Annotation: Keys to Drawing

When I decided to do a studio study on drawing, I mentioned this to my aunt, who is an artist and art instructor both privately and for Lebanon College in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I mentioned that I was planning to read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which she heartily endorsed, but also suggested another book that she uses in her classes, which is Keys to Drawing, by Bert Dodson (whom is apparently currently living in Bradford, Vermont, just up the road from her). It’s not an overwhelmingly large book, but is absolutely packed with useful drawing advice, including an index of concepts and terminology in the back that has already proven useful to me in understanding the vocabulary of drawing.

One of the things that I really appreciate in Keys to Drawing is that the author doesn’t assume anything. He explains everything quickly and clearly, from how to hold the pen or pencil or charcoal or conte crayon (and why and how it varies depending on the medium, as well as your intended style), to shading techniques (pressure shading versus cross hatching, for instance), as well as giving probably the best explanation of perspective and vanishing points I have seen to date. His method involves determining where eye level is, and then using your pencil to act as a level to measure outward to determine the vanishing point. This allows for a more concrete sense of place to draw from, since these two aspects also establish the viewpoint of the image. (This might seem a bit obvious when drawing from life, where the viewpoint is your own, but when drawing from your imagination, it is significantly more useful to have a quick and easy method to figure out the viewpoint you want to draw from.)

There are a variety of styles of drawing that are addressed in this book. I found it interesting to see how they were connected, since Dodson often makes a point of showing pieces at various stages, including separate drafts (something that doesn’t often get discussed). There are several occasions where he goes from an almost abstract gesture drawing to an outline drawing, to a rough sketch, to a final, textured and shaded piece. Seeing this process fascinates me sometimes more than the drawing itself.

Something that I definitely need to improve upon is what he discusses in chapter six, “The Illusion of Texture.” There is a LOT of information there, and I found myself a little bogged down with it, as I have not yet reached a point in my own ability that I’m really making use of texture and shading, save some prototypical charcoal shading. I’m just starting to “get” shading — texture is still somewhat beyond me.

In chapter four, “The Illusion of Light”, Dodson actually hit upon something that I was familiar with from photography, which is tonal relationships and reduction. Creative use of focus can abstract an image into basic tonal relationships that can then be more effectively drawn: it returns to the merit of non-photorealistic art, which I am a proponent of. If drawing a snowy landscape (as in Dodson’s example), it is not necessary to draw every tree and detail of the piece — in fact, more the opposite. You end up bogged down in details that the viewer’s eye would gloss over anyway. By reducing the image to tonalities and shape, you retain the idea of the landscape without miring the eye in unnecessary detail. You can then more easily draw focus to the elements YOU want. This is the purpose (or one of them, anyway) of depth of field in photography, and is just as valid an artistic element in drawing or other visual arts.

Worth noting in Dodson’s particular method of drawing (which he readily admits to, and even discusses at the end of chapter 3) is the use of slight exaggeration of form for artistic or dramatic effect. Unless you are insisting upon photo-realism in the image, a certain amount of exaggeration will creep in, so why not embrace that fact and choose where that exaggeration will go? If the subject of your drawing is tall and thin, a certain amount of angularity to his figure probably makes sense, elements that can generally be seen in the shoulders, the set of the jaw, and the elbows. Neither the author nor I am saying to necessarily make his elbows the size of his head, but a slightly more angular, pronounced joint will probably work well to establish the concept of the individual’s figure more effectively than sweating over whether it is precisely accurate.

I keep returning to the subject of exaggeration, conceptualization, and the need for non-photorealistic style in drawing for a variety of reasons, most of which stem well beyond the scope of Keys to Drawing or this annotation. There is certainly a place of photorealistic art, and I have the utmost respect for the artists that pull it off, especially in an imaginary work (Alex Ross, for instance). That said, in this era of computer generated photorealistic art, there is still a very valid and necessary role for non-photorealistic art. The eye views it differently, and draws different information from it than it would in a photorealistic variation. Additionally, the mind tends to retain more information from non-photorealistic art than it does with its photorealistic counterpart. By engaging the mind to process the more abstracted image, it creates a more concrete impression in the synapses of the brain. I’m digressing, however, and getting further away from my point: despite my background in photography, I am more interested in abstraction and non-photorealism than otherwise.

It is my interest in abstraction that motivates my desire to create imaginary worlds, whether is in comics, games, traditional artwork, or cartoons (or even in writing, though I haven’t done any creative writing in quite some time). I call it an interest in creative media, because it is too broad to be restricted any further than that. With this in mind, I would say that if I was pressed to recommend just one book on drawing, I would probably choose Keys to Drawing over Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. What it comes down to is that Betty’s book teaches you to draw objectively (not exclusively, but that does seem to be the focus), while Bert’s book teaches you to the tools to draw, and lets you make the choice of how objective or subjective you wish to be. Of course, I don’t really have to choose just one, so really, I recommend both.

Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1985.