I truly believe anyone can learn to draw well- and I really wish people were not put off trying by thinking it is somehow innate. Sketching can be one of life’s great satisfactions. As much as you might think you need to work on the mark-making, most people need to practise the looking part more.
For that you don’t even need any art equipment.
When I was still at school I traveled twice a day on the bus and was often really enchanted by various things I saw – Hong Kong in the 1970s was quite exotic. The possibility of stopping to draw was impossible and this was well before the digital era so I had no way to keep or record what I saw. I don’t think I was even thinking about picture making as such but I was very interested in being able to recreate in my drawings what I had seen figuratively and ‘realistically’.
The key to remembering how things look is to simplify and to ask the right questions, whether or not you have your sketching things with you. It has become my habit. I am probably on a spectrum of something or other as I find I must count tones and measure angles just for the pleasure of recording them for myself.
These are my habitual questions;
Firstly, what is it about what you are looking at that catches your attention? This is the most important question as otherwise when you start drawing the thing you liked so much can end up off the page because you felt the need to contextualise all the surrounding stuff. (This is one of my biggest problems)
Secondly, it really is all relative; when you are looking ask yourself questions that measure things relative to one another – Can you simplify the shape of something to a square or rectangle, circle or triangle? Can it be imagined as two simple shapes interlocking? Is the tree bigger than the house? Is the angle of an arm or leg really horizontal or vertical or (I use the clock face as a mental reference) more 2 o’clock or 4 o’clock?
You know when you see artists holding up a pencil and squinting? They are using the length of it to measure one dimension in comparison to another. Tipping the pencil to follow the angle of something and comparing that to the horizontal or vertical will also help get perspective lines accurately.
And thirdly, as I work a lot in black and white I always look at tones and divide everything I see into light, medium and dark. Especially in landscape which can be overwhelming when you are facing it with a tiny scrap of paper and an HB pencil!
So, when you are admiring a view, ask yourself where the light is and where the shadow? How many tones of green can you see in a field? Or look at your hand and squint, to do what my children used to call ‘fuzz-eye’ (just go out of focus a bit) and see if you can identify three differing shades of skin tone. Obviously there is infinity of differing tones, angles and possible places to start a drawing but editing out the complexity makes the whole process more manageable.
When you come to draw having the answers to those questions makes recall much simpler. I am not saying I could accurately recreate everything I look at, but take it from someone who was once asked to draw a horse from memory on the spur of the moment on live television (yes, a very sweaty moment) it helps a lot if you have previously noticed and mentally recorded the shape of something.
When you are drawing from life, regardless of what it is, asking those questions while really looking means you are much more likely to take your time and place your marks more accurately. With practise the questions lodge in your fingers and you wont be aware of your brain doing any of the work.