Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Review: Essential Techniques of Landscape Drawing

You’ve heard me mention the name Suzanne Brooker – my Gage drawing instructor for three terms – many times. I’m mentioning it again today, this time to talk about her new book: Essential Techniques of Landscape Drawing: Master the Concepts and Methods for Observing and Rendering Nature. While the book focuses on landscapes and the natural world, the incomparable value of classical drawing principles is that they can be applied to any subject matter.

Beginning with an introduction to materials (graphite pencil is the primary medium used in the book, with brief discussion of colored pencil, charcoal, pastel and water-soluble pencils), Suzanne takes the reader through the basic elements of drawing, such as line, value and form, and how specific techniques can be used to express them.

For me, the meat of the book begins with Chapter 3, Light Logic and Shading Techniques. Although I have studied the basic principles covered by this chapter several times in other books and classes, and I thought I understood them, Suzanne’s explanations helped me to internalize the principles in a way that I hadn’t before.

What is “light logic”? “The sun touches objects in nature, creating areas of light and shadow in a predictable fashion.” Because the human brain automatically uses light logic to perceive an object, it’s an essential concept for rendering a three-dimensional form realistically. It sounds so simple – the classic drawing exercise of shading a ball or cube lighted from one side – yet it’s not at all easy to apply textbook understanding to real objects that are not balls and cubes. First you have to learn to see the highlight, core shadow and reflected light on an object in space, and then you must transfer that perception to the flat paper.

I am still learning to do this, of course (I expect it to be a lifelong challenge), but after studying with Suzanne, I have nailed the first step: I can finally see what she is talking about. (The first time I looked out our livingroom window and saw the “core shadow” on our front porch column, it was a “Eureka” moment for me. I have seen our column every day for 30+ years, yet I had never “seen” the core shadow as it wraps around the column’s cylinder and then stops just before it gets to the opposite edge, revealing the beginning of the lighter side – and how rendering all of that accurately is necessary to define its form. I said to Greg at the breakfast table, “Oh my gosh – the core shadow! It’s on our porch!” Now I can’t walk through a park on a sunny day without seeing core shadows on trees.)

Succeeding chapters focus on step-by-step exercises for developing drawings from photo references. Many demos are included, showing various stages of drawing development. Particularly helpful are sections devoted to specific natural elements that make up a landscape, such as sky, terrain, trees and foliage, and water.

Throughout the book are many examples of Suzanne’s own work and those of her peers, students and classical masters. Even if you never draw, it’s a huge volume of delicious eye candy to savor.

But after reading this book, I believe you will draw, because fully understanding these classic principles is likely to reinforce your passion for drawing as it did mine. When I finally grasped concepts and principles that had been only floating peripherally in my brain, I could not keep myself from putting them into practice.

Although the book, for me, is mostly review of concepts I learned during the past two years while studying with her in class, it is such a thorough coverage of her curriculum that it reads like a full two semesters of work. Of course, as with any how-to book, reading the text is not learning; that comes only from practicing the exercises. Had I only read the book and not taken 25 weeks of classes, I must admit that I might not have had the self-discipline to do all those exercises as we did for class! (As students of all ages experience, knowing the teacher is going to check the homework is a major motivator for doing it.) If you follow Suzanne’s curriculum, the training is thorough, rigorous and very time-consuming, but there’s no doubt that you’ll see results.

I don’t purchase many books anymore because I’m trying to reduce the number of volumes on my shelves, not increase them, but this one is a reference I will turn to repeatedly to reinforce and remind me of what I learned. It also reminds me of everything I love about drawing. The many exquisite examples in the book show me what’s possible, and the instructions explain how.

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