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.
With my first trimester at the Florence Academy of Art behind me and the New Year already rolling, it is finally time for a long overdue update.
First of all, let me just confirm my first impression of the school and say that studying at the FAA is well worth it! In the past few months, I have learned so many valuable lessons and, consequently, made noticeable progress in my work. From what I can tell, so has each and every one of my fellow students. It is both wonderful and rewarding to observe this learning curve emerge and I feel very lucky and grateful to be studying with the team of people who know exactly how to make it happen.
I still feel I am learning the most during the figure drawing sessions of a nude model, so I decided to devote this blog post to explaining in a bit more detail what this process entails and what the students are expected to aim towards.
The so-called ‘long pose’ lasts for five weeks. Typically students get a chance to work on two long poses with a nude model during one trimester. Unfortunately, because our first model was involved in an accident (she is ok now), my group only got to complete one long pose this term as visible from the photos below. And by complete, I mean finish the drawing of the model and the simplified background within the assigned period. I should clarify here that students tackle the long pose in charcoal on white paper during the first year of studies at the FAA. In the first part of the second year they continue drawing in charcoal, on toned paper, with the addition of a white chalk. Later, starting with a limited palette, students move on to painting the model in oils.
However, one does not simply start the large charcoal project on the first day of the long pose. Instead, in order to understand their subject matter better, students are first required to complete a series of studies. This includes several studies of the model in pencil from both the chosen standing position for drawing the long pose, as well as one from a different position in the room. This is in order to get a better idea of how the form turns in space. The pencil studies should focus on an accurate description of the gesture, proportions, outline and shadowline. They are very useful for understanding how the pose changes over time as the model settles in it and, consequently, for choosing the exact moment or pose that one is actually drawing.
Another study done in the preliminary stages of a long pose is a value study in the same medium that a student uses for the large project, in our case charcoal. A value study, just as the name suggests is supposed to correctly map out tonal relationships, on a small scale. In a value study, one needs not to focus on the accuracy of the drawing, but rather the correlation between the lights and the darks, as well as the idea of the flow of light.
Once the small (usually A4 size paper) studies are complete, which is normally after 3-5 days, a student moves on to the large project. As far as the size of the working surface goes, the first year beginning students are typically working on a 50 x 70 cm ROMA paper (using the reverse side of it, where the water stamp spells AMOR, because it’s less bumpy), while the more advanced students of the same year often tend to use slightly bigger sized, white Arches papers.
Here is a photo of my working board, in the preliminary stages of the ‘long pose’ project, including the start of my big charcoal drawing and its small accompanying studies:
As I already mentioned in my previous posts, the method employed in tackling the long pose, along with most other projects at the school, is the sight-size method. When using it, the first and the foremost thing that the students are supposed to get right are the big proportions of the model and the nature of the gesture. The steps we follow in doing that are, as previously mentioned, drawing out the outline, then the shadowline and finally the shadow. In finding the accurate contours, and while moving from a more abstract to a more organic drawing, a student is supposed to pay close attention to rhythms in the line, subtle angle breaks, the variety of shapes and edge quality.
As students progress with their work, they are always being reminded to go back to the big proportions and the gesture in order to establish whether they accurately describe the pose. So, at the beginning of each new day spent on the pose, one is advised to check the major heights and widths – because is that’s off, everything else will be too, no matter how fine the finish is.
The fun part starts when the values are introduced in the picture. Compression of values is here the key, as well as preserving a beautiful flow of light. That’s why students are advised to gradually approach the shading process and squint a lot as they are doing it. One thing that comes in very handy with regards to establishing correct tonal relationships is a black mirror or, in the absence of one, a smartphone with a black, glossy and flat screen (for more info, see http://www.marcdalessio.com/iphone-painting-tool/). I’ve also seen teachers and students ware hats with a wide brim, as it reduces the glare coming from the rooftop windows and helps them establish the values more correctly.
As far as values go, I got some tips from my teachers and found them very useful in establishing the correct tonal relationships in a drawing. One is to press, rather hard and only once, the bottom of the charcoal stick, slightly grated off with the tip of the nail, in areas on the paper where the darkest darks are. Also, I’ve been told that an alternative to squinting, which can make one feel dizzy if done excessively, is tilting your head slightly backwards and looking through your eyes half closed. Another really useful tip is to use the back of the fan brush (the wooden part) to slightly knock down the values in some areas, by quickly and lightly moving it back and forth across the paper. And finally, I’ve learned how cross hatching, both with the finely sharpened charcoal, as well as the finely created tip of the kneaded eraser can help create refined effects.
Speaking of finesse and fine finish, things to look for and improve at the final stages of a drawing are, amongst others: 1) smooth and beautiful transitions, while retaining a clear delineation between planes and a clear description of shadow shapes; 2) finding/reinforcing the variety of edges (with some completely lost in the background); and 3) putting the focus in a chosen area, while achieving the atmospheric effect in others.
This about sums up the process of drawing the long pose in the Intensive drawing program at the FAA. Soon, I’ll be able to report how the process changes in the higher years of studies, as I am very happy to share with you that I’ve been transferred to the Intermediate program (that is the 2nd year of studies), starting this January 🙂 I feel very honoured to have been promoted by my teachers and hope to successfully tackle challenges lying ahead.
In the meantime, I leave you with the results of my larger school work in the first trimester at the FAA and wish you all a very happy New Year!
First Bargue drawing in charcoal.
Second Bargue drawing in charcoal.
Cast drawing in charcoal.
First figure drawing – half of the ‘long pose’.
Second figure drawing – first completed ‘long pose’.
My training at the Florence Academy of Art (FAA) has finally begun! Before I get into the specifics, I just wanted to write a general blog post on the school and my impressions thereof. For that purpose, let me first briefly focus on the form and then on the substance.
As of this year, the FAA has moved to a large new space just outside of the city of Florence – which now hosts all students of all years, both sculpture and painting, as well as the teachers’ studios. It also encompasses a student café, a lounge area, large lecture halls, a library, a small shop for art supplies, outdoor spaces for relaxation, administration offices, apartments for visiting lecturers and lots and lots of working space. All in all, it’s a very beautiful and a very functional space, and I feel extremely lucky to be the first generation who will be trained in it from day one.
The biggest advantage to this new space, in my opinion, is the fact that all the students of all levels of education will now be training in the same place, which will facilitate not only their personal, but also artistic exchanges. Until now, each year had their own separate space in different parts of Florence, so students would seldom be exposed to their senior or junior peers and the products of their work. In that sense, moving to one unified little ‘campus’ brings about a very positive change.
Now, to the substance. As a beginning student, I am enrolled in the intensive drawing program. It is exactly what the name says it is: a concentrated program (five days of the week, from 9 AM till 7 PM) in drawing exclusively (in pencil and charcoal).
During our first year, our days at the Academy are divided in two major parts: one half of the day, we draw the figure (live model) and the other half we draw Charles Bargue plates, later to be replaced by plaster casts. In the evenings, depending on the day, we have anatomy lectures, evening drawing of live models, or art history lectures.
So, the school essentially becomes our second home and, I can tell you already, the intensity of the program really pays off. I feel I have learned so much already and I have only been drawing for 7 days now.
The part of the program where I feel I am learning the most at this stage are the drawing sessions of a nude model. There are two reasons for that. First, I never had a chance draw a model before. Second, it is the most challenging part of the program because you are working with a living being who is infinitely more intricate, beautiful and mobile then any Bargue plate or plaster cast you’ll ever see.
So, how do we tackle such complex assignments? It’s actually quite straightforward and goes back to some of what I wrote about in my earlier blog posts on cast drawing.
At Florence Academy, we use the sight-size method and we are taught to construct our drawing in stages.
First, we are advised to look for the big shapes, big proportions, major inclinations and main reference points. We start by marking the top and the bottom of our subject on the paper, as we see it from our standing position. In order to do that precisely, we use a plumb line (a string with small weight attached to one end).
We then look for the major reference points such as the chin, shoulders, the pubic bone and knees. By introducing a vertical into the drawing (which is also done with the help of a plumb line), we are able to construct the major shapes and find the proper inclinations better. This preliminary stage of the drawing, when completed, leaves you with the so-called ‘envelope shape’ for the body.
When one is more or less confident that the major shapes, proportions and inclinations are right, one moves on to giving these very abstract lines (which form a rough outline) a bit more organic form. At this stage, one can also can move on to slowly introducing shadow lines and basic shadow shapes. The key is to constantly compare inclinations, check the distances and relate shapes one to another
During this entire process, the idea is to draw very lightly and keep moving things around until we get them right. If for no other reason, adjustments will be necessary as the model will eventually move a bit.
To make this less abstract, here is the example of the construction of my drawing. It represents a two day pencil study for the five week long pose to be tackled next in a bigger format in charcoal.
I should mention here that a very useful tool for discovering problems in a drawing is a mirror. So, at school, asides from a plumb line, we’ve each been given a small rectangular mirror to help us in the learning process. Namely, by reversing the image in front of us and comparing it to the drawing, the mistakes become much more apparent and consequentially easier to fix, so a student is advised to use a mirror a lot. Here is Marc demonstrating how to do it.
Obviously, we are not completely on our own in fixing the mistakes we make in our drawing. At school, we have a number of great instructors who will come to give a critique every once in a while during a drawing session. This is very helpful and I would say the foundation of the learning process. Yet, the majority of the time at school does comprise an independent training of our eyes to see better and our hands to draw more accurately. And in that sense, self-correctional tools such as a mirror are highly advised.
All in all, after just a week at the FAA, I feel I have already learned a ton and look forward to see where this training takes me in the future. I will keep you posted and share what I learn here. For the moment, I can say that based of my experience so far, I give the highest ratings to the school, the instructors and the training in general.
To end this, here is a quote we were introduced to on the first day, which reflects well the principles and philosophy taught at the FAA:
“Drawing, which is much like language, is the art of communication with others through the illusion of shapes, and you learn to draw, paint and sculpt by coming to shape conclusions. We draw what we know and not what we see. And when we know something, we begin to see it as it really is.”
As our move to Florence is getting closer, a visit to Tuscany was due in order to do some house hunting. We were very lucky to have found ourselves a beautiful new home, as well as profit from the beauty of the Tuscan summer. There was not a lot of time to paint, but I tried to get the most out of this visit to the Chianti region, as I find the colours and light to be just right this time of the year.
On this trip, in addition painting with watercolors and doing one drawing in graphite pencil, I decided to experiment a bit with pastels – a medium I like quite a bit, but have used only a couple of times before. I thought this would be a good occasion to do some more work with pastels, since we were travelling by car and I had no weight limitations.
Also, knowing that as of this October I will be working only in charcoal and pencil at the Florence Academy of Art, I feel the need to explore different media at this stage and see what they have to offer.
Overall, drawing with pastels was a lot of fun. It’s a rather straightforward material to work with, it’s not too messy and things tend to move at quite a fast pace when using it. Even more so if one does not sharpen their pastels, which I decided not to as I was more interested in the light and color effects then the precision in my drawing.
What I enjoyed the most when working with pastels is that you can apply them in layers and change things as you go. So, compared to watercolors, they are much easier to handle, in my opinion.
What I didn’t enjoy as much about pastels is that the end result seems to be quite fragile. Because of their chalky nature, one needs to use a fixative on top of a finished drawing. Asides from the fact that it smells like cancer in a bottle, fixative seems to darken a tiny bit the overall colors and never really seems to ‘fix’ a drawing completely – at least not the one I was using. Namely, even after applying it in several goes vertically and horizontally, I would still get some residue of pastels on my finger when I tapped it lightly on the drawing.
I am also not sure if I would recommend pastels for painting outdoors – one of my drawings got pretty damaged by just a few drops of rain and another when the paper on which it was drawn got bended by the wind. So, I repeat – pretty fragile stuff. Other than that, a lot of fun to work with.
To cut the long story short, here are the results of the past weeks’ efforts – starting with the watercolors, followed by a graphite pencil drawing and concluding with a small series of pastel drawings.
Damigiane. 25 x 28 cm, Watercolor and Gouache.
Wild Flowers. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
Noce from la Torricella. 20 x 27 cm, Watercolor.
Study of a Pomegranate Flower. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.
In the past few weeks, the road has taken us to North Carolina, South Carolina and New York. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, surrounded by beautiful scenery and friendly folks all along. All this has been inductive to producing some more artwork, which I’d like to share with you here.
Asides from landscape painting en plain air and painting of still lives indoors, I also did some graphite drawings both outside and inside, depending on the subject matter. While I typically start my watercolors by drawing with graphite first and then painting over it, in case of my recent drawings, I started by prepping the paper with a wash of watercolor and then drew on top of that. I found this reversal of process to be quite refreshing and fun.
So, here are the results of some of my recent efforts, in mixed media – starting with plein air paintings, followed by still lives and concluding with the drawings.
Terracotta Pots. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
By the Toogoodoo River. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.
Sunset on the Toogoodoo River, 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.
Ashe Point Farm. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
Roosters. 7 x 12 in, Watercolor.
Scarecrow. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.
Feathers. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.
Magnolia Blossom, 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
A Bowl of Freesia. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.
Woodcock. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
The Mallard. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
Bufflehead. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.
Self Portrait. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.
Old Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.
Young Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.
Catalpa Tree. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.
Copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.
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):
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.