At teaching artist Sonya Blesofsky’s earlier portfolio prep workshop, students had learned the importance of drawing from life, and drawing regularly in a sketchbook, in order to build a successful art school portfolio. This second workshop focused on basic observational-drawing skills, through several different exercises working from a still life.
Sonya reminded the class at the beginning, “Drawing is about noticing things. Don’t just assume how something looks. It’s important to really look at what you’re drawing.”
To warm up their looking skills, first students simply practiced holding a pencil and moving it around without averting their eyes too much from the drawing subject and looking too much at their papers. They were then asked to draw a shoe without looking at the paper (as a “blind contour drawing.”).
The group then did a series of longer drawings of the still life, focusing on different observation skills. Sonya went over different tools for capturing the still life realistically, such as noticing the proportions of one side of an object in relation to another; feeling the object with one’s fingers before starting to draw in order to internalize the shape; and drawing the outline of a cast shadow on the object, treating the shadow as another shape. “In general, you should think of things as whole shapes, not just lines,” Sonya advised, helping students start to see each object as a set of combined 3-D volumes.
The longer drawing exercise also focused on composition, or how things are arranged on the page. Students were asked to look at the still life through handmade rectangular paper “viewfinders” to plan out how to “crop” a portion of the larger arrangement into the boundaries of a drawing page. “Artists need to make choices of what to include,” said Sonya, “and also figure out the center of interest in a drawing.”
The final looking skill addressed in this class was value, or using shading to capture the dark and light contrasts in a drawing subject. Students were directed to block in the basic shapes of the still life first, and then squint their eyes for an exaggerated look at the light and dark contrasts in the objects. They shaded in the main values with charcoal, and then went back with an eraser to “pull out the highlights.” The group had an opportunity to experiment with first the finer, looser vine charcoal, and then the blacker, stronger compressed charcoal, using their fingers for blending.
During this workshop, each student was also given a sketchbook to use throughout the Art Ready program, because the key to improving at drawing from life and drawing realistically is getting a lot of practice (to echo the advice of most art school representatives at National Portfolio Day). “Create your own still life at home,” advised Sonya, “and draw every chance you get.”