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Part 2: Learning to Paint Realistically

Sketching: the Key

The Illusion of Realism in Art

Regardless of how the artist masters the skill to draw well, a good realistic drawing or painting should appear three-dimensional (i.e., having the dimensions of height, width, and above all, depth). The viewer should get the impression that he might actually be able to reach right around the objects and figure. This illusion comes from a sense of proportion, perspective, and the ability to shade, or represent the light and dark tones of objects and figures realistically. Drawing and shading geometric shapes is the best way to learn to do this. A human arm has much in common with a cylinder, and is shaded much the same. A head is shaped like an egg, and similarly shaded, except where things like hair and facial features interfere. In the ateliers (art schools) of old, students were started out on the sketching and shading of "casts" or small plaster copies of classical sculpture. Once they learned to draw and shade the casts, they were allowed to move on to painting.

Sketch, Sketch, Sketch!

Anyone who wants to paint realistically first needs to sketch or draw well. And the way you learn to sketch is simply by doing it--lots of it. Many people learn to sketch by just doodling on anything handy, notepads, napkins, or anything else. When I was in grade school my friends and I were always drawing pictures on our notebook paper. During the long school days, little boys with artistic inclinations, or simply acute cases of boredom, drew airplanes and soldiers and tanks and cannons and people shooting guns (which today actually gets little schoolboys arrested and taken to jail- thanks to our fear-crazed society) and explosions and all the other things that fascinate little boys, on their notebook paper. The girls, as I remember, drew pretty faces, fairies, elaborate houses, flowers and trees, and girls wearing elaborate dresses swinging on swings suspended from lovely trees. Whoever we were, whatever interested us, we drew-- sketched. As a teenager I was fascinated by the ink drawings in the Mad Magazine's paperback books, and imitated the way the magazine's staff artists drew hands, feet, and faces. I drew so much that if a teacher or a school club needed a poster of an upcoming school event to advertise it, they asked me to create it, which I was flattered to do. Later, in college, I was always doodling in the margins of my college notes during lectures; drawing balls, cylinders, triangles, and other shapes, shading them carefully and absent-mindedly as I listened to the teacher, and I realize now that this idle experience has actually helped me a great deal in drawing and painting today. The art classes that I took for extra credit in college (art was not my major study, or even my minor one; those being archaeology and geology) just made these sketching experiences more formal and directed. I have to admit that I never really got much out of art classes, except for getting the chance to drawing real humans from life--that was something new.

The fact is, one doesn't need art classes to become a good artist. All you need to do is sketch--anything, whatever you choose, but do it often. Norman Rockwell, perhaps the best realist artist America has ever produced, amused his friends as a boy by drawing cartoons on city sidewalks with chalk, and sketching pictures of his relatives on paper with pencils. When he did get the chance to go to an art school, he only attended a little while before dropping out, figuring he wasn't learning much, it was expensive, and he could do just as well or better on his own. It's a typical story.

Something I'm often asked: does a person have to have a "gift"--some sort of native, built-in ability--to draw and paint well? Many people say you do. Others insist that draftsmanship (the fancy word for accurate drawing) can be learned. I have no opinion on the subject, because I just don't know. I believe that some people do have a good built-in sense of proportion that makes it easier for them to learn to draw well, because I have seen people produce good drawings who have apparently sketched very little, but it's entirely possible that this skill can be developed in someone who doesn't have it to begin with. When I run across some of my early drawings I am always impressed with how awkward and out-of-proportion they look, so I suspect whatever drawing ability I have now came from all those hours of idle doodling and sketching whenever the opportunity arose, constantly improving what I did. My drawing only grew more realistic after many hours of informal sketching. There are many stories of succesful artists seeking out their early work to destroy it, and prevent other people from seeing it, which indicates that their skill increased considerably over time, to the point where they are embarrassed and ashamed of what they did in the beginning. This would seem to indicate that their talent was developed by practice, and was not inherent.

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