For untrained artists the trouble with seeing lies in the conflict that exists between the concrete visual reality of an entity
and the way the mind tries to represent our perception of this reality on the drawing paper. This attempt always involves the tendency to draw our symbolic preconception instead of the concrete reality.
Iconic preconceptions are part of a involuntary visual lingo that uses symbols to characterize known objects. This language of icons evolved as a mechanism to help us endure as a species. These icons help us, for example, to instantly recognize food sources or treacherous predators.
When we note an unknown item our subconscious mind instantantly tries to form a new symbol to characterize and store the entity in memory. Often novice artists will more correctly sketch unknown items than familiar ones because they are not yet wedded to the new symbols.
However, when they try to sketch the same entity a second time, it is likely that a more iconic image will emerge because ready to use symbols have already been stored in the mind.
Consider, for instance, the word head. At once an representation comes to mind which is symbolic for the head. Unfortunately, this symbol is only a schematic picture of a head and is always a gross simplification of a actual head. Nevertheless, there is a strong subconscious pull to draw the icon instead of what we actually see.
It is this conflict that artists must learn to overcome. This is particularly a difficulty for pencil portrait artists. When drawing a portrait the artist must resolve numerous layers of symbols to realize a realistic effect.
We now will illustrate a very good exercise to learn to overcome the problem of symbol drawing.
We will be sketching from an upside-down photograph. This way our symbolic preconception of the head is disrupted. We will be forced to draw without our symbols. The result will be a purer drawing experience free from a contaminated perception.
As you sketch the lines and block-in the tones you will feel quite awkward in your sketching. This is a good thing. Do not be concerned with the quality of your work. This is an exercise in seeing.
When practicing line and tone this way, starting artists often get better results than from the right-side up way. Trust yourself and throughout the exercise only look at your paper picture in the upside-down position even though it may feel quite uncomfortable.
You will learn to see and draw tone as forms and will be able to break down hard edges into short, straight lines instead of the common icons your brain will give to the nose, the ears, etc.
Thinking of and naming perceived objects will lead you down the garden path of oval shaped eyes, two holes for nostrils, a bunch of lines for hair, cauliflower ears and something that looks like an M perched on a bowl for a mouth instead of what is actually there.
Artists will never be free of schematic fixations. The icons actually change and become more sophisticated. It is only by constantly analyzing and abstracting form that we are able to sketch realistically.
Do you want to learn the secrets of pencil portrait drawing? Download my brand new free pencil portrait drawing tutorial here: pencil portrait tutorial.
Remi Engels is a pencil portrait artist and oil painter and skilled drawing teacher. See his work at graphite pencil portraits.
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