Sunday, February 23, 2020

Beets: a Lesson in Looseness

2/17/20 Sketch 1: graphite (class assignment)

Beets are one of those love-‘em-or-hate-‘em vegetables – I’ve never met anyone who said they were neutral about beets. I happen to love ‘em and eat them often, but I admit I had never taken the time to look at them closely, really closely, until last Monday’s botanical drawing class.

The lesson was roots. Usually I’m quick to lop off that hairy “tail” and toss it. This time, of course, it was important to leave it intact so it could be studied as part of the whole root form. It was, in fact, the most fun part to draw, and I came to appreciate its long, crooked taper seeking nutrients from the soil.

2/18/20 Sketch 2: colored pencil
While I thoroughly enjoyed my close study of the beet with graphite, I missed color. The next day, I picked a different beet from the bunch – slightly plumper and with a nicely curved tail – to try with colored pencils. Purple with green is my all-time favorite color combination, and I don’t encounter it in nature nearly as much as I’d like to, so I relished putting the veins in that leaf. But I have to say that the part I’m most proud of is the fading shadow of the aloft root’s tip – I don’t get to practice that often.

These beets were destined for dinner soon, but before I roasted them, I wanted two more shots, each with less detail than the previous ones. No. 3 was with watercolor pencils. This one is probably closest to my general “urban sketching style,” which is to draw the larger shapes, apply as much pigment as possible in one shot, activate with water, and add details last, depending on how much time I have.
2/19/20 Sketch 3: watercolor pencil

For the last one I chose the chunky Art Stix I recently discovered, which are ideal for avoiding detail. My goal was to capture mainly the form and values. In both No. 3 and No. 4, I realized that the details I had observed in my first two drawings helped me choose what to leave out. If I hadn’t done the “tight” versions first, I probably would have been tempted to put all those details into the looser attempts. And the previous close studies also gave me the information I needed to see the forms.
2/19/20 Sketch 4: Prismacolor Art Stix

Interestingly, this is the opposite approach of traditional life-drawing practice. When drawing models, we always warm up with short poses first to “loosen up,” and then move gradually to longer and longer poses so that refinement and detail are possible. (Hmmm, this gives me an idea: another series of beets, this time going from loose to tight.)

More thoughts on “looseness”:

When I had first started out as a sketcher, more experienced artists sometimes encouraged me to “loosen up.” While I truly wanted to draw with the apparent ease and “looseness” I perceived in certain sketchers I admired, I had no idea how to achieve that. With beginning drawing skills, my attempts at looseness simply looked sloppy and scribbly, which was not a style I wanted to work toward.

I had been drawing for quite some time before I finally understood: Artists who have a fluid, expressive style developed that style after years of training and practice. My guess is that many started out with a much “tighter” style that naturally evolved. Unlike dancing, “looseness” is not something you simply shimmy into after you’ve had a few drinks. Ironically, you must work very hard toward looseness if it’s something you aspire to – just like everything else related to drawing. Advising an inexperienced sketcher to “loosen up” is no more helpful than to advise them to “draw better.”

One artist I have admired since I first began sketching is Suhita Shirodkar. She is a master of capturing life, activity and form with a deceptively loose style that makes sketching look easy, yet it’s clear that years of study and practice are behind that apparent ease. Her blog the other day included a video of herself sketching daffodils, and I was surprised by how slowly she works. You can see how much thinking is going on behind each deliberate paint and pencil stroke; she is not splashing around recklessly. I remember a while back she showed some professional drawings she had done years ago before she began urban sketching. They were lovely but very tight renderings – and unrecognizable from the style I associate with Suhita.

Maybe it’s my training at Gage Academy and its foundation in realism that influences my opinion. With that classical approach, everyone starts out learning to draw as accurately and realistically as possible, and the results usually look “tight.” Once that foundation is learned, it’s up to the students to develop and grow in whatever direction they want to. Some stay in the world of realism, some develop “looser” styles, and still others move toward abstraction. With a solid background in realism, however, they have a wider range of skills to use, regardless of the direction they choose.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying that looser is somehow better or a style to eventually aspire to; I don’t believe any style is better or worse than any other. I’m just saying that, for myself, I want to be able to draw confidently in whatever style suits me at the moment. At my current stage, I tend toward the tighter end of the scale. My “natural” range is somewhere around sketches Nos. 2 and 3. No. 4 was a much bigger stretch for me than was No. 1.

It takes a long time to grow into “looseness.”


  1. Love the beet sketches...especially looking at the root. I also find that the root is usually the most interesting part of beets or bulbs. They have such character!

    Looseness sounds like it should be easy but it is not easy to capture without a lot of work...and doesn't evolve quickly. Suhita seems to capture things with a simplicity of line and color that is amazing at times.

    1. I think we could all learn a lesson in looseness from Suhita...and clearly she has worked long and hard to be where she is.

  2. Whether B&W or color, your beet drawings are some kind of wonderful. They're eclipsed, however, by your discussion of loose/tight, particularly with respect to people learning to draw well. I don't even think "loose" is the proper word. It conjours too much of the quick and sloppy that serve as "my style" too often. Like you, I love Suhita's sketches for their "looseness" but when you look at them, the proportions are all there and the line work is superb and expressive.


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