Friday, March 28, 2008

Drawing with mechanical and optical aids

Marmande - study #1
7" x 5", coloured pencils

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Artists have been using mechanical and optical aids to help them with their drawing for a very long time. However views about which are "OK" and which are not tends to vary quite a bit and can, on occasion, stimulate lots of debate!

This post provides an overview - with links - to some of the aids which artists have used to help them get an image down on a surface over the centuries. At the end of this post, you'll hear about one which many of you may not have heard about or tried before.

Historical mechanical and optical drawing aids

In the past some artists used the camera obscura to produce images. The most famous artist who is believed to have used one being Johannes Vermeer. If you've ever wanted to find out more about how it works or look at one, the wikipedia article provides an extensive explanation plus a list of sites around the world where they still exist.

The camera lucida is another device which has apparently been used to aid drawing as it allows the artist to see both image and drawing simultaneously.

The development of linear perspective in art is one of those subjects which is hugely intriguing in relation to the devices which were developed in order to try and get it right. Bruce MacEvoy (Hand print) provides us with a masterful overview of all of this in his elements of perspective. It includes images of the various perspective machines which were invented and descriptions of the different ways and tools - including the perspective grid - which people used to try and to get to grips with linear perspective

A Claude Glass was used to simplify the tonal pattern of a view and is associated with the great French landscape painter Claud Lorraine. The odd thing about it was that the user had to turn away from the view to use it!

Modern drawing aids

Today the devices people use are both simpler - and more complicated!

Let's start with the really complicated! I'm a complete novice when it comes to the digital applications which can now create the same effects as some of the historical devices. However I gather rather a lot can be done using digital software. I do know it can be used to visualise three dimensional structures when producing graphical imagery whether it's in films, comics or just home improvement shows!

Coming to the much simpler end of things - I've got a section on the drawing aids I use in my website's section about Art materials and other resources.

Probably the most popular drawing aid that we use today is the camera. Photography is used by artists who make extensive use of aids to copy photographs and by artists who just use photos as references to supplement any sketches or paintings done in front of the subject. Developing your skills in using a camera can pay dividends.

Assessing values is always important when drawing and can be difficult if you're drawing in difficult light. You can also see on my website the very simple Val-U-Viewer I use. The red acetate in this renders a coloured image (whether the subject or your own work) into a monochromatic value pattern. The use of a preprinted value scale can also be incredibly useful if you're trying to translate colour into value.

When I'm out sketching I often take a very simple card viewfinder with me - or I use my camera's zoom lens and viewfinder to try cropping a view in different ways even if I don't take any photos. It's a lot easier and quicker to make decisions about what works if I've got something blanking out what is around it. I've also got another card which helps with checking scale when out and about. You can see images of both in the drawing aids section.

I mostly draw freehand but sometimes I use a simple grid system when working on a complicated drawing. It's mainly used to ensure I get proportions correct if I'm trying to do an accurate drawing of a building. You can see an example in this post Palacio de Mondragon, Ronda. I tried doing it freehand and just found I could not get the arches right - so out came the grid for that small section in the centre of the work!

Some people use tracing paper to trace from photographs. Personally, I find tracing incredibly boring and longwinded and reduces the scope to practice my freehand drawing skills. As a result I have used it precisely once in the last 10 years - and that was in a class I took! However for some people it can be quicker than drawing freehand. To be useful it really needs to be used by an artist who knows how to correct for photographic distortion and also understands their subject well and what is misrepresented in a photograph. I also think it works better when used in a minimalistic way to get the proportions of big shapes and very critical small details otherwise drawings can develop a cardboard cut-out 'look'.

Some people use projectors - and then place their paper on the surface which is being projected on to. Again, this has the same potential problems as tracing in relation to copying from photographs - which often 'lie' and misrepresent. With projection comes the added complication of inadvertently projecting at an angle and adding in an additional distortion.

Print a digital image onto art paper: This is the 'new' technique which I've not seen documented anywhere before (until I read the May copy of American Artist) - although I have to say I had come to the conclusion some time ago that it was being used by some artists. The technique involves converting a computer image of a photograph into a grey and white version and then printing it out direct onto Stonehenge paper or acetate suitable for printers. I'm not clear whether this is intended to just print line or it prints both line and tone. However, whichever it is this is very fast compared to tracing for more complicated and/or larger works. Of course it brings with it all the same caveats and reservations which mechanical copying is subject to. Output size is also limited by the type and size of printer. Naturally it will also only work with supports which can be used in a printer - which means it can't be used by artists using heavier weight supports and boards such as pastelbord.

Now - given we're coming up to the 31st March deadline for entries to this year's CPSA Annual Exhibition, it's worth noting that the rules of CPSA state quite clearly that
No images produced by drawing over a digital reproduction allowed.
CPSA annual exhibition prospectus: specifications 2008
So what this means is that this last method is strictly off limits for that competition. It will also not be allowed for the UKCPS exhibitions as from 2009.

I don't believe this point got highlighted in the major online debates about 'copying from photos' and 'collaborations' which were a hot topic in the coloured pencil world at the beginning of this month - but it's worth emphasising. The bottom line is it may be a useful technique but it can cause problems if you want to enter competitions.

Personally I will continue to subscribe to the view that the best technique of all for me is my constant practice of freehand drawing skills. Like regularly doing small studies from life such as the one at the top of this post. It's no great shakes either as a composition or a finished piece of work - but then I was only drawing a couple of tomatoes out of the fridge and doing quick studies like these keep my hand-eye co-ordination for drawing in good working order!

The question of what is the right balance between an artist exercising their own personal drawing skills or supplementing with skills they've developed in the use of mechanical or optical devices is one of those never-ending debates in visual arts. I'm one of those who leans more towards the personal rather than the technological end of the range of options. But that's because I LIKE drawings which aren't exact and don't always look like photographs.

Whatever the answer is it's certainly the case that many artists have used aids of various sorts for their drawing for centuries.

Do you use a drawing aid which I've omitted? Which method do you favour and why? Which way do you lean - towards an emphasis on hand-eye co-ordination or the use of technological aids?



  1. I believe in aids for those beginning to learn to draw, as it provides confidence. However, I I encourage students not to try to rely on them as a crutch and to develop their eye/hand coordination.

    Even with something like tracing projection, if its used correctly, it can be very useful to an artist in marking out the major points of a drawing and giving a place to measure from. After all, the art is in creating the shading and form, not the outline. If it was different, everyone in the world could be an artist and trace drawings. But we know that doesn't happen.

    I use grids from time to time, as many people have, to construct complex drawings where accuracy is vital. But most of the time I stick with freehand drawing, simply because I'm too lazy to go through all the trouble of other methods! :)

  2. As usual, very interesting Katherine. The "colouring in" of digital grey-scale prints on paper is a technique that I saw in a book by Sandra Angelo ("Exploring Colored Pencil" eg p40), and have tried myself. Not going to comment further except to say that it works, but pictures produced using this technique would not be allowed in UKCPS Exhibitions as they are not pure coloured pencil - printers ink being involved.

    Agree totally with your comment on drawing skills being absolutely essential.

  3. Jeanette - good point about using aids to help people learning to draw.

    I guess it's a bit like learner plates when learning to drive the car - at some point you have to have a go at doing it for real and on your own! :)

    I'm like you - it has to be something really difficult to make me even contemplate doing a grid!

    Bob - I've not seen that book. I must say I've never even thought of putting fine art paper through a printer. I got my early lessons in handling fine art paper from people who were insistent that I be careful about how I handled it just from the point of view of the natural oils we have in our finger tips! I'm sure my tutors would have had a fit if they ever saw me approaching a printer with a piece of fine art paper!

  4. Being an artist almost my whole life and a student of art from time to time, this subject occasionally bumps across my mind. Just the other day, I was asked if I used a "grid", as the inquirer had observed another artist doing so and thought that all artists operated this way. Honestly, I have tried gridding, but for me it takes away the freshness of artistically capturing the subject. I think you addressed it by mentioning 'drawing practice'. It helps one to rely more on what is seen with the artist's eye. Thanks for taking on this controversial matter.

  5. Jeanette makes a great point...I remember being very frustrated learning to draw and others in a class just being able to "see" it right away.

    Having now practiced more though I'd say the challenge of getting it right enough freehand is a big part of the fun (that and it is way too much effort to grid)! :-)

  6. I agree with Pattie that gridding and tracing and obviously colouring in over a print take away the freshness.

    They kill spontaneity stone dead and mean you don't make minor changes enhancing a composition - and definitely no major changes.

    The small quirks of drawing freehand don't happen and work loses individuality and could have been done by anyone :>(

    I would find it excruciatingly boring to colour in over a print.

    I find a slightly wonky freehand drawing far more interesting than a neat tracing.

  7. Some years ago I had the good fortune to be part of a project drawing in the Camera Lucida at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. I believe it's still open to the public, though we had special permission to work in there with the public watching.

    One thing about a camera lucida is that you need semi-darkness in order for the reflected image to show on the surface. Which makes working quite challenging! I don't know if a similar problem exists with projector based systems you can get nowadays. Since I was the only person in the activity working with paint what I found was that colour was impossible in the half-light. You just had no idea of what you were laying down. So I worked with limited palettes - for example one was yellow (light), green (midtone) and blue (dark). It make for interesting, though vibrant!, images.

    I think whatever aids an artist can be a good thing if it's not used as a crutch for a weakness. And someone might start out tracing but quickly move on. Or choose elements of the process to keep and others to lose. I do agree with you about drawing skills though. Without actually learning drawings skills though none of the tools will allow an artist to progress much.

    And "sketching" isn't necessarily the same as drawing. I think of drawing more as capturing a likeness, whereas sketching can have other purposes. Likeness, or capturing light or ideas or selective details. Personally I love scribbly sketching without lifting my pencil from the paper.

  8. I sometimes use mechanical aids when I create a painting, including a camera, working out a composition on the computer, and transferring drawings to a surface using a grid.

    However, I don't let those mechanical aids take away from the fact that draftsmanship and drawing skills are important to me, and help me to understand the 3 dimensional aspects of anything I'm trying to capture in 2 dimensions. I make a point to draw or sketch every day to keep up with those skills.

    Also, by the time I've transferred my drawing to a canvas and started painting, it's gone through several iterations already, and once the lines get covered up by paint, I'm on my own!

  9. Sometimes I find a complicated image requires a grid, particularly painting a portrait from a reference. With oils the drawing disappears very quickly under the paint but hopefully by then I'm feeling more confident about what I'm doing.

    I used to sketch my watercolours first, iron out all the problems, and then trace them on to the watercolour paper. In the end I found the process really deadened the drawing, so now I sketch lightly, directly on to the watercolour paper.

    But I must tell you about my favourite tool! I use a set of dividers when I'm working from a photograph reference on my laptop screen to establish proportions. Being careful not to pierce the screen (!) I can transfer measurements to my paper and even scale them up if I wish. Only problem is that I have not been able to buy a good set of dividers - seems nobody uses them anymore! Mine is a compass converted by replacing the lead with a point from another compass.

  10. Katherine, your tomatoes are wonderful. I should know, I once painted tomatoes and HWEM said, 'Very good, but they don't look like real tomatoes!'

  11. Optical aids are what they are: aids, tools. A tool is used when applicable and when there is no better means to work without them. That applies to everything not only painting. An impressionist landscape painter would hardly use tracing paper or a digital print out to lay down his image. On the other hand an architectural, hyperrealist painter who plainly wants to include as many details as possibly into painting very well needs grid, digital print out or any other means that helps him/her to achieve the goal.

    In my opinion optical aids can never make up for weaknesses in design and craftmanship as many as you ever may use. There is no replacement for learning your techniques the long way other than through practice and practise and practise again.

    Condemning optical or any other aid is a common prejudice that I - must admit this - had to throw over board as well. And I fully did because I realized there is defintely no way to hide insufficiences with any technical aid.

    Btw - well known contemporary artists like Gottfried Helnwein -,
    Gerhard Richter -
    use huge digital prints as basic canvas for their paintings. No-one would ever doubt their mastery on modern media painting.

  12. Good topic. What little formal training I had was in the French academic tradition, where optical and mechanical aids are essentially viewed as cheating. A lot of these artists clearly state that they only work directly from life; it seems to be a real badge of honor.

    I'm glad I held on to that viewpoint for a while. It's good discipline and I'd recommend it to anybody just getting started. Since then, however, I've come to the conclusion that art is more a mental activity than a hand-eye coordination exercise. The means of production is pretty trivial compared to the quality of the artistic sensiblity, and anything that helps me make a better painting is well worth using.

    So... rather than working directly from a still-life setup, I now take a digital image of it and display it on a computer monitor next to my easel. With a few keystrokes I can render it in grayscale for value judgements, blur the image to better see overall shapes, and enlarge it for detailed work. Sometimes it even helps to rotate the image and the painting 90 or 180 degrees. Getting that initial image is actually a lot of careful work... usually a number of takes for composition and lighting, and a fair amount of post-processing once it's on the computer. It's also where I make most of the big decisions, so I've come to see it as an integral part of making a painting. For a long time i resisted using projection (hangover from that old academic bias, I'm sure), and only did grid transfers for the initial drawing. But... I decided there wasn't a whole of virtue in pain and difficulty for it's own sake, so I recently bought a projector and life is better.

    This is obviously not suited to everybody, but it fits who I am and my style of work. I do believe it's helped me move closer to the kind of painter I want to be.

  13. Thought I would weigh in on this:

    As an amateur photographer and now a beginner watercolourist, I find it easy to distinguish camera copied art from original unaided art (usually the former all have a similar and unoriginal vision).

    Apart from the obvious - lens view vs: stereoscopic eye view, I believe unaided art requires braveness and a great force of character to set down on paper what the eye sees.

    The venture (of unaided art) reveals ones true signature and style, replete with mistakes, foibles and genius.

    I don't dare use a camera, however for those who feel they need the crutch (and if that is what it takes to develop creativity) then by all means!

  14. Sometimes I hold up a 6" ruler the way I would hold up a pencil. It's enormously helpful for proportions. For example, I'd move the ruler so the height of the tomato fell on an inch mark, and keeping the ruler at the same distance, turn it so I could see the width.

    A ruler settles those arguments like "I like the orange better than the apple so it should be bigger".

    It simplifies finding midlines, too. When I use a pencil, after I gauge how big something is, I have to guess what half that length is.

    Thanks for the post. It gave me some good insights.



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