Recently, my friend Elizabeth asked me to give her Art lessons.

“What do you hope to accomplish?” I asked her.

“I don’t know anything. I just want to be able to draw,” she said.

“But you already know how to draw,” I replied a little perplexed.

Elizabeth is a talented writer of children’s books. She had produced one complete with illustrations and brought it to our writers’ group for comment. She had a good bit of innate talent to start with. She wasn’t starting from scratch.

“Okay, ” I suggested. “Why don’t we start with drawing. It’s the base to everything in art. If you never get to be a star artist, you at least will learn to see things very differently and you can improve your drawing skills a lot. I think you will be a good learner – a quick study.”

We began with a two hour lesson and then reduced it to one hour. In fact, Elizabeth picked things up quite quickly. The first thing, as a teacher, that I have to do is to break the fear of the students of making “mistakes”. Too often people have been discouraged in their attempts to draw by some other categorical critic who says “that’s not what a rabbit looks like” but when they produce their version of the rabbit, if you ask me, that’s not what it’s like either.

Every time we try to represent an object or figure or landscape, all we ever get is an interpretation, a representation, no matter how “realistically” we can draw or paint. Even in the school of photographic realism or the animalier “hair of the dog” school of painting where every bristle is painted to exact length, it’s represented on a two dimensional plane, the paper or the canvas. That’s not realistic! It’s an impression. It’s a translation of how we see something. Some are more believable than others.

Elizabeth has gotten over the first few lessons quite admirably. She understood the underlying principles of composition and now is able to point them out in magazine advertising and in photo journalistic displays. Soon she will be adapting her own work to these principles. I had Elizabeth draw an object from memory. It’s a good task and lots of fun as long as one realizes that the resulting drawing is going to look like a child’s attempt at putting information to paper.

Following right on, I had her then take the object she was drawing – a cork screw – and let her look at it very carefully. We noted the places where memory had glossed over details. We looked at how the image would be very different if we looked at it from one side or the other, or what it would look like from top down, or from bottom up. We agreed that those were not typical views, so in order to have someone else agree upon the nature of the object being drawn, it was helpful to know which was the most typical view.

After she had done a second try at the memory task, accompanied by a bit of anxiety and much laughter at the results, I had her draw the object, focusing on observation of the various details. It was amazing how much progress she had made in observation. A light bulb had turned on in her mind. Observation was about to become a new game for her. As far as representational art goes, observation is a key to creating believable imagery.

Our last lesson was about shape and line drawing. Using a graphite pencil, I had her develop some hand-eye coordination by asking her to do a blind drawing. Blind drawings are those where you let your pencil act as if it were your eye, tracing very slowly down the edges of the item you are drawing, making marks out to the right side of you at the easel, and your eyes never leaving the object as you inspect where the edges of it travel.

Here is the blind drawing: w-758-small2

And the hand-eye coordination drawing with more intense observation:


We have a tendency to say “Wow, what an improvement!” but I delight in both kinds of drawing. The first one is exuberant. It has all the essentials – the hook with which a cool beer or bottle of pop can be opened. It has the spiral indicating the screw portion of the device and it has the circle that fits over the wine bottle top. It has the point that goes into the cork. It’s sufficiently complete to represent the object. It’s sufficiently sparse in detail to make the viewer question what it is and then come to a conclusion as to it’s identity.

It’s a lively drawing. It holds both information and mystery which, like a well dressed woman, is really more interesting than one who displays and tells all.

The second one is more sedate. Despite my imposed rule of not rubbing anything out, some erasures have been made. This object is far more instantaneously recognizable, but it’s lost its exuberance. All the parts are carefully observed, some more hastily than others. For our purposes it turned out very well.

In the progress of our learning, this drawing was transformed into another so that we didn’t waste time in getting on to the next subject, Shape. I asked Elizabeth to fill in all the parts on her drawing that were made of metal. That was easy. It was all metal. I gave her a fat yellow felt pen to do it with and that was a quick way to accomplish the task. The yellow shape is essentially the Positive Shape. Positive Shape is frequently discussed in Art. It’s often the subject of one’s painting, the principle image or the secondary image. If you carefully cut this shape out of a coloured piece of paper with an Exacto knife paying great attention to detail, what is left will be the Negative shape.


I wanted Betty to be very clear about Positive and Negative shape and how it affects the composition of an overall image. I drew a rectangualr shape around her cork screw drawing leaving no space between the extremities of the object and the sides of the box. I then asked her to identify each of the negative shapes produced by enclosing the object with the rectangular shape, and then to draw them to one side of her image.


She used charcoal to fill it in. It contrasts well with the yellow and dramatically illustrates the effect of background to foreground.I asked her what effect she felt the black shape had on her image.

“It unbalances it – a whole lot!”.

Yes, that’s exactly what it did. Each time she filled in another of the negative shapes, and we got about seven of them, we stopped to see what effect the infill made to the weight and composition of the painting. Now, you will say, those negative shapes were still there, even if it was just the paper colour. That’s true. But if one uses the negative shapes in balance with the positive shapes, then compositional effect is achieved (becomes balanced or unbalanced).

In fact, every mark one makes on the paper, whether positive or negative in shape, alters the drawing. It’s why the drawing process can be quite meditative as we consider what the effect of a change is and whether or not it meets our purpose or vision in doing the drawing.

w-761-small w-764-small

When Elizabeth was all done with her drawing and all the negative shapes were identified and filled in, we looked at it compositionally. There’s an entry on the left hand side for the viewer to easily approach the drawing, there are a number of different negative shapes, each different, the drawing is off centre which assists in a pleasing viewpoint – symetrical would be less interesting. Mission accomplished.

I then found this image amongst my photos which shows how positive and negative shapes can sometime confound themselves in a very pleasing way. Which is positive and which is negative? It keeps the eye inquiringly engaged in the imagery, which is a good thing.


Well, there you have it! I sent Elizabeth home with some work to do.

When all you are exploring is the effect of positive shape in relation to negative shape, there is no need to redraw everything. I asked her to draw a smaller version of her object one more time, then to divide her page into about eight rectangles. Using carbon paper with this one drawing, reproduce the same drawing in each of the eight compartments. Cut them up so that each is a separate image. Using felt pens or something that is easy to fill in quickly, chose two colours for each of these eight images and see how different colours affect the balance of the relationship of the positive shapes and the negative shapes.

For the fun of it, I’ve done these thumbnails (small drawings used principally to test out ideas and work out composition or colour) using Adobe Photo and the the paint bucket infill.

w-764-small-exercise-2 w-764-small-exercise-3 w-764-small-exercise-4 w-764-small-exercise-5 w-764-small-exercise-6 w-764-small-exercise-7 w-764-small-exercise-8 w-764-small-exercise-9 w-764-small-exercise-10 w-764-small-exercise-11

The edges of the line drawing need to be entirely enclosed to work this way. By the end of my manipulations, the drawing was beginning to disintegrate. That in itself added some interesting textures to the image – but texture is for a different lesson.


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