Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stepping Backwards To Go Forward

     Stepping Backward….. This is what I think is involved in learning to become a serious artist.  Let me explain.  In teaching my workshops, I’ve come across a wide variety of people, who for lots of different reasons, want to come learn how to paint in watercolor with me.  Some just want to go home with a completed painting as proof of their participation, and let me be clear----that is perfectly fine.
     But those who are serious about perfecting their painting skills, will soon recognize why I “harp” on drawing skills.  I am aware that the primary reason a painting falls short of expectations is a lack of drawing skills.  That’s why I tell all my prospective students, before they even arrive for the workshop, “Be sure you concentrate on bringing a good drawing”…..”Work on making the drawing the best you can do” ….. “Here’s the quality of the drawing I expect.” 
     Even with explicit instructions on how to execute a drawing (designed for those with limited experience), students will invariably arrive with drawings that will not render their desired results.
     So I’m rethinking my approach to conducting classes.  For those who want to experience a laid back weekend of painting in watercolor, it will be status quo.  But for those who want to improve their skills and approach a possible career in painting, I am going to start stressing drawing skills first.  And here’s why
     A well-executed drawing is the foundation of a good painting.  It is essential to begin an oil or watercolor painting with a good drawing, or the painting will fall short in the end.  And here’s the statement that will probably get me in a lot of trouble….. For the past 40 years, I don’t think we have necessarily taught our art students the fundamentals that will help them achieve successful outcomes.  That is why I am excited to see a huge resurgence in the European Academy system, or atelier-based schools.
     I think people are finally realizing that there’s no shortcut to good painting.  It requires fundamentals, such as drawing.  And atelier-based schools are nothing but fundamentals taught over and over again.
     Artists like Jacob Collins and Daniel Graves have driven home the importance of good drawing skills.  Certainly the educated art buyer recognizes the skill.  And even those buyers of art, who may not be able to pinpoint what makes one artist’s work stand out from another, will instinctively see the difference.
     So how am I stepping backwards to go forward?  As an artist, I have been complimented on the level of my drawing skills, but I’m always seeking to raise the bar for myself.  At this stage in my career, I can’t stop and put my obligations and schedule on hold in order to take 18 months or 2 years off to go study with an atelier master like Daniel Graves.
     So I am committed to re-training myself in my daily routine to learn these traditional methods to draw.  In essence, it’s a new way to see and a new way to draw.  The single best thing I have ever done is purchase Charles Bargue’s Drawing Course.  This book includes all the Bargue plates of actual casts of 3-dimensional sculptures.  I am starting at the beginning and re-training myself to draw in this manner.  (See my sketch, right, from Bargue plates).
     You will learn to draw from life with the sight-size measurement system, as well as learn to draw from the flat by measuring from an existing illustration or photograph, and then transferring this to your paper.  It is my opinion that this is the single most important skill you can learn as a painter.  And it will be the best $100 you’ll ever spend to advance your career.
     Study the best draftsmen in the art world today …. Jacob Collins, Jeremy Lipking, Harley Brown, Daniel Graves, Richard Schmid … everything they do in their painting goes back to good drawing skills and measuring.
     And you, too, can achieve success if you’re willing to put in the time to learn how to do it.
All content © J. Mark Kohler Studio.


  1. I have the Bargue book. I guess I should actually use it, heh?

    I read that the original plates were bigger, 18 x 24, and that students are recommended to draw the plates full size. Does that mean I should make my drawings bigger than my 9 x 12 drawing pad, or does it work just as well at a smaller scale?

  2. I have the best luck with using my 9 x 12 pad, and drawing them the same size as they are in the book. I use a clear sewing ruler with 1/10 increments for measuring, and a #H pencil.

    And, yes, opening the book is essential!