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.