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by FAS grad Christina Cooper

by FAS grad Pam Rice

by FAS grad Robert Heindel

by FAS grad Charles Reid

by FAS instructor Dolph LeMoult

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Thoughts on Sketching

Sketch for Chiron and Achilles, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Sketch for Chiron and Achilles, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) (click to enlarge)

Our head Instructor, Hank McLaughlin, offers some thoughts why it is important to develop the habit of sketching.

John Singer Sargent once said, “Sketch your hand once a day and you will become an artist.” Use your non-drawing hand as a mode—fingers spread out, making a fist, etc. This improves your hand-eye coordination. Nearly anything we observe in nature will make a model for a sketch ... a tree, rock, apple, etc.

It is not what you sketch, draw or paint, but how well it is sketched, drawn or painted. Developing a habit to sketch spontaneously and often will improve all other aspects of your art. Your finished drawings will improve and so will your paintings. It has been said that Rembrandt sketched and drew as he breathed. Once you develop the sketching habit, you’ll want to sketch every day.

More Thoughts on Sketching

Sketches have many different uses for the artist. A sketch may be of a detail that can be added to a painting ... such as an animal or human figure. A sketch can be a wonderful way to design a painting’s patterns in a simple way, with or without color, before actually painting. Sketching is also a great way to study the natural world’s beauty whether or not it ever leads to a painting. Begin sketching simple subjects at first: an apple on a table, a leaf, rock, etc. Beginners often attempt to sketch too complex subjects at first and as a result lose interest in the valuable and exciting practice of sketching.

Best Materials for Sketching

A student asked Hank, “What are the best materials to use for sketching?”

His reply: “Soft 2B-6B pencils and a sketch pad are the basics, but pastels, oil pastels, watercolor, felt tipped pens, colored pencils and even acrylic and oil paints can be used for sketching in color. Color sketches are not necessary, but worth a try. The sketching itself, regardless of medium, is most necessary.

Outdoor Painting Excursions

Here’s a good idea for your outdoor painting excursions:

Take along a tube of Vaseline. It will come in handy if you don’t have time to clean your oil painting brushes thoroughly. Just coat the bristles with Vaseline—it will prevent the paint from hardening and will keep the brushes in good condition until you can clean them properly.

On Inspiration

Illustration by Dolph LeMoult

Illustration by Dolph LeMoult

Instructor Dolph LeMoult talks about inspiration:

First: Not everything I paint or draw will be good. There will be days (sometimes many in a row) when nothing works. It will seem that, no matter how hard I try, things just seem to get worse—and it seems as if that slump will never end. Not true: In over forty years of experiencing those dreadful times, I have always pulled out of them, most of the time for no good reason.

Second: If I stand at the drawing board or easel expecting to miraculously come up with an inspired idea I’ll be sorely disappointed. My most successful work has been the result of trial and error, of frustration and persistence, and, more often than not, the happy accidents that seem to occur to all of us when we put pencil, pen, and brush to a surface.

So my advice to anyone who feels inadequate because he or she is not miraculously inspired is: stick to it. Work when everything you do seems awful; when you’re convinced that you haven’t got what it takes to be an artist. Believe me, you’ll work your way through it and one of those happy accidents will happen to you, and you’ll look at it in disbelief and wonder. And you’ll be an artist, and take it from me, there’s no better thing to be in the whole wide world.

Value of On-site Sketches


“Bangkok, watercolor by Dong Kingman (1911-2000) (click to enlarge)

Dong Kingman, a watercolorist who was a member of FAS’s Guiding Faculty for many years, had this advice for artists about the value of on-site sketches combined and enhanced with imagination and whimsy:

I like to begin my paintings on location, then complete the work later in my studio. Most often, I begin this process with an on-site sketch, which gives me necessary design information and helps me firm up my compositional ideas. Once the composition is in place, my imaginary characters take the stage.

Be aware of the surprising ideas coming out of your subconscious mind. Bringing these ideas to the surface takes persistence and hard work. Sometimes they come; sometimes not. The important thing is to keep trying. Starting with a design/value sketch assures a satisfying underlying structure for the embellishments that bring each scene to life.

Palette Tip

Our instructors have a tip that will be helpful both in the studio or when painting outdoors:

To make cleaning up easy, spread plastic wrap on your palette before mixing oil paints. Peel off the plastic when you’re done, and your palette is clean!

Try it This Way

Think with tracing paper:

Tracing paper is the artist’s best friend—all illustrators use quantities of it. Here is how you can use it to solve problems of figure drawing. If you run into trouble, trying working out each step on a separate sheet of paper laid over the previous drawing. In this way you can experiment or make changes at any state without losing the work you have done up to that point. The progressive photographs show the steps, from the simplest form of action or gesture drawing to a well-constructed basic figure. This can then be clothed or modified by more realistic muscle structure—you just slip the basic figure under another sheet of tracing paper and carry on!

Think with tracing paper: Action Lines
1—Action Lines. Freely sketch the swing of the action—don’t bother with details. Try a number of these sketches and pick the best.

Think with tracing paper: Stick Figures
2—Stick Figures. Tear off your first sketch and slide it under a fresh sheet of paper on your pad. Then work out your stick figure.

More "Try it This Way"

Oil Painting Checklist

The drawing: Some artists like to draw directly on their canvas with a brush using paint that has been thinned with turpentine. Other people prefer to draw with pencil or charcoal. In this case it is wise to work lightly and dust off any excess black. It is also advisable to spray the drawing with fixative so that the black from the pencil or charcoal will not “dirty “the paint.

“Dark to light”: Working this way you can establish the general values and arrangement of lights and darks in the picture. You can then paint with more assurance, for you can judge how light or dark you want areas to be in relation to one another.

In the first step, you should merely put in the larger dark areas—not the little details such as twigs or leaves in a landscape, for instance. Restudy the step-by-step demonstrations in oil painting in your textbooks and you‘ll see how various objects and areas are gradually “built up” with thicker paint to create the proper values and textures. Note how the early steps are often covered up or “reshaped” by later steps.

Painting over “soft” paint: As a rule, it is not necessary for a layer of paint to dry before painting over it. If you start by working with thin paint you can, by proper application, paint one layer over another using thicker paint as you go along. With practice you will soon learn the proper “touch” that is needed to place a brushstroke cleanly on top of paint that is still soft. You may find at times that it is best to move to another area in the picture in order to allow a color to dry a bit more.

More "Oil Painting Checklist"

Handling Transparent Wash

The secret of mastering painting in wash lies in three words:  practice, planning, and patience. There is no shortcut or substitute for any of these. You must make a sound pencil drawing that furnishes all of the information you need about the form and structure of the objects you’re painting. You must also plan your tones so carefully that you know just what they should be before you start to paint.

Here are some typical problems and how to solve them:

Materials: Use good-quality illustration board or water color paper. Use Gamma black, ivory black, or lampblack, but do not use opaque paints such as white or Gamma grays in your mixture. Water alone added to the black pigment makes all shades of gray; the more water, the lighter the gray.

illustration by Robert Fawcett

Illustration by Robert Fawcett (1903–1967) (click to enlarge)

Edges: Where the paper is wet, the wash will spread and blend. Where the paper is dry, you’ll get sharp edges. Therefore, in an area where you want blending, be sure the surface is wet. A hard edge is sometimes caused by the overlap of edges of two wash tones painted side by side. To avoid this, paint the lighter tone over both areas and, after this is dry, paint another tone over the area you wish to be darker. Many top illustrators like Robert Fawcett prefer to keep a strong, almost hard division along the edge of most tones rather than to “soften” each edge. If your values are right, this effect can be good.

Graded tones: You will find doing a graded wash easier if you mix one or two in-between tones in separate saucers. You can then gradually lighten or darken your wash puddle. Be sure to stir the wash well before adding it to the puddle. Keep your board tilted or you’ll lose the graded effect.

More "Handling Transparent Wash"

Oil Painting Tips

Mixing oil paints: In using oil paints, you first squeeze little piles of different colors along the edge of your palette. The colors can then be picked up with either a brush, a painting knife, or a palette knife, and placed on a clean area near the center of the palette. If you use a brush, you can quickly wipe the brush with a rag and pick up another color that you want to add to the first one. You can then mix these with the brush or, if you’re using a larger amount, it might be preferable to do the mixing with your painting knife. During the mixing of your colors on the palette, dip your brush or your knife in the liquid medium that you’re using, and then blend a small amount of this medium into the mixture. The amount of medium you use will control how thick or thin you want the paint to be.

Drying time: Oil paints dry very slowly. The drying time is affected by many things—humidity, paint thickness, and the kind of medium which is mixed with the paint. Here are some suggestions: Be sure to mix some medium with all the paint you apply, as this aids drying. You can use turpentine or a ready-prepared painting mixture.

If the paint still takes too long to dry, you may wish to add a special drier. You can add this to your medium. Cobalt drier is perhaps the best; add only a few drops, however, for if you use too much it may make the paint brittle. Check with your local art supply store for suggestions that will be appropriate for the climate where you live and the type of painting you usually do.

Watercolor Sketching Trips

For watercolor sketching trips, try this method of carrying paper: Tape a sheet of watercolor paper to your drawing board with masking tape. Now tape another sheet on top of the first one. You can mount several sheets on top of one another in this way. As you use one, remove it and tape it face-down on the underside of your board. This will protect your finished sketches and keep them from blowing away.

How to Draw

The old cliche “I can’t even draw a straight line” overlooks the fact that artists use rulers for this purpose. But great drawing seldom relies on straight lines, anyway. It combines free-flowing lines to weave magic tapestries, and is a skill that anyone can master.

The tools for drawing are simple ones: a pencil, pen, or a piece of charcoal make wonderful drawing mediums. And any paper you have available will do.

Learning to draw is a matter of learning to see. When you look at an object, are you really aware of it? Think about it. What is it made of? What does it do? Is it wider than it is tall? Is one part larger than another? A tree has a distinctive shape, but not all trees have the same shape. A tall pine is cone-shaped; a maple may be fat and rounded; an old apple tree in winter is gnarled and angular. Be alert to these descriptive differences.

Practice drawing what you see by making many sketches of objects around you. Sketch commonplace things: a chair, table, fire hydrant, your house. In all your sketching, try to find the expressive characteristics that make the object unique. In addition, try to make the function of the object clear to anyone looking at your drawing. Let’s say, for example, that you’re drawing a pencil sharpener. Notice the size of the handle in comparison to the overall size. Where does it attach to the back of the sharpener—near the bottom or near the top? When you’ve trained your eye to see proportions and construction in this way, you’ll draw convincingly.

Painting Trees

Trees, like people, are individuals. A maple is different from an elm. A cottonwood is different from an oak. And no two trees of the same species look exactly alike. In painting them, much of your success depends on how carefully you observe. You can always change the shapes and values to suit your own purpose, but a first-hand study of real trees will result in a more convincing painting.

When painting a tree, try to visualize the complete trunk and main branches, even though they may be hidden by foliage. This will help you establish the correct placement for any branches that might show through the leaves.

Distant trees can be painted flat or in detail, depending on their importance or the effect you’re after. But those in the foreground should appear to have depth as well as height and width. This can be done by using light and dark values to represent light and shade.

Foliage is never a solid mass. It should look as though a bird could fly through it. Leave some “sky holes” to achieve this effect—big ones for the big birds, little ones for the little birds!

More "Painting Trees"

Taking a step back

A helpful hint from one of our instructors:
After I have spent many hours struggling with a painting, I like to set it aside for several days, facing the wall. Then, after giving it—and myself—a rest, I turn it around and look at it with a fresh eye. In many cases it looks better than I had remembered it! But I usually can see the need for adjustments—some minor or very subtle—that will enhance the picture. The need for these adjustments can sometimes be quite obvious. Other times it is necessary to look at the picture for a long time before determining what changes to make. It’s as if you must patiently wait for the picture to tell you what it needs!

Painting outdoors

If you’re going outdoors to paint, consider this: if you have trouble with watercolors drying too fast on a hot day, add a little glycerin to your mixing water. Be careful - don’t add too much. A drop or two of glycerin in a quart of water is enough to use - it will slow up the drying process.

Don’t work at high noon outdoors. The midday sun saps color from landscapes and the overhead light makes forms less defined. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for painting.

Place a sheet of white paper about ten feet in front of you when you paint. Relate the colors seen in the landscape to its whiteness and use it as a guide. You’ll notice that what appears to be a white building or a white cloud isn’t really white at all!