that she usually just starts painting with little idea of what it will be beyond a formless feeling. I said that I couldn't do that; I always have at least some subject I want to draw or paint chosen ahead of time. She said, "Well, you're more of a designer."

I thought about it and realized she was right. I don't just make marks or paint strokes when I create a piece. I construct a picture based on some subject I have in my mind. That subject is what gives me the passion to start a new drawing or painting. And it pulls me through the process until its completion.

A parallel to those two ways of working would be novelists who create and use an outline and "pantsers," authors who write "by the seat of their pants." There are numerous famous examples of both, and after reading Stephen King's book On Writing, I gave pantsing a try. The result was a pretty good scene. But writing a whole novel that way is something I'd never do, because it creates too much of a need to rewrite whole sections of the story. I see the outline as a framework that you can always change if you need to, and it exists to hang the story on.

In visual art, constructing a picture is a process of putting down the "bones" of the piece: often an animal, the weeds at its feet, the musculature of the subject, the light and shadow in the critter's world. Usually, those bones are all together: the subject and whatever background I might have, drawn on a single sheet of drawing paper.

Other times, though, I can't fully commit to that structure, the arrangement of those bones. So, instead of drawing iteration after iteration of the whole picture, I make several pieces—drawings on separate pieces of paper or Bristol—and put them together digitally.

No Turning Back is one such piece. I wanted a man vs. bear picture, and I wanted it in an environment that isn't quite literal. 

I began with the hunter, a Native American. I sketched him out, then I went to the other elements. This was all in my sketchbook on one page. The mountains were okay as basic shapes, but the eagle (can you see it?) was distracting and poorly placed. Plus, I wanted the hunter's spear to point more directly at the bear.

I was pleased with the line drawing I did of the hunter, but he was a little too static. Also, I wanted the bear to be larger than a real grizzly would actually be. I was going for something that stretched reality somewhat.

Some of the bones of the piece didn't need changing, only developing, but I decided my hunter needed more movement to his pose. So, on a separate page, I tried some other positions for him. I started with a sketch, then moved to a finished drawing on Bristol.

This, like the first version, was done with no reference. His dynamism was greater than the first version: he was running, not standing, fully committed to killing the bear (thus the title, No Turning Back). Once I had his basic pose, I rendered him with an eye toward where the sun would be.

I finished the distant mountain and refined the bear, each a separate drawing on Bristol board. I used Photoshop to put the pieces together, resulting in the final picture which is right here.

If you're so inclined, you might think of such a compilation of separate drawings as organizing paper dolls. I got that image from a comic book artist who had an electronic folder of drawings he had done and would use as needed, cityscapes and the like.

In the theatre world, they'd be set pieces, rearranged to fit the play being shown.

I don't follow this procedure all the time or even most of the time. But it's useful when I've got a mental image of the subjects and the background in my mind but I haven't settled on a final arrangement. In the end, it can save a lot of time compared to redoing a whole piece because one part of it didn't work.

I've had to do that (starting over again) many times in my life, and it's frustrating. When I was a young man, I didn't know any better: I'd just growl a little and start all over again.

Have you ever gotten stuck redoing a piece in an attempt to get it just right?

Have you drawn each important element separately and then arranged them the way you see fit? What about doing this sort of thing in other areas of life, not just the arts?

I'd love to hear about your experiences!


© Stephen D. Wedan