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02. Sketches From Life

If you want to get radical and fast, take on pre-sketching before painting as a discipline. If your subject is fleeting, like a sunset or something, perhaps don’t do one then, but every other time. You exercise all of the Visual Language principles except for the color property of the Value Element. By eliminating color from the equation, you can really focus on the design possibilities Value and Shape can offer. This is where 10-15 minutes can literally save you hours down the road of painting. It’s a road map, and you lock in your idea which encourages deliberateness in the paint application. Don’t just scribble a couple of unintelligible marks in a sketchbook, translate your idea, 3D to 2D. Follow steps 2a-2e with a Light Direction Sphere Pen (or ping pong ball), a pen or pencil, and as a luxury, I’ve come to LOVE Prismacolor Brush tip 20,40,60,80, and 100% warm gray markers. Do it often, and not just in preparation for painting. Keep a Sketchbox with you every where you go.

2a. Box it up:
With pen or pencil, draw a small box mimicking the shape of the canvas you intend to study for, or whatever aspect ratio, you are exploring. This simple trick changes your thinking from focusing on details and minutia, or doodling, into the composer, designing a feel on the canvas overall, as it needs to be. Box it up, when you want to take that doodle to the next level. For difficult long straight lines like the outer dimensions of the box, a series of short, light, dashy lines works well. Place it in the center of the page so you allow for some expansion in any direction, if needed.

2b. Determine Light Direction:
If you’re outside and in the same light as your subject, hold your light direction sphere at arms length in that direction. Notice, by moving the sphere up and down, left, and right, around and in front of your subject, the shapes of light and shadow, just as a moon phase, illustrate the precise direction of the light source. Look also at the sphere in terms of the exhibit of various planar orientations to the light source, including where Specular Highlights will be seen. The sphere gives so much visual information if you know what to look for. You can geek out about it for 5 minutes before drawing sometimes! Take notice of exactly how much above or below the Horizon Line the Line-of-Site is for your chosen subject, as this greatly effects how you perceive the value patterns in the arrangement. Always draw this light direction sphere in the margins outside your box for future reference. Identifying the light direction helps you see the most important Visual Language information unique to the viewpoint, and helps re-establish things if the light gets obscured for some reason.

2c. Assess the Scene from the Field of View:
Hold up your finger-frame in the direction of your subject, in the size ratio of the box you started with. Adjust your finger-frame in closer and further out from your eyes to limit your Field of View around the Scene. Squinting, note where the Horizon Line is relative to the scene, and where the big shapes of value break the sides of the picture plane. This will help you draw the subject properly inside your box without grids. If there are a lot of little parts, look for big relationships in their placement, and ways to tie them together with Intangible Lines, or eliminate them if they are not helping the intention.

2d. Horizon Line and Big Shape Outlines:
Draw in the Horizon Line or at least know where it is relative to your chosen scene. Recalling where the main shapes intersect the edge of your finger-frame, lightly translate the outlines of those shapes. Perhaps, note the Intangible lines of viewer eye travel that you intend, so elements can be placed along it later, to help this. For big shape outlines, look for the overlapping form in the scene, parallactic motion, or the silhouettes of stuff.

Having established the bigger form arrangement, patterns of light and shadow or surface characteristics can be drawn on this, without getting lost in the details too soon. Exploring alternate possibilities both in composition, and invention that part ways from the literal translation, is fun and challenging. Sometimes, cut the initial box up to make four identical boxes, and try different arrangements quickly. This is where you can really dance with the inspiration! Move things around, shrink or grow objects, increase or lessen contrast, try a vertical and a horizontal. Just acknowledge that all of these changes must conform to truths of Linear Perspective created by the Viewpoint.

2e. Color in the shapes:
Having visualized the relationships of value and shape, it’s now time to execute that idea using the road map of outlines. The white of the paper is your lightest light, then you’ve got five main increments of value in the markers. Use a pencil if you want, but three big advantages in marker use, warrant their weight in gold! You get very good at identifying values. After a bit of practice, you’ll assess scenes with value percentages. They help our brains get tuned into definitive contrast relationships. The separation in each increment of value is very intuitive. Having only five, plus the white of the paper, keeps the mind working within a budget of values necessary to pull off the visual intention. And lastly, the brush tip gets your mind warmed up for painting, making the pre-sketch discipline easy to take hold. Below are two approaches I’ve found helpful in completing a small value sketch.

Approach A: Start with 40%, or 60% when filling in the shadow shapes. This helps establish a light and shadow contrast relationship immediately. If you start shading shadow shapes in with 20%, you’ll be repeating that step, because it won’t be dark enough, but only seems dark enough next to the white of the paper.

Approach B: Assess the entire scene. Where is the lightest light? Leave the white of the paper there, and color the rest of the entire scene with 20%. Now where all are the 20% values? Leave them, and color the rest 40%. Go on this way until you work your way through the values, and the sketch is done.