The other week, I took some vacation time from my day job at the bank to go to the Toronto School of Art for a three-day, full time intensive. This turned out to be a really, really good choice. Exhausting, but good. The workshop was Structural Bodies
taught by Thomas Hendry
, and it had the specific focus of giving depth and dimensionality to drawings.
Which is handy, since the lack of dimension has been consistently one of the biggest flaws in my drawings.
The first day, we had a model who wore black and white stripes pretty much from head to toe. Leggings, leotard, even stockings on her arms. This was super helpful. Instead of having to imagine the direction a cross-contour line would take, it was right there in, well, black and white. Seeing it, for the first time, I understood how to use cross-contours to indicate direction. I had managed this before in my drawings, but only inconsistently and by fluke. Now I know how to do it intentionally. So, if you're having a hard time figuring out which way to put a curved line, try wrapping some string around a drawing dummy, and posing it. I know that's what I'll be doing the next time I get stumped.
Having finally gotten a grasp on how lines convey direction, I worked really methodically for the rest of the intensive. Because this was a new technique for me, the process was more important than the end product. Slow, repetitive and intentional practice is the best way to reinforce something you're just learning to do. Worry about the process, not the performance. It's like practicing scales on the piano. Study them mechanically so that you can use what you learned to support something more expressive later on. But you need to have the technique down before you can use it.
Part of my approach was to actually draw the eye line on each piece, rather than assuming I'd remember or know where I meant for it to be. This helped when I was trying to figure out if something was coming toward me or moving away. So I did a quick study of the main masses of the body, and then went back in and refined where there were smaller masses and forms of the individual muscle groups.
After spending a couple of days doing this, I got what was, for me, the real "eureka" moment: I was able to see the planes of the figure. This was huge. I'd attempted planar studies before, but was never able to figure out what I was looking at, or how to express it on paper. All of a sudden, I could see the block shapes and round shapes. I'd read Bridgman, of course, but had never understood what he was talking about. And then, I did. It was like a Matrix switch got flipped somewhere in my head, and I could see the edges of planes, and the block shapes. It's a little trippy, because I see them all the time now, little fractal lines on everything I look at. It's a pretty big shift in perception, and I'm still figuring out how to process it.
So, if you're anything like me, and you find the anatomy and figure drawing and life drawing reference books confusing and intimidating, don't let it stop you. Copy the drawings from the book by rote until you understand them. While you're doing that, draw from life every chance you get. And at least once in a while, don't be afraid to make a mechanical, methodical study instead of a work of art.
You never know what it can lead to.