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Why Drawing is Essential For Painters

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

You need to be able to draw to paint well.

To be clear, you dont't need to be able to draw well, you just need to be able to draw.

Case in point: My friend Ken Gillespie is a world class painter, yet I don't believe he has ever owned a sketchbook. He will be the first to tell you that he can't draw (although he can draw very well).

The kind of drawing I’m talking about doesn't always show up in the pencil-and-sketchbook form. It shows up in many other guises. Elements such as composition, structure and perspective aside, the most important element in a drawing is “identification"

Let's have a quick look at how the brain works…

I am not a doctor or a brain specialist, but I will try to describe the brain's functions in terms hopefully most of you will understand.


Caveman (Cave Person)

The brain functions on a primal neanderthal level. Always has, always will. It's in our DNA. It’s primary function is to keep us alive with the simple equation of "eat or be eaten". The brain only needs two pieces of information to solve this dilemma . What and Where.

  1. What am I looking at?

  2. Where is it in space?

What is that object? Is it food I can eat? Am I the food? Will I be eaten? Is it coming toward me and if it is then I'm probably the food! If it is moving away from me then it’s probably my food and I should chase it.

These instinctual thoughts are the very first thing the brain is unraveling when it looks at anything - including a piece of art.

The key to any convincing painting is getting the what and the where to be believable. If you can do that, you are (almost) home free.

You don't need to be able to draw realistically, just good enough to satisfy the brain. In other words, what is important is not necessarily realism but believability. This is why the French Impressionists are so popular.


The What

In the basement of your brain, last door on the right, is The Department of Visual Memory. This office houses a giant filing cabinet of everything you have ever looked at. When you look at something, the eye draws a line around it files that "silhouette" or icon away for later identification.

If what you are looking at is recognizable and shows up in your memory, then Bob's Your Uncle. If not, you're in trouble and the Department of Visual Memory starts to hand out any files that look like anything close to what you're seeing. This is why in the dark, tree stumps can look like wild animals or on a sunny day, clouds can look like Mickey Mouse.


The What Test

This is an apple...

You say to me, "that, good sir is not an apple, perhaps it’s a cherry but not an apple" I say “but it’s round and has a stem on it, so it’s an apple.” Yet you still don't believe me.

So I draw it again and make a very minor adjustment.

You now say, “That, my good sir, is most certainly an apple and a scrumptious one at that.”

The change between the two drawings is very minor but it makes all the difference. You don't have to draw well but if your barn doesn't look like a barn or your cows don't have a cow-like shape, you are not going to convince anyone with your painting.


The Where

The brain tries to determine where something is in space. Near, far, coming or going. In the front half of the brain, the penthouse suite of the head, are the offices of the prefrontal cortex . Within these offices is the Spatial Relations Department and they are in charge of the Where.

This department lets us know if the object we're looking at is near or far. Is it near enough that I should chase it down to eat it? Or is it far away and perhaps I should I call "skip the dishes" tonight and order in.

In art, the Where relates to linear perspective. Without this our paintings become flat and two dimensional.

As in the previous drawing - with the addition of three simple lines we now have an apple that exists in space.


The Where Test

Here is a Ken Gillespie painting.

The mountains are simplified but they contain the ingredients to be recognized as a mountain. They're slightly blue. Little bit pointy and have some lighter stuff we identify as snow. Trees are the pointy kind, not the bouffant kind, which happen to grow near mountains. The land in the front has just enough perspective lines in it to give you the spacial relations.

In this Amy Dryer painting the people contain just the right amount of “carrot shape” to look like humans. The umbrella shape is so iconic that when it is placed above the carrot shape they are easily identified, Satisfying the what. The use of overlap give us perspective and the where factor.

No need to draw well just enough to identify the main object. Heck you don't even have to even draw all the flowers. This Kimberly Keil painting is your classic “guilty by association” painting. If you paint one or two recognizable things then paint blobs in the same colour near the identifiable shape, those blobs take on the persona of the identifiable shape.

The brain says "if that big red one is a flower, and the green bits are leaves and the sticky stem things look like stems, then the other red blobs must be flowers as well.”


If you learn to sketch a little, it will help your painting tremendously. So grab yourself a sketchbook and keep those pencils sharp.

Your friend in art,


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