The Last Trimester at the FAA and Upcoming Projects

With another academic year about to begin, and our major summer trips behind us, I’m thinking more and more about the new projects that I’m about to tackle at the FAA. This next and final year will be dominated by painting still lifes, portraits and the figure. In other words, it will be filled with very fun and very challenging work.

The preceding years of training at the Academy are essentially designed for preparing the students for the third year, during which they tackle projects that are usually more close to their hearts and artistic outlooks. This not only because students get to choose their own still life and portrait projects, but also because projects taken up in their final year often direct their future artistic choices.

Before I immerse myself in all the exciting work in my final year, I want to share with you how I’ve been preparing for it during my last trimester at the Academy.

The big change in the last trimester is that I almost entirely switched from drawing to painting – first in grisaille (ivory black, led white and raw umber) and subsequently in limited palette (all of the mentioned above, plus English red and Roman ochre).

In other ways, the type of work I did in my last trimester did not dramatically change – I continued to work with casts in the studio and nude models in the model room. The only new type of project I had as a part of the curriculum was my first portrait drawing in charcoal.

As far as the lessons learned in the last trimester, the emphasis was put by the teachers on the accurate description of the flow of light, the turning of form, variety of edges and plane changes, as well as the correct paint application. While the first four fall in the range of lessons previously taught, lessons in paint application were new and inevitably tied to the change of medium I was going through.

I was taught that, ideally, one should start by applying paint thinly at the beginning stages while working out the drawing, and moving towards thicker paint application as the project progresses. One should also try to apply the brush strokes so as to convey the changing rhythms and planes on the subject. At the Academy, students are required to premix their paints before the start of each session, in generous amounts. This was definitely a novelty for me, as I am used to mixing paint as I go, sometimes not only on the palette, but also the canvas itself.

Another big difference from the way I usually work was the fact that blending and smoothening paint, scraping off, glazing and scumbling are discouraged at the FAA. Instead, a student is supposed to always premix (on the palette, not the canvas) the right value and color, so it meets the one next to it. In doing so, one should keep building one layer on top of the other until a successful result is reached. This is, we are taught to avoid shortcuts and learn how to accurately respond to changes of planes and the underlying structure on the subject.

Makes sense, but ‘old’ habits die hard 🙂 And while there are admittedly different schools of though on this, my biggest struggle in the past trimester was trying to get rid of my pervious habits tied to paint application. As you can see below, my paintings still very much show signs of blending paint, scraping off, glazing and scumbling.

So, while it remains to be seen how successfully I will tackle the new challenges ahead of me, here is the work produced in the previous term, in chronological order. I hope you enjoy it! 😉

 

Second Cast Painting (Grisaille). Oil on Canvas, 50 x 70 cm.

 

First Figure Painting (Grisaille). Oil on Canvas, 50 x 100 cm.

 

Second Figure Painting (Grisaille). Oil on Canvas, 50 x 80 cm.

 

First Portrait Drawing. Charcoal on Toned Roma Paper, 48 x 66 cm.

 

Final Cast Painting (Limited Palette). Oil on Canvas, 65 x 105 cm.

 

Third Figure Painting (Limited Palette). Oil on Canvas, 50 x 75 cm.


Recent Curricular Work

With another busy trimester behind me, the time has come for an update on my recent academic efforts. The first big novelty is that I started to work in new media: white chalk, alongside charcoal on toned paper, as well as oil paint on canvas. Another new thing I experienced as a part of the second year program at the FAA is an increased focus on rendering light and the way it hits the planes of the drawn object. In that sense, aside from the sight-size method, the teachers at the Intermediate level are putting more and more emphasis on construction and the way the object interacts with the context and atmosphere around it.

While still applying the same method as before, students are asked to push their abilities further in order to capture not only what they see, but also the impression they get of their subject matter. In that sense, the importance is increasingly put on approaching the subject matter as a whole, rather than piecemeal. Having said that, I should clarify that this does not mean being able to somehow do less rigorous and precise work. On the contrary, the accuracy of the drawing now has to be boosted even more, by not only copying what we see, but also by paying even closer attention to how what we see relates to the whole in terms of hue, chroma, value, etc.

For me the biggest paradigm shift in that regard is the focus on light and the rendering thereof. My natural tendency is to pay closer attention to the shapes of dark than light while searching for an accurate description of my subject matter. Ideally, however, one should focus just as much on the light, seen so to say as a negative space around the darks, and render it properly. This is one of the challenges I hope to tackle in the next term. It will be fun to see how it goes, considering that most of the upcoming projects will be done in oil paint, with large brushes, starting with grisaille and later moving on to the limited palette.

I will keep you up to date how things go. For now though, I leave you will my large projects from the last trimester. I hope you enjoy!

 

First cast drawing in white chalk and charcoal on toned paper.

 

Second cast drawing in white chalk and charcoal on toned paper.

 

First cast oil painting.

 

Long pose drawing in charcoal.

 

Long pose drawing in charcoal and white chalk on toned paper.

 


Cast Drawing – Some Tips and Tricks

In my last post, I talked about the main stages of drawing a cast – both from the methodological point of view, as well as the emotional. Now, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I learned in the process of drawing my first two casts. Here they are:

  • Keep your charcoal sharp at all times. – That is, if you draw with charcoal, like I did. Personally, I find it’s a pain having to sharpen my charcoal all the time, especially since the sound makes me cringe. But it’s essential if one wants their drawing to be accurate. As I already said, even millimetric differences count, so you really want to follow this advice.
  • Do not touch the paper with your fingers. – Otherwise you risk getting grease and dirt on it, which in turn can ruin your drawing because it will cause the charcoal to adhere unevenly.
  • Pay attention to the negative shapes. – That is to say, carefully observe spaces between the defining contours of the object you’re drawing. In other words, think of your object and its background as two puzzles fitting perfectly together. You need to draw both puzzles accurately if you want your drawing to correspond to the visual appearance of your subject-matter.
  • Do not rush! – I cannot overstate the importance of this one. Doing a cast drawing is not about producing a masterpiece. It’s about learning to see and learning to draw precisely what you see. And to do that, you need to take it slow – especially in the preliminary stages of your drawing.

I’ve been told some spend 6 months on their cast drawings (!). Just to give you an idea, I spent about three weeks on each these two (and they are far from the level of finish some art instructors would require):

Cast drawing 1

 

Cast drawing 2

 

Overall, the message is, take as long as you need, but don’t overwork it. This brings me to the next important lesson I learned, which is…

  • Do not look into the shadow. – When they start drawing, students tend to focus too much on details and forget to look at their subject-matter as a whole. Hand in hand with that mistake goes staring into the shadowed areas. Both of these errors lead to two problems. One is getting a part of your drawing perfect, but out of sync with the rest of it. The second is known as “overmodelling” – which basically means overemphasizing values in certain areas in relation to the natural look of the subject/object as a whole. These problems are bad not only from the point of view of accuracy, but also from the esthetic point of view.

Having said that, sometimes reflected light areas in the shadow are quite noticeable, even if you squint. In this case, they should be reproduced in your drawing. When drawing those, however, it’s easy to get your values wrong in relation to the halftones in the rest of your drawing. To avoid that problem, I was taught to keep the edges around the reflected light in the shadow soft. Additionally, I was advised to emphasize the reflected light in the shadow by darkening the areas around it, instead of lightening the reflected light.

Speaking of the darks and the lights, here’s the next piece of advice, which is:

  • Be careful with the halftones – When surrounded by shadow, halftones are usually darker than you will perceive them. When surrounded by light areas, it’s the opposite. In order to get them right, squinting and throwing your eyes out of focus (which I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts) really helps.
  • Vary your edges. – Meaning sharpen some, soften some – as they naturally appear when you look at your subject-matter as a whole. This, however, should be done in the last stages of your drawing. And in connection with finishing a drawing, here’s another pearl of wisdom worth sharing, which is:
  • Do not worry about the finish until the big shapes are right! – That is to say, leave refining the details for the very end. If you spend a lot of time on them in the earlier stages of your work, you risk having to erase them when you notice bigger problems with the overall shapes in your drawing (and you probably will notice them).

Finally, when it comes to erasing, here is the last piece of advice I would like to share with you and that is:

  • Don’t be precious about your work. – I know that’s hard, but if your work it needs fixing – fix it. I’ve heard about students having major meltdowns when teachers made them erase stuff that they spent a ton of time on. Understandably, this can be extremely frustrating. But remember, this is not about creating a masterpiece. It’s about learning the basics in order to be able to create one later.

Drawing a cast

When looking at things, people tend to focus on their important features. For instance, when we look at a human face, we focus on the eyes, the nose and the mouth. And in forming our perception of a face, we are guided more by our sense of touch and the felt shape of these important features than their actual visual appearance.

This is well explained by Harold Speed in his book called ‘The Practice and Science of Drawing’. In fact, he claims that in developing mental images of things, people very early on start neglecting their sense of vision. Consequently, when they attempt to draw, sight is not the primary sense they consult.

So, if you ask children, as Speed exemplifies, to draw a face, they will probably draw something looking like this:

Faces 1

However, if people were to consult their vision in the attempt to express the actual visual appearance of a face, their drawings would look more like this:

Faces 2

It follows that in order to draw realistically one needs to break away from the inherent human instinct of focusing on distinctive features and forming a perception of them through a sense of touch and the felt shape of things. Instead, one has to start focusing on the visual appearance, defined by the actual proportions and relations of light and shadow in nature, amongst other things.

In classical ateliers, they teach you how to do precisely that. In other words, they train you to draw what you see, instead of what you think you see. In that regard, one of the first assignments students get is to do a cast drawing.

To get myself acquainted with the process before entering an art school, and improve my drawing skills, I decided to do a couple of cast drawings at home. Here, I would like to share with you my thoughts on the process – as they occurred chronologically. And the reason I would like to do that is because I wish someone shared this information with me before I started my project. So, this is how it went:

The first thought I had when I saw that three-dimensional white face staring at me was: No way I can reproduce this precisely, as a realistic looking two-dimensional object on a sheet of paper.

Then, as I was explained the principles of how to tackle a cast drawing, I though: Oh, this is actually quite straightforward and simple! The principles being: first you draw the outline, then the shadowline and then the shadow. After you nailed that down, you start refining your drawing.

Just to illustrate this more clearly, here is a compilation of photos of my progress on a cast drawing over the course of six days:

Progress cast drawing

The first photo is the one of the drawing stating the outline, shadowline and lightly filled in shadow. The following pictures show the modelling and refinements done after that preliminary process was completed.

In doing this, I applied the sight-size approach. Sight-sizing basically consists in drawing the object before you in the exact proportions as you see them from your viewing point. I will refrain from explaining here the specifics of this method, as many have already done it better than I ever could (If you want to learn more about it, I suggest reading a very useful book by Darren Richard Rousar called ‘Cast Drawing: Using the Sight-Size Approach’). But the point is, if you follow these three simple steps – outline, shadowline, shadow – you will soon start seeing your three-dimensional cast appearing before you on a piece of paper. It’s quite remarkable really – almost feels like your cast is drawing itself.

Then, after you’ve experienced this newborn enthusiasm and amazement with the efficacy of the method you’ve been taught, frustration kicks in. Why? Because, as you start refining your drawing, you start noticing some problems that you didn’t see coming. This is especially the case if you rushed through and, consequently, made mistakes in the initial stages of the process – that is, while outlining and shadowlining. And when I say “made mistakes”, I mean millimetric, but substantial mistakes. You may be surprised, but even tiny mistakes in scale can actually be huge in effect, as they will result in the whole drawing appearing as seriously off compared to the visual appearance of the object you’re drawing.

Since the goal is to reproduce the look of your three-dimensional cast as precisely as humanly possible in two dimensions, one really cannot ignore these tiny-huge mistakes, as much as one would like to. And that, as well as making these mistakes in the first place, is frustrating.

What follows next is basically mood swings and your own contradictory opinions of your cast drawing all the way till the end. After a whole day of work you look at your drawing and think: It sucks. Then you dream a bit (or have nightmares) about it during the night, wake up the next morning, look at it and say to yourself: What was I thinking, this is great! At the end of the day you again fall into desperation. And so the merry-goes-round…

Now, this part of the process, no one ever really told me about. But the more I talk to people who have been through it, the clearer it is that virtually everyone goes through the same emotional rollercoaster when drawing a cast (if they are trying to do it precisely).

So, if you’re one of the fellow art students working on a cast drawing and feeling frustrated, know you’re not alone my friend. Having said that, I should also acknowledge that, as challenging and tedious as it can be, the process of drawing a cast is incredibly rewarding. It really does teach you to see better and draw more precisely.

They say behind every great painting lies a great drawing. To get there, and become a great painter, one first needs to learn to see and draw what they see. Drawing a cast is considered one of the first important steps in this educational process.