Art and Design Academy

Constructive Drawing

Article by Vladimir London

Drawing is a non-verbal language of communication. It is the way of thinking, planning, forming and sharing ideas and delivering the message. As Deny Didro (1713—1784) said, "If the country teaches drawing its people as it teaches them writing the country will take the first place in the technique, science and arts".

The Art and Design Academy course is created for artists, sculptors, architects and designers who want to discover what constructive drawing is and learn how to use it to create theirs works of art.

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What is and What isn't Constructive Drawing

The term "constructive drawing" is often misunderstood and misused not only by self-taught artists, but also by many art teachers. Before we can talk about constructive drawing, we need to clarify what "constructive drawing" actually means. Some may think that any kind of drawing where some kind of measurements involve is "constructive". Others believe that this term is only applicable to engineering and design drawing where complex objects are composed from simple elements. There are also opinions that as long as you use some helping tools or guides that help to create an image, it ultimately becomes "constructive drawing".

To define what constructive drawing is, I have to explain the difference between drawing what you see and drawing what you know.

"Drawing what you see" is copying or imitating. An artist can either copy flat, two-dimensional images, or copy objects and sceneries from real three-dimensional world. To copy, an artist has to closely observe and analyze visible shapes, draw those shapes with precision and adorn such shapes with tonal values and colors. This results in a recognizable picture and the generally accepted idea is - the closer such hand-made picture resembles an original object, the more realistic such artwork is.

"Drawing what you know" requires a different set of skills. Instead of copying what is visible, an artist "builds" a picture using the knowledge of constructive drawing principles. Such principles include rules of linear and aerial perspective, proportions, alignments, cross-section, anatomy and so on. In many cases, construction is not visible. For example, the skeletal and muscular anatomy of a body is hidden beneath the skin. That is why to depict a realistic figure or a portrait, an artist has to draw what one knows about its construction. Needless to say, it is only possible when the knowledge is there.

Why is it important to understand what is and what isn't constructive drawing? If you would like to learn good drawing skills, following an erroneous path in art education might take many years without much success or even lead you to the dead end. Yes, you've heard it right - there are right and wrong ways of learning drawing.

There are many ways of developing drawing skills; they can be combined into the following groups:

  1. Sketching and doodling
  2. Copying photos and flat images
  3. Copying masterpieces
  4. Copying from life
  5. Drawing from life
  6. Learning constructive drawing

The first way is an obvious choice for children. I used "sketching and doodling" instead of "drawing" simply because children draw intuitively, without any rules or techniques. Every child can draw and what is more important, a child has no doubts about one's skills and quality of art. This natural confidence fades away when a child grows up and recognizes that such art actually looks naïve. This could come up as a self-discovery or after a professionally-unfit art teacher gives a low mark. Those children, who, for whatever reason, stick to the drawing routine, accumulate thousands of hours of practice while discovering certain techniques of drawing. Such persistence reflects on their skills. This is when others notice it and say that such students have a talent. This way to mastery neither quick nor guaranteed. There are many adults who doodle, but it doesn't bring results without learning the needed drawing skills. This is when a person might turn to copying.

Replicating flat images includes drawing from photos and copying someone else artworks. Drawing from photos is the most treacherous path to take. It is the easiest though. While for a proficient artist, there is nothing wrong in using reference photos, for a beginner, it might end up with the "dead end." If a student without strong drawing skills relies only on making copies of photographs this leads into the "copying trap." The copying trap is when an artist could only copy flat images, but cannot skillfully draw from life, memory and imagination. This happens because copying rewires artists' brain and suppresses one's ability to depict objects constructively in perspective with foreshortening. There are many self-taught artist and art college graduates who "make art" by copying photos. I have heard many times such comments as "I don't know why I can copy photos well, but can't draw from life" or "When I copy a photo, it looks fine, but there is no way I could do it from memory."

The set of copying skills is rather simple - shapes are traced and then decorated with tonal values or colors. This requires good eye-hand coordination, developed fine motor skills, ability to judge and accurately repeat tonal values and colors. Because hyper-realistic replicas could be very impressive, many people perceive such reproduction as fine art. I won't be discussing here whether it is art or not, but would like to warn you that the more you copy, the less you will be able to draw from life, memory and imagination. This applies not only to "copy-pasting" photos by hand, but also to using pictures done by other artists as a reference for duplication.

I don't want to make an impression that copying is evil. It is a great way to learn when used appropriately. For example, repeating anatomical diagrams or drawing canons of human body proportions from good reference images is very helpful as long as students do it to learn new things and then repeat multiple times the same pictures in different points of view from memory.

The next approach of learning drawing is by copying great works of art. Such masterpieces are already stylized and "explained" according to the master's vision and skills and therefore hold valuable information on canons, styles, techniques, and methods of drawing. That is why imitating such artworks is a worthy way of learning from the great masters and getting good taste in art. Nevertheless, there is the same danger of getting into the copying trap. This activity has to be done with caution, only in addition to learning good drawing skills of constructive drawing and drawing from life. Copying is replication after all. I know some artists who are great at making replicas of masterpieces, but not their own art.

For transferring flat images, an artist can use such methods as squaring, triangulation, use calipers and grids, but this, however, doesn't make it constructive drawing.

Copying from life is another way of learning drawing. I used the word "copying" here because it is "drawing what you see." This is the primary way the majority of contemporary art colleges are teaching. I have seen many art classes, workshops, drop-in studios where students draw from life with no understanding of rules and principles of drawing. Such "natural" way of drawing is described and advocated in many books. I wholeheartedly support drawing from life as a part of the educational process, but it brings results only when supported with the necessary knowledge and know-how.

Only a few especially talented students achieve success that way. This might happen when quantity grows into quality, or when a student intuitively recognizes the value of constructive drawing and "reinvents" its principles, like what happened to one famous contemporary comic book artist. However, the majority of students graduate with no drawing skills after wasting four years of their life in art colleges. I have met many artists who year after year attend life drawing sessions with no advance in drawing skills whatsoever. Despite some of them have degrees in art, there is no hope that they will ever achieve the advanced level of skills not because they are not interested, but because the way of learning drawing by "copying from life" without the know-how requires many, many years of practice and the lifetime may not be enough.

Talking of "copying from life", I also would like to mention the drawing process that originated in Europe and, for example, was used in French ateliers. This Is not the mainstream way and only practiced in some studios in Europe and America today. In such ateliers, students start learning by copying classical drawing plates, and then drawing from life using the sight-size method. Such method allows to "replicate" an object at one-to-one scale by placing an easel next to the model and relying on such aids as sticks, strings, and compasses, to copy onto paper or canvas what artist sees in life. The sight-size method is based on alignments and measuring widths; other methods may use triangulation and similar techniques, but it is not constructive drawing. Using these methods, an artist with high accuracy repeats every line and angle one sees. This gives likeness in realistic artworks. There are many famous artists of the 19th…21st centuries who went through such art schools and I admire their skills. However, there is one problem with learning drawing by "copying from life." Although this way develops great ability to replicate life on canvas, an artist is out of the comfort zone when it comes to drawing from memory and imagination. To make a high-quality artwork, an average atelier graduate needs a model to copy from.

This brings us to the next way of learning good drawing skills – drawing from life. What makes it different from "copying from life" is that art students draw what they know about objects they see. For example, to depict a vase from life, an artist can analyze its proportions, check angles and curvatures of outlines and repeat on paper with precision what one sees. This, however, is not enough. An artist also needs to apply what one knows as well. For example, if a vase is symmetrical and you know how to use axes of symmetry, you can draw such axes to make sure that both sides of a vase are equal in size and mirroring each other and that ovals of the vase's neck, shoulder and foot are symmetrical along their main and secondary axes. Such axes are virtual lines, you cannot see them in life, but you can use what you know about symmetry to depict a vase realistically. Symmetry is just one of many constructive drawing principles. You also need to know the rules of linear and aerial perspective as well as many other things to draw three-dimensional objects convincingly. This is when learning constructive drawing really helps.

The next step in advancing drawing skills is to "build" pictures by drawing what you know. I used the word "build" here because constructive drawing is the way of "constructing" or "building" objects in your artworks. So, we finally got to the answer to the main question of this chapter - constructive drawing is drawing what you know using constructive principles.

Coming back to the example described above, a vase is a very simple object. But the same principles can be used for "building" more complex things as well – interiors, exteriors, cityscapes, any products of industrial design, portraits, human figures, and so on. And the best thing is – you do not need a model to draw it from life if you are fully familiar with the principles of constructive drawing. After all, if you are an industrial designer, you might design some product that has not been ever produced before. Where would you get a model to draw from? If you are an architect, you have to have the necessary skills to draw a building that hasn't been built yet. If you are a character designer, you need the skills of creating imaginary characters that no model would help you with. If you are a fine artist, you do need the skills of drawing whatever you see, think or imagine. That is why constructive drawing is an important part of your art education. That is why you need to know what is and what isn't constructive drawing and how different ways of learning drawing skills can affect your ability to draw from life and imagination.

To summarize, a person who doodles without learning the needed skills has no chances of becoming a proficient artist. An art enthusiast who only copies flat images might get into the copying trap and lose ability to draw from life, memory and imagination. An art student who learns drawing by copying from life might get into the "life copying trap" and face difficulties when it comes to drawing from memory and imagination. And finally, an artist who is skillful in constructive drawing will be able to draw from life, memory and imagination as well as copy flat images.

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