Starting a new painting without a clear plan can be daunting, and working from a preparatory drawing is the natural solution. Whether it’s jotting down a fleeting idea or rendering a tight plan, the spontaneity and immediacy of pencil to paper is undoubtedly the undercurrent to the history of painting. This article is by no means trying to diminish the value of drawing to being just a tool for painting – ‘drawing’ is of course a range of wonderful media with individual qualities. This is a guide to using drawing to generate source material for your paintings, if you choose to. I’ll explore how artists throughout history have used drawing as a tool to plan paintings, fleshing out an idea you’re already sure of, how to generate ideas on paper when you don’t have one, and some techniques for capturing the essence of your drawing in paint.
Artists Painting from Drawings Through History
From the highly rendered plans of the Ateliers, to spontaneous sketches on scraps of paper, the history of drawing in relation to painting is a treasure trove of information about the working processes of artists. It evidences a combination of cultural standards and personal flair. I’ve selected three examples of how drawing has consistently been used in this way throughout time, since having a perspective on art history allows us to now select the methods that work best for us. The thread that runs through all of them is that drawing consistently is beneficial.
In the studios of the Renaissance, drawing had a utilitarian purpose, allowing artists to combine their sharp observational drawing skill with imagination before applying any paint. This was necessary because of the volume of works many of these artists were commissioned to make, oftentimes with the artist providing a ‘sketch’ that would then be developed in their workshops. Making huge ‘cartoons’, which were full-scale drawings, was also a common practice for painting frescoes because it allowed them to transfer the imagery onto the surface. This was necessary because of the quick drying time of the plaster beneath which had to be worked on in small sections. ‘Disegno’ which comes from the Italian word for drawing, includes skillfully proportioned draughtsmanship but also the ability of the artist to invent. It was highly esteemed as an asset in this era, with Giorgio Vasari writing that it was “the animating principle of all creative processes.”.
In this preparatory drawing by Raphael, we can see plans for several of his paintings all on the same sheet, detailed in the title of the work, with his drawing for Madonna Del Prato in the centre.
Jumping forward to the current day, contemporary artists are still consistently using drawing as a means to formulate their paintings. To generalise I’d say that today the majority of painters’ preparatory drawings are investigatory, and still allow for a lot of invention on the canvas, but are no less important to the process. We are also now in a time where drawing is as valued as painting by artists, with contemporary draughtspeople like Toyin Ojih Odutola, William Kentridge, and Vija Celmins to name just a few, pushing drawing mediums to the forefront. I found this great preparatory drawing by Kerry James Marshall for his painting Untitled (Painter), which I love because it feels very much like the rapid drawings found in all artists’ sketchbooks to get an idea down. It allows for lots of detailed invention on the surface, but establishes the positions of the key forms succinctly.
Planning a Painting You Have an Idea for
When you already have a very clear idea of the image you want to make, and feel that a drawing would help you render it into paint, methods inspired by the Renaissance artists may be the most helpful. Preparing a detailed drawing may help you figure out composition and detail, saving you time and materials when it comes to painting. This doesn’t mean that your first try at this detailed drawing will be the one you use – it will probably go through stages of revisions, and be redrawn, until you get what you want from it. I’d suggest always making some really quick thumbnail drawings of how you envision the image before you start anything prolonged. This allows you to select things as simple as how much of the scene you’d like to include, and even the support shape or size that will suit you. Don’t be discouraged if putting everything into this one drawing isn’t working – just take it as a sign to change something about the composition, perhaps changing the scale of your preparatory drawing to be closer to the canvas size, or sourcing better imagery to draw from.
It can also be really helpful to cut out aspects of your drawing so that you’re able to move them around to help you decide on your composition. For example, if you had drawn a figure you were really happy with but were unsure about the environment around them, instead of redrawing the whole thing, cutting it out, and collaging it with other potential ideas can help you find your final version.
Gridding up your work can also be helpful, so that when you go to transfer this resolved drawing to canvas, perhaps due to scaling up or down, the proportions will align. Tonal value can also be laid out in this drawing, allowing for you to start the painting with confidence without this sometimes difficult aspect to invent on the canvas.
The drawback of this method is that it can be too rigid if you don’t allow yourself to stray from the plan at all when inspiration strikes, so I’d encourage this method only if you allow for some flexibility to add or take things away. If you feel confident about inventing on the surface with your clear idea, then a brief compositional drawing will be enough, perhaps that focuses more on laying down shapes, and directional lines, than rendered forms.
Drawing as a Generative Source When You Don’t Have an Idea
When you want to make a painting but are running dry on ideas, referring to your drawings is the answer. Going back to old sketchbooks, life drawings, or simple scribbles can be the departure point you need for a new idea. If you don’t find anything there, then drawing from observation could be the solution. Objects you enjoy looking at, artworks you covet, people you love, can all be the starting point for something highly personal and exciting.
If you’re feeling uninspired by your physical surroundings, then generative drawing from your imagination could be really helpful. This is almost a meditative practice, where you should begin drawing without judgement of what you produce, almost just jotting down whatever images come to mind in a stream of consciousness. If this is a struggle for you, perhaps trying this same idea but whilst listening to music you enjoy, or perhaps don’t like at all, could provide interesting results. All human beings have a litany of creative ideas, purely from all of the stimuli we experience every day. This method is just about bringing them out to the forefront of your mind. You should see these drawings as germinating artworks, and don’t worry about making them aesthetically pleasing. You can resolve things like composition and form later in the process, perhaps returning to the ideas in the previous section when you do.
Capturing the Essence of a Drawing in Paint
A pitfall of making paintings from drawings is that the magic of the original drawing can sometimes feel lost in the process. Often this happens because of issues like overworking, where the drawing may have been more spontaneous. Or, by rendering and losing the linework, something appears to be missing from the image. There are a few techniques for working through this when you have that feeling.
Firstly, there can sometimes be an assumption that a painting should appear separate from a drawing aesthetically. If there are elements to the original drawing that you feel are missing from the painting, there is nothing stopping you from “drawing” these back in, but with paint. Alternatively, if you aren’t oil painting, using mixed media could bring back some of the flavour the drawing had if your painting is acrylic or watercolour, and you can experiment with dry drawing media on top, or through these.
Through brushwork you can replicate the markmarking you may be lacking in the painting, using it as a reference for technique as well as composition. I’ve made some examples here of the kind of mark making we may associate with drawings, but wouldn’t always allow ourselves to paint with. You could go as far with these as you wish, from a subtle line to full cross-hatching.
The palette or finish of your work can also be at play here. Often drawings have a more subtle palette because of reduced pigmentation in comparison to the fullness of oil paint. Perhaps toning your colours down, or tinting them could help. Additionally, a lot of the time our drawings have a reduced palette. It’s easier to add more colours much faster when painting, so this could also be a sign to strip back some of the colour range. The palette or finish of your work can also be at play here. Often drawings have a more subtle palette because of reduced pigmentation in comparison to the fullness of oil, watercolour or acrylic paint.
Using drawings to make paintings has an expansive legacy, but with a great amount of freedom and possibility for experimentation, depending on your needs. I think it’s important to remember that if a drawing isn’t working as a painting, maybe it was best just being a drawing after all. You shouldn’t feel pressure to transform all of your work into paintings, but instead have the insight to know when it would enhance the idea you have. Through planning, but also taking creative risks, I’d encourage you to see which methods work best for you – and you’ll only know by trying them out yourself.