A new way of looking: directional lines

Months have passed since I posted the first article of A new way of looking, my blog series about the secrets of drawing. If you haven’t read it, please do, because it contains information essential to the understanding of today’s blogpost.

To draw everything around us objectively, we must learn to see beyond the tangible objects we observe every day and focus on the abstract structure of the world around us. Negative spaces, shadows, light shapes and directional lines can help us get a grip on complex drawing subjects as they offer us a simplified version of reality.

Last time I shortly wrote about the importance of using negative spaces during the drawing process, but this time we’re going to discuss my favourite technique to set-up a drawing: sketching directional lines.
Years ago, when I was still studying at the art academy, I grabbed every opportunity to draw models from life. However, as I had little experience, I drew them without really knowing what I was doing. Usually I started with the model’s head and traced my way along the body contour to the feet, hoping I would get everything in the right place by accident. Fortunately, when I was half way the first academic year, I found I no longer wondered what to do when drawing short model poses. I had learned a skill fundamental to the art of drawing: to simplify. 
Dealing with foreshortening and time pressure was doable if I would set up my drawings using directional lines. Depicting the model’s pose trying to capture the essential angles of the body, was something I had taught myself to do, but after a while I discovered that this method of mine actually was widely known.

When I started teaching I consulted a couple of art books, looking for something useful to say to back up my opinions about drawing, in order to improve my persuasiveness as a teacher. I flipped through Juliette Aristides’ Classical Drawing Atelier and for once I started reading, instead of looking only at the pictures. To my great amazement, in the chapter about ‘lines’, there was a section describing exactly the way I taught myself to draw! Aristides writes that, in the sketching stage, we should try to capture the essential angles of the drawing subject, since these angles are the framework for the rest of the drawing steps. The angles should be drawn using straight lines, as these are vital to the simplifying of complex shapes we find in nature. While making this ‘framework’ we have to look for intrinsic directional lines and try to trace as few as possible. 
What are these essential angles, these intrinsic directional lines? Let me show you in the following drawing step by step…

For this occasion I have chosen to use a picture from the website www.artmodeltips.com , though I never use photo references for the paintings you’ll find in my portfolio. However, if you are looking for a way to improve your model drawing skills, but you don’t have the opportunity to work from life, this is a very useful website, as it contains lots of pictures of different model poses.
Now, how do I start? I always tell my students to begin by thinking about the question: ‘If you could trace only one (preferably) or two lines to show the essence of this pose, what line would you choose?’
In this case, the model Jenni is standing and leaning back, creating a beautiful diagonal line that goes all the way from her tense neck through her front leg to her toes. Can you see it? I would certainly draw that one first of all others. Pay attention here, though: this line doesn’t necessarily match the body contour, since it is a directional one and flows through the body parts. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end.

Step 1: try to define the most important directional line
Step 2: find the other essential lines
Step 3: draw reference points and add more, smaller directional lines

Once I’ve defined the most important ‘gesture’ of the pose, I continue with the next question: ‘If I could add just one or two other lines, which ones would I trace?”
Essential to this pose are the directional line of the arms and shoulders and the one that goes from the dark side of her face to the knee of her back leg, since her breast muscle also points that way.
By drawing these three directional lines I’ve captured what I think is the essence of the pose and from here I can start adding more directions, like the one that runs parallel with the very first one, through the arm holding the ball and the lower part of Jenni’s back leg.
But before I get lost in lots of lines, I need reference points to help me get some grip on the drawing process. You can see on the image I drew some suggestive lines for the chin, the upper part of the head, the height of the hands, the elbow and the placement of the feet. Again, they’re drawn using light lines, for I want to be able to move them in a future drawing stage, when I have more information to find the definitive placement of all body parts.

Now it starts getting real fun, for as I’ve chosen my reference points (the hands, the chin, the feet…) I can start adding more body parts, because I’ve created my own measuring tools. If I know where the chin is, I also know where the pubic bone is, since they are on the same vertical axis. Obviously I’m aware of where the legs start. I can check the alignment of the knees with the shoulders, the toes, the breasts… and as I draw these parts lightly, I constantly check their connection with the whole. I would never dream of tracing heavy lines in this stage, for I don’t want to commit myself to them until I am absolutely sure they are the right ones. 
During this process, in which I’m exploring the structure of the model’s pose, I try to deny myself the pleasure of drawing things like fingers and I push myself to simplify the body contour into straight lines, creating a very ‘angular’ version of reality.
When it seems everything is placed correctly, I start giving a more particular character to my lines, making the model look more ‘human’ while adjusting little mistakes.

Step 4: add more elements keeping an eye on the whole and using straight lines
Step 5: adjust little mistakes and add more detail to the previously drawn lines

Reading about this technique there might arise some questions and from my teaching I know these are the most frequent ones…

What’s the purpose of the directional lines? Why can’t I just draw the body contour?
If you want an elaborate answer to that question, please read my blogpost about the abstract. In short, focussing on the body contour, which is something concrete, makes us draw what we think the model should look like, instead of what’s really there. By drawing directional lines, I prevent this from happening. How? Well, by focussing on the ‘pose’ instead of the actual model, I acknowledge the abstract power of my drawing subject. The diagonal line I traced at the start of the sketching process is very important, because it stands for the main “tension”, “motion” or “gesture” of the subject. By drawing that, I am reminded that whatever else I add to the sketch, the main line must stay clear. The other directional lines, for example the one that indicates the connection between the arms and the shoulders, serve the same purpose. Without drawing it, I would have a hard time knowing where to place hands and elbows.

I’m getting lost in all those lines, why can’t I just start with the head? If you’re getting lost, then you’re doing something wrong. You must try to start drawing as few directional lines as possible (otherwise you WILL get lost!) and as soon as you’ve done that, you have to start looking for points of reference. The best points to use are sharp angles that are ‘sticking out’, like the hands, the feet, the knee from the back leg, the elbow on the left… the connection between these shapes really defines the entire pose.
The head isn’t necessarily a good place to start, because we might give it more importance then the rest, forgetting to realize what the pose really is about. If you feel you  simply MUST start with the head, as it gives you an idea of being in control, then don’t do it either! It’s just an idea.

How do I find the directional lines? You might find it puzzling to look for an invisible line if you could draw something tangible like the body contour instead. Still, looking for the hidden structure of reality has proven to be an excellent technique to draw objectively. Finding the right directional lines to start with can be difficult if you’re new to this way of working. What I always do is looking for a line that connects the most extreme parts of my subject and see if there are more crucial elements along that line. The diagonal I started with in Jenni’s pose not only connects the head with the foot in the front, it also shows the direction of her neck, her torso and her front leg.
It takes some practice to become a pro in finding the right lines to start with, but anyone can do it.

How do I get all elements on the right places? You must measure and no, not with a ruler. By holding your pencil either horizontally or vertically, you can check which elements are on the same axis. I.e. you could check whether the hand holding the ball is on the same horizontal axis as Jenni’s left shoulder. There are also ways to measure distances with your pencil, but I’ll be writing about that in the next blogpost of the New Way of Looking series. Meanwhile, you could check out different ways to measure on YouTube as there are many videos about it.

That’s it for today! Do you have questions, don’t hesitate to comment in the section below. I’d be happy to answer!
See you next time!

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