Why Painters Should Learn to Draw

Drawing is the Bones of a Painting

Teacher and Student Learning
Teacher and Student Learning. Getty Images

Painters sometimes get a bit nervous about 'the whole drawing thing'. Let's face it, we all love colors, and paint is delicious stuff. You can describe a whole object with just a few deft brushstrokes - who wants to mess about with a pencil for hours? But you'll rarely find an artist who doesn't acknowledge the importance of drawing to their work. The thing is, a preparatory drawing isn't just an outline, any more than a painting is a colored in outline. So let's explore some aspects of drawing for paintings.

Drawing is Seeing and Thinking

Drawing is more about seeing and thinking than it is about marks on the page. Sure, the mark-making part is important, but it all begins in the eyes and the mind. You need to observe and consider your subject, decide on a composition and make visual notes about it. When drawing, the medium almost disappears, becoming an extension of your hand, enabling you describe your subject effortlessly. When your mind is moving fast, exploring ideas or your eyes are traveling across your subject in search of key landmarks, a drawing medium doesn't get in the way.

This type of drawing isn't a finished trompe l'oeil photorealist piece - which is essentially painting in graphite. What we are talking about here is a first connection with the subject. Drawing in which the artist's primary focus is to describe, as briefly and poetically as possible, line, form, and volume. The drawing explores the subject, paying attention to proportion and perspective. The composition may be considered: balance, direction, and energy, and indeed, the artists' thoughts: an interesting detail is noted, an obtrusive detail ignored, concepts explored and tested. The drawing is like a brainstorming session, an interactive dialogue where the problem is laid out and solutions discussed. The painting, by contrast, is often more like a complete poem or a finished novella: the plot or the theme established and followed through to its conclusion. Of course, many paintings are exploratory in nature, but then one might say that the artist is drawing with paint!

Drawing Gives You Scaffolding

Most painters tend to think in broad areas of tone and color: they are looking at large planes that lock together to create a form, beginning with the largest ones and then refining the work towards fine detail. It's a powerful way of working that can create very convincing three-dimensional images even when quite abstracted. However, a drawback of this can be the uncertainty of line and structure: lines happen where two planes meet, and small variations in observation and execution can result in a distorted form. By drawing first, the artist established a scaffolding that the planes of the painted 'building' are built onto. The initial period of focus on structural line and proportion gives the painter confidence to construct their forms with certainty - whether the scaffolding is drawn on the canvas itself or on a preparatory sketch. So not only is the painting more accurate, but also more confident. Beginning with a drawing gives you freedom to explore and loosen up without losing the plot.

Drawing is About Seeing

Yep, I know I said that already. But it's worth repeating. If you're doing any sort of even vaguely realistic work, painting is about seeing, too. Because your representation is only as good as your visual impression of the subject. So really seeing the subject is hugely important. Unless you are sketching in watercolor, painting is generally a great deal slower than drawing, and your materials will be quite expensive. But a pencil and sketch pad is cheap and fast. This allows you to spend a lot of time observing and recording your observations, practicing your hand-eye co-ordination, thinking about the structure, form, and surface of your subject, recording light and shadow.

Drawing is Your Friend

While drawing and painting are unique art forms in their own right, drawing can be a painter's best friend. Many painters regard it as The Enemy, often putting it in the 'too hard' basket thanks to too many frustrating figures drawing classes or failed sketches. It needn't be the case. Throw out all those preconceptions about what drawing should or shouldn't be. You don't need to spend hours slaving over dry pencil drawings when your heart is yearning for the smooth brilliance of pigment and oil. Rather, see the drawing medium - graphite or colored pencil, charcoal or pastel, pen and ink - or even brushed ink - as a tool for exploration and thought that supports and enhances your work.