Sunday, May 19, 2019

Light on the Three-Dimensional Form

Still life and lighting carefully arranged by instructor Terry Furchgott

During the 25 weeks that I studied colored pencil and graphite drawing with Suzanne Brooker, I learned a wealth of information about rendering landscape forms, but only from photos. While it was invaluable to be able to spend many hours studying and drawing landscape scenes without worrying about the weather or the changing light, I always felt like I was missing something by not working from life. The portraiture workshop I took from Gary Faigin confirmed that artists who already have drawing skills may be able to work from photos successfully, but photos cannot substitute for life when learning to draw. Studying living, breathing models in 3D was enormously helpful in understanding the structure of the head so that I could render it more accurately. I wanted more of that kind of classical study but with subject matter other than the human face. Last weekend I got it, this time from Gage instructor Terry Furchgott, with a focus on still lives.

A weekend intensive, Accurate Drawing Basics began with blind contours, sketching negative spaces, copying an image upside-down (all exercises that were familiar to me from the classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and other books) and mark-making with various tools. Then we moved on to learning measuring techniques to make drawings more accurate, such as using a straightedge or pencil to measure an angle and gauge proportions and using negative space to relate objects. Practiced while drawing simple still lives, most of these basic tools and techniques were not new to me, but I appreciated being reminded of their usefulness.
Line drawing with shadow shapes marked.
We also studied how four basic, three-dimensional, geometric shapes – cube, sphere, cylinder and cone – describe almost all visible forms that we encounter in nature and the built environment. Understanding how light and shading can be used to describe their imaginary volumes helps us to see how actual objects can be described the same way. This concept, too, was familiar to me, but as I soon realized, reading about it in a book is not the same as applying it to a drawing.

The meat of the workshop began toward the end of Day 1 with the still life that we would work on for the rest of the workshop. Using
Six-value scale of lights and darks applied.
three forms of charcoal (vine, compressed, pencil), white Conte and white pastel on toned paper, we learned to render the volume of forms by closely observing how they are illuminated.

Furchgott’s teaching method is highly systematic, working through each stage step by step to achieve a six-value scale of lights and darks. It was probably the most structured, methodical art class I have ever experienced. In addition to employing all the measuring tools we learned at the beginning of the workshop to make the composition as accurate as possible, I also spent quite a bit
Values corrected; transitions refined.
of time trying to see the relative values accurately. As is often the case when I’m sketching on my own, I found the local colors confusing (Is the red cup lighter or darker than the green vase or the navy background? Is the dark side of the pear darker than the dark side of the cup?), but it helped to view both my own work and the still life through a textured sheet of Plexiglas to see the values without the details. (The same effect can be achieved by squinting to blur out the details.)

It’s surprising – I’ve seen the lighted cones and spheres repeatedly in drawing books, and I’ve even practiced shading those shapes. Intellectually, I thought I understood the principles, but until I was shown how to apply them to a still life I was drawing, I didn’t fully grasp how they get put together in the form of real objects. Sometimes a mysterious shadow or a reflected light didn’t make sense, but when I imagined the conceptual cones and spheres that the object was made of, the shadow or light suddenly did make sense. It’s not a mystery after all; in fact, it’s referred to as “light logic” (the term Suzanne Brooker uses) because it’s nothing more than the physical effect of light hitting a dimensional object – and how our brains have learned to interpret that information.

Once again, the value of drawing from life was confirmed in this workshop. Seeing actual objects in front of me – being able to walk around and look at them from different angles to see how the shadows bend or closely observing a tiny reflected light in the narrow fluted lip of a vase – is so much more informative than trying to draw those same objects from a flat photograph.

Toward the end of the weekend, I started wishing that I had taken this workshop a few years ago – maybe it would have accelerated my learning along the way if I had more fully understood these concepts earlier. But on the other hand, if I try something too soon without a certain base of experience, the attempted learning is meaningless. I have found that I can study the same concepts over and over, but if I’m not ready to learn them, the concepts won’t “stick.” I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but for myself, I seem to have critical times that are optimal for learning. (The unfortunate paradox is that I have no way to know when that critical time is until I have learned from it!)

The creative and learning processes are endlessly fascinating to me – almost as fascinating as drawing itself.

5/12/19 completed still life


  1. Sounds like a good workshop, presented logically and with a way to put the concepts into practice for yourself!

    1. Yes, her methodical structure was very helpful in a way that I had not experienced before.

  2. The results look wonderful! I've found a number of times that trying something at least a little before hand makes the lessons in the class really come to life.

    1. Thanks, Dave! It's interesting how often I've read about these concepts, and yet they didn't really "stick" until I used them at the workshop.


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