Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “life drawing”

On The Benefits of Drawing

About 10 years ago I leveled up my artistic practice in all areas after discovering the classical atelier system of art education.

Before that time I had been piecing together my own slow, winding learning trajectory in the realism painting genre, unintentionally slowing my progression with an over-reliance on photographic reference. In contrast, the atelier system is based on working directly from life, whether it be a live model, a still life, or a landscape.

Painting from life in Ohio, 2017

“Lower Falls at Old Man’s Cave”, 8x 10 inches, oil on panel, 2017

In short, observing directly with one’s own eyes forces the brain and the artist’s hand to convert the 3 dimensions of real life into the 2 dimensions of a flat canvas.

Over time our eyes-brain-hand feedback loop becomes seamless, and we learn how to reproduce exactly what we see. The real-time, real life mental calculations of angles, lines, curves, planes, perspective, light and shadow, and millions of color possibilities have a measurable result: if the drawing or painting looks indistinguishable from what we’re observing, then those myriad calculations are overwhelmingly correct. Of course, eventually, an artist needs to learn how, when, and where to diverge from absolute accuracy in order to create a work of art that transcends the mere replication of reality…but the learning process that we submit to in order to reach that point is surprisingly valuable in its own right.

Arguably the single most important artistic discipline or skill, simple life drawing is actually a fairly complex amalgam of skills, requiring at least a rudimentary working knowledge of geometry, physics, optics, and the ability to plan sequentially. True life drawing begins as little more than primitive map making–the plotting of coordinates in space–and ends ideally with an incredibly nuanced understanding of the physics of form, mass, and light.

This great article I stumbled across got me thinking about drawing; what it forces our brains to do, and how it benefits our brains. While intended for the non-artist reader, it makes great cross-disciplinary connections and serves as a nice reminder and motivator for anyone who is an actual practicing artist, of just how valuable drawing is to our art.


“Form & Emptiness”, graphite on paper, 2012

Form & Emptiness (detail), graphite on paper, 2012

Notes & Advice 4: Clear Seeing and Accurate Drawing

Earlier this month I attended a 3 day intensive drawing course hosted by an artistic mentor of mine, Edward Povey.  This course started from the absolute  foundations of drawing–clear and simple seeing, lines, and shapes–and progressed by the third day, after a brief foray into tone and value, into a full-fledged classical still life.

While I had taken a similar foundations of drawing course around a decade ago (wow, that sounds like I’m old…and an “adult.” Wierd.) in art college, I wanted to revisit these incredibly important disciplines in order to sharpen up my artistic skills.  Edward taught the course with a combination of classic drawing exercises, and insightful personal anecdotes about the nature of seeing. His philosophy emphasized the faithful recording what we see, in the tradition of “the humble craftsman.”

Exercise: reproduce the Picasso drawing upside down, without regard to subject matter. Simply observe line, shapes, and proportions.

Many of the exercises were taken directly from the popular book by Betty Edwards Drawing On the Right Side of The Brain (which I personally have never read, but can now vouch for after this experience), such as the Vase/Face exercise which you can see here.  One of the most demonstrative exercises consisted of trying to reproduce a complex line shape in exact precision while simultaneously counting aloud, from 50 to zero. I won’t spoil the amusing results of conducting such an experiment by describing them in detail here, in case you should decide to try it yourself. But let’s just say, it puts the two sides of your brain into a major state of conflict.

All drawing consists of, is working with one’s own mind.

The most poignant lesson that was reinforced for me over the 3 days was the emphasis on clear, simple seeing.  Much like a meditation practice, this places emphasis on simply seeing the physical reality before us in all of its detailed truthfulness, without the confusion nor illusion of belief. For example, our mind knows and believes that a human arm may be approximately 3 feet long, but when seen in sharp perspective, the appearance of the arm becomes far shorter (aka ‘foreshortened’), and we must account for this when drawing it on a 2-dimensional surface.  This cognitive dissonance between our belief about the arm and the reality of how it appears on our retinas (and therefore must appear on the paper) is the reason why drawing complex forms with complete accuracy is incredibly difficult.  Therefore an artist must learn to disconnect from certain areas of thought in their brain, and tune into the unembellished truth of reality, breaking it down into simple criteria of line, shape, and negative space (the areas or shapes between/around featured subject matter).  Extreme precision in this task can be achieved with measuring techniques and devices, but it is not impossible to do so completely with one’s own eyes and mind.  It takes patience, practice, and a willingness to let go of our ego and all of its beliefs.

Words of wisdom.

As a painter of realism, this practice is indispensable for me.  All of my aesthetic illusions must be grounded in, must stem from, the fundamental truth of how objects or spaces look in reality, or else their believability will be compromised.  Not to mention, the strength of all representational art in the first place, regardless of chosen specialty or chosen illusions, lies in the accurate reproduction of 3D forms onto a 2D surface.

Subjecting oneself to the rigors of classical drawing training is the most efficient way to stay sharp, no matter how advanced or practiced one is. It’s the same concept as strengthening muscles by going to the gym.  After a while, certain drawing exercises are likely to make less of an impact as they become more familiar/easier, and just as with physical strength, the artist can increase the artistic challenge by adding time limits or more complex subject matter. I strongly encourage all artists to revisit the simple disciplines of drawing as a way to “work out” their skills of observation and their representational accuracy.

Here’s my completed drawing from the final day of the class:

Form & Emptiness, Graphite on Paper, 2012, 12in x 9in

Form & Emptiness (detail). The title of this piece is a reference to the Buddhist teachings on the nature of reality, as represented by the dominating dark form in the center of the composition bearing my reflection, and of course by the empty glass and mug. This title is also a reference to the similarities between the clear seeing techniques used for drawing, and the awareness cultivated in meditation practice.

Art & Life: 12 suggestions for breaking through artist’s block

Artistic blocks and dry spells are a phenomenon that nearly every artist expereinces at one time or another in life.  A recent email from an artist friend of mine inspired me to compile a list of suggestions, based on my own experiences, for getting past personal hurdles and into the studio to create anew.

1. Read more classical literature, or fiction in general. Creativity in writing–describing imagery and emotion through the written word–translates very nicely to mental images and from there, into visual artwork.  Well-written books contain beautiful creativity with language and often deal with inspiring ideas and themes.

2. Read the book “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s basically a big career peptalk from artists who know what the struggles of creating are like. I found it very inspiring and encouraging, and then went out and produced my “Rebuilding” series after reading it.

3. Go to more gallery openings and art museums. Even just a quick stroll through a museum can be enough to fill your head with fresh imagery or new ideas, or artists to research further and thus get inspired.

4. Seek out artists you look up to or admire and try reaching out to them via email or other means.  If they’re willing, pick their brain, ask their advice.

5. Draw from life! All that’s needed are graphite, paper, and an object or figure placed in front of you. Take all the pressure of creativity and concept out of the equation by simply drawing what you see, accurately, efficiently, like recording data, with no importance placed on the final outcome. Set a time limit if needed. And keep it as simple as possible so that in no more than 5 minutes you can be set up and already drawing. Let your mind go while you simply record visual information. It will jog your “muscle memory” and your artistic instincts will activate after a while, once the creative pump has been primed by the physical act of mark-making.

6. Do “loosening up” exercises like painting or drawing with your canvas or composition upside down, working in 2-value light/dark only, setting a time limit to force yourself into instinctual decisions and spontaneity, fingerpainting or splatter painting or palette-knife painting, etc. Put no emphasis on the quality of the final product, simply get into the act of carefree, unhindered, un-self-conscious mark-making. Through this, various exploratory avenues may likely suggest themselves through ‘happy accidents.’

7. Take an art class, even if it’s something you’re already familiar with. Surrender yourself to the teacher’s process and instruction just for the sake of loosening the restrictive frustrations you’re under, giving yourself the positive experience of ‘a fresh start.’

8. Simplify your life—maybe you’re taking on too many burdens or unsatisfying and daunting life projects, leaving no energy left over for other needs and desires, like making art and expressing yourself. For many people, a complicated or overdramatic social life can take over. Not to mention vices such as intoxication or substance abuse.  Learn to set boundaries and achieve balance.

9. Visit another artist’s studio and watch them work.  Imagine yourself in their place, picture yourself solving the visual problems they’re currently working with in their piece.  This can jumpstart your creative and productive mindset.

10. Experiment with a meditation practice, such as mindfulness of breathing or more inquiry-based methods like Vipassana.  Taking the time to clear your mind or simply look deeply into the thoughts that arise can lead to valuable insights or momentary glimpses into fascinating subconscious realms lurking just below the surface of mundane or stress-based thought patterns.

11. Keep a dream journal next to your bed so that it’s easy to write descriptions of the bizarre worlds and situations you encounter in your sleep, immediately upon waking.  The free-formed, non-linear nature of the dream state is fertile ground for unique and highly personal creative ideas and symbolism.

12. Travel.  Simply put, going somewhere–anywhere–that is outside of your daily routine or environment stimulates the mind and the senses like nothing else.  New experiences in different places force us to activate the creative and problem-solving areas of our brains, making the sights, tastes, and smells incredibly poignant to our previously under-stimulated minds.  This often translates into powerful impressions, memories, ideas, and inspiration.