Studio Mysteries

July 20, 2009

A Headdress of Shadows

Filed under: Drawing, Portraiture — Anya Galkina - Studio Mysteries @ 9:07 pm

A drawing is a map of the artist’s decisions. The pleasures of improvisation aside, those decisions generally cluster in stages, just as building a house generally takes place as a series of consecutive steps.

There are roughly three stages of working on a drawing that claims some degree of realism:

1. Defining the subject through lines. This is where you figure out how many rooms the house has, and where the windows go. In other words, the artist makes decisions about composition, figures out the scale and structure of the object, tracks its weight, movement, shapes, planes and assorted bits.

The reason all these things need to be worked out first is that it’s fairly painful to do a beautiful job shading out a detailed face, let’s say, only to realize that the nose should have been exactly 1 inch to the left .

2. “Dressing” the image in light and shadow shapes. A drawing teacher I used to know said that art is easy – you just darken the dark bits and lighten the light bits. But how do you know which is which? You squint hard and sketch the outline of the shadows and the lights.

It’s good to do that first, before doing any complicated shading, because keeping track of *where* the darks and lights are is a job of the same magnitude as figuring out *how* light and how dark to make things.

3. Making the dark bits dark and the light bits light. At this point, the artist rocks out with a full range of values, balancing out the light and shadow until it’s right.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

HeadDrawing - Erl

This is Erl. Erl is about my grandfather’s age, in his seventies. He reminds me of Cohen the Barbarian from Terry Pratchett’s novels: a grizzly old survivor of excesses and insanities, with tattoos and piercings still broadcasting HARDASS even if the flesh that’s home to them is growing frailer and softer.

Erl regaled us with stories of the times he broke his neck (notice I said “times”, plural) and how he went sober 23 years ago and stayed that way. Then he reprised his role from Blade for us (he was in Blade!) and yelled at us in Vampire Language until I almost ran away from fear. Erl discarded the letter “A” from his name, because, quote, it’s not doing anything.

Erl’s portrait above got to Stage 2 by the end of the class. It’s pretty amazing how just indicating light and shadow areas can tell the viewer so much about the form and what they are looking at, even if there are virtually no details. I think light and shadow shapes are the primary way humans read visual information – everything else comes later, after it’s totally clear that no predator is in the vicinity and there is ample time for gawking.

Although learning to break the image down in this way has been a huge step forward for me, I can’t wait to actually get down and boogie with some detail.


  1. Oh I like this so much – it is already a very powerful image, oozing with character. Erl rocks!

    Well articulated 3 stages – you can’t beat drawing from live models. It teaches you to really learn how to see and in this drawing you totally prove that knowing where (and how) to draw light and shadow transforms shapes into forms.

    There goes my argument (in the never-ending debate with my teen) that tattoos and piercings on elderly bodies would look sad. Next time, keep some garlic spray handy.

    The new blog theme is très cool – slick, clean and contemporary; framing your images without detracting from them. Very nice.

    Comment by InkSplodge! — July 22, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  2. Thanks, June! With regards to tattoos/piercings, Erl told us that he was a bodybuilder in the 80s and spent many years putting in 3+ hours a day, 6 days a week lifting weights. So that’s why he doesn’t look like a typical older person would – your boy still faces The Sag unless he’s prepared to put in this kind of gym time! (This should be a deterrent, right?)

    Comment by Anya Galkina - Studio Mysteries — July 23, 2009 @ 1:27 am

  3. This portrait in this stage is mesmerizing. Interesting subject, interesting pattern of lights and darks.

    Comment by lesliepaints — September 2, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  4. Thank you very much, Leslie Who Paints! 🙂

    It’s hard to go wrong with Erl. The dude is fierce.

    Comment by Anya Galkina - Studio Mysteries — September 4, 2009 @ 5:38 am

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