Approaching forms as an artist

A recent series on drawing from the New York Times, given by James McMullan, makes two points worth repeating, especially as I delve into figurative forms again.

The first is that the “process of drawing is a really live process and not like a dead thing, ‘Oh my God I can’t change anything because I made that line five minutes ago.'” If we didn’t learn this from all of the gestural drawings we did in college, I don’t think we ever will. This is, I believe, what paralyzes a lot of people who do not have artistic training (or even artistic ambitions) when they think of drawing. They have this idea that your first line has to be perfect. Not so.

McMullan’s second interesting point is that people tend to want to compete with a photograph when they are drawing. From there he says “I’m trying to show people is that a much more vigorous way of seeing the body or seeing the head is to look at the big forms first . . . we tend to concentrate on the eyes and hairstyle and think that that is what gives people their visual personality.” He continues by pointing out that visual personality comes actually from basic visual forms — the slant of the brow, how much the nose protrudes from the cheek — and not so much the things we usually concentrate on.

I wish McMullan would have expounded on how we tend to compete with photographs as we draw (or sculpt in clay as well?). He may have been trying to do so with this important notation on how we perceive the human countenance, but there is something more to be said about how that perception is shaped in an environment canvased with such realistic human likenesses. Before photography — yes, there was such a time — how did we look at a portrait as a viewer? How did we approach an object, a figure, as an artist?

Regardless, these two points came at just the right time for me. Drawing (with graphite or clay) is a living thing shifting throughout the creative process — a responsive process drawn from observation of both the actual and perceived. Figurative countenance is defined by basic forms. Now off I go to sketch a few more faces from Flickr before putting those forms to clay.

Unfortunately the video seems to be hosted on the New York Times website and can’t be embedded. Watch it in its entirety via this link.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Approaching forms as an artist

  1. Julie says:

    I think the distinction to make is that representation is REPRESENTATION. It is not making a miniature of something. It is not making a replica of something. It is the act of interpreting a thing and of re-presenting the thing.

    And, because photography does have a certain objectivity to it, we tend to forget. But even straight photography, often considered its purest form, entails really important choices: what is framed, how it is framed.

  2. Pingback: Iteration in knitting | Word Lily

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