Assignments and exercises designed to help build, broaden, and refine your art skills.

Assignment: Clues to Flatness and Depth

Draw two versions of a wallpaper pattern using color's properties to advance and recede as clues to depth. For a listing of these properties, see the next assignment.

1. Make one appear as flat as possible. The heftiest clue to this is the minimizing of value contrast (lightness/darkness scale).

2. Make a second and otherwise identical drawing--but this one appearing to have the kind of depth you can almost step right into and through. Do this by stretching the contrasts of value, hue and intensity.

To become
acquainted with
clues needed
to suggest an
illusion of depth.

Flat Surface
In this example, even though there are slight variations among values, hues and intensities--enough to make a pleasing pattern--the overall effect is one of consistency and therefore flatness. This looks like it could exist on a wall.

Here value contrast--one of the heavy hitters among clues to depth--has been used to make the pattern not appear flat. But there are also two other clues at work. These are changes in color intensity and hue.

Assignment: Color and Space

Using three simple objects as subjects, plan a drawing to suggest that they occupy three separate planes in space. Use effects of advancing and receding color to do this.

To make objects advance, use:

  • Warm Colors
  • High intensity (more vivid) color
  • Light values (except for far vistas)
  • Isolated, unrelated color
  • Lines, outlines (the opposite of tonal)
  • Coarse texture, or texture in sharp focus
  • Patterns
  • Active, busy color

To use color’s ability to recede and advance for the positioning of objects in space.

To make objects recede, use:
  • Opposites of the previous conditions

A diagrammatic plan containing three major planes plus negative space for the accompanying color study.

An example of a color study using some of the ways for making colors seem to advance and recede.

Exercise: Sensory Studies

Divide a large sheet of paper into four parts with a neutral colored pencil. Use each part for a separate small drawing designed to evoke in turn feelings of sound, taste, smell, and touch. Don’t rely on showing things representationally for this, but work more abstractly, using the suggestive powers of color, shape, and position.

As you confront each of the senses named above, try to summon up your own essence of it, then think of how this might be translated to a visual clue. Score yourself by asking someone else to try guessing what senses your drawings suggest. Try this "sensitizing" exercise again from time to time.

To become more aware of the power of senses and mood in expressing visual ideas.

Assignment: Minimal Landscape

This assignment often proves to be a "break-through" drawing for artists—whether working in landscape, still life, or portrait.

Step 1. With a graphite pencil and a sheet of medium-grain drawing paper, very lightly organize your block of space into an imagined landscape. Think in terms of the large shapes. Any trees or structures included must exist only as very simplified versions. Avoid all detail—no leaf detail, no glitter on sun-struck water.

Step 2. Start laying in color. Work slowly. Talk to yourself about what you are doing, what is happening on the paper. Mix colors for your shapes almost at random. (You may be surprised at how true-to-nature your color mixtures will be.) Also use color and texture variations to help delineate shapes. Be closely aware of the edges of forms and of color passages. Appraise your result. Have you used enough contrast to communicate different forms? Are your textures varied? Did you resist all urges to include "helpful" details?

To de-emphasize specific detail in favor of large masses.  ALSO to enhance color mixing, texture development, and edge awareness.

Example of a minimal layout (lines inked for clarity).

Exercise: Conveying Overall Gesture

Truly expressive drawing begins with understanding how influential the overall gesture of individual elements--whether animate or inanimate--can be. By overall gesture we mean the bearing or posture of a thing, its implied motion or lack of it, and how it is interacting with gravity. We mean, in short, its "body language."

In order to evoke emotional response in an observer, the emotion must first be suggested or hinted at by the way the image itself is drawn. Cezanne was masterful at animating his later still lifes. In them, he projected an exaggerated lyricism, a hidden unrest, and always tension.

Explore this idea of communicating a thing's overall gesture for yourself. As an example, using your colored or graphite pencil, try to draw and suggest the following:

A slumping box
An excited box
A sphere attempting to pose as a box
A dark box in darkness.

Try also working with other objects, using various emotional states and situations of your own choosing. And if you are working with color, try to think of how color itself can reinforce the emotion or concept of your subject.

To express more than surface qualities.

Exercise: Subject and Background

Those of us who love to draw, often tend to take on intricate subjects. But our close focus on them sometimes leads to subjects that look specimen-like, and to backgrounds that appear only off-handedly considered. To get away from this, try the following exercise:

STEP 1. Mark off a large rectangle with a graphite pencil, then further divide it in half. Within each of these two areas draw the letters of your initials. Make these large and block-like as shown. You now have two separate drawings underway.

To better Integrate subject with background.

STEP 2. As your goal for the left-hand drawing, show your initials with as much clarity and emphasis as you can. Think of these letters in fact as standing against or on top of a flat colored background. Use everything you know to accomplish this except cast shadows. Contrasts of hue, value, intensity, and temperature will likely be some of your strongest tools. Keeping edges meticulously crisp and hard-edged will also help your illusion.

STEP 3. With your right-hand drawing, aim for a completely opposite effect. Think of your letters this time as wrapped in an atmosphere instead of planted squarely against a flat backdrop. As you apply color to subject and background—let edges merge now and then. Make some of them blurred, others sharp. Don’t try to "stay-inside-the-lines" of your subject. Let some of the values and colors within the letters spill out into their surrounding environment. Keep contrasts to a minimum.

The point of all this? All the artwork you do will lie somewhere between these two extremes. And the techniques of subject/background integration used in these little examples can be applied to anything you draw.

Assignment: Remembered Still Life

Set up a still life in one room to be drawn in another room. This is an activity that will almost magically enhance your observation skills. You will likely become aware of improvement with your first attempt.

Step 1. In a room not your usual workspace, select three simple objects and arrange them into a still life that you truly like. It's important to become fully engaged by the scene.

Step 2. Making no notes, just look at your set up, trying to focus on your scene's overall gesture. Button down a single viewpoint--from below, high up, close up 45 degrees, etc.

Step 3. In your workspace begin laying out your drawing. Try to remember what you saw. Go back for another look if you want.

Step 4. Develop your still life drawing, visiting the set-up room as often as you like, but only drawing in your workspace. When studying an object in your still life, notice how it relates to it's surroundings. Then look away for a moment trying to see it in your mind. This will become easier the more you try. For this assignment you will either start observing well, or do a lot of walking.

A tip: It is wise to work at your drawing overall, rather than finishing one element before going on to the next.

To improve observation and freehand drawing skills.

Assignment: A Glass Container

Many subjects in art are best approached indirectly. Some elements—especially those that seem elusive—can be brought farther along than might be expected by drawing the environment in and around them, rather than confronting the objects themselves. What we are doing is exploiting the power of context. A good case in point is that of a glass container, where drawing the contents can create the illusion of having drawn the glass.

To invoke one thing by drawing another.

To prove this for yourself, select a jar to draw that contains such things as stuffed olives or pickled garlic bulbs—things interesting and complex enough to keep your focus on them, rather than on the jar containing them. When you have drawn these contents in their observed shapes and configurations, you will find it pretty easy to finish the container by observing how its forms work in just three areas: its top or neck, its shoulders, and its bottom.

"Pimentos", 4-1/2" x 5-1/2"
(11.4 x 14 cm)

Assignment: Gathering Color

Step 1. Begin by selecting a familiar object to draw from life. Pick something with a well-known color, something like yellow bananas, a red tomato, black binoculars, green ferns, a terracotta pot, an orange or tangerine.

Step 2. Compose your subject large on the paper so you can really concentrate on it. Block in light guidelines with graphite if you want to.

Step 3. But instead of reaching for the color you know your subject to be, hold off. If you chose a tomato, for instance, don't reach for red. Instead, take a long slow look at your subject. Is it reflecting any color from the surface it is sitting on? From any other objects nearby? Take your time with this. If it is a tomato, it may be a trifle unripe and slightly green, or too ripe and shifting toward warm gray. Look for even the smallest hints of color other than your subject's "normal" color. Check also on your own feelings. What kind of color might suggest an attitude of your own about this subject?

Step. 4. Begin drawing with the colors from whatever hints or clues you have been able to gather. Use none of your subject's local color. As your drawing nears completion, stop again.

Step 5. This is the time for considering local color. By now you may feel a strong need to use some of it. Or you may feel no need at all. Should you opt for the first route, go slowly. Use it in just a few places at first. You may be surprised at how little local color is really needed. A still greater surprise, however, may be your discovery that reality can sometimes be well shown with no local color at all--that your drawing can now be finished without it.

To use color more personally, expressively.

A baking soda box is a good example of an object with familiar color. We recognize it immediately. And like many such things, it can, if we are not careful, persuade us that we hardly need glance at it to draw it--that we already know all about it.

Exercise: Drawing Cast Shadows

In compositions, cast shadows are often minimized. But they can also serve as important elements--even as a drawing's center of interest. To make this happen, however, the cast shadows must be seen as more than just dark appendages lacking hue or character of any kind.

To experiment with hue-laden rather than neutral cast shadows.

(1) Set up an object with a light illuminating it from slightly behind and to its left. Position the light low enough (see photo) for a full shadow extending from the object. In this set-up the cast shadow is to be the subject.

(2) On a fairly large sheet of paper, compose six separate small color drawings of the object and its cast shadow. Keep the drawings small enough for easy comparisons later.

(3) Plan to keep all the drawings similar and simple, but in each one change the surface the object sits on. Change the color of the surface, its texture, its contour, and have at least one drawing with a patterned surface (such as a tablecloth).

(4) The colors for any cast shadow will usually depend on the character of the surface it falls on. Banish your black and gray pencils for this exercise--use only dark colors. As you consider which colors to use, remember that although shadows are dark, they are also transparent. So they will be mightily influenced by the original surface color and other characteristics.

A TIP: Even though you might make some of the shadows very dark and others very light and subtle, the darkest part of any shadow is under the object and gets lighter as it spreads out and away.

(5) Vary the character of your cast shadow edges from drawing to drawing, making some of the edges hard, some feathered, some lost and found.

(6) Compare all six finished drawings. Consider effects produced by the various changes you made from drawing to drawing. Make notes of these observations next to each one for future reference.

Exercise: Making Marks

Lines, strokes or marks, indicate different levels of energy and purpose. They can also reveal our attitude about something, and be a vehicle of mood. Drawing is the making of marks. Make a quick mark. Don't try to intend any special thing. Make a few more, still quickly, but try to have each be different from the others.

Now look at the marks you have made. Ask yourself what is different about each from the others. As artists, it is vital that we become sensitive to small differences. Try talking to yourself about your marks. Do any of them seem to you suggestive of anything? Can any be called by names that their fellows cannot--like sassy, insipid, dumb, lively? With practice, a mark can be made to suggest such things.

To see how mood can begin with marks.

Make more marks, this time intending to have them express attitudes of various kinds. Put marks in very small spaces--about an inch across--as well as on very large sheets. Practice isolating some marks, and letting others build up in combinations. Your growing skill at handling marks will add a great deal to your graphic vocabulary.

Assignment: A Room in Triadic Color

Our powers of color discrimination grow sharper as we learn to freely change the colors of a reality to those of a deliberate scheme.

To increase color management  skills.
The way to do this effectively--without losing the sense of an original scene--is to carefully assess the room's dimensions of colors--hue, value, and intensity.

Prepare to draw a room or part of a room. But instead of using the colors you see, confine your mixes to just three hues--the triadic scheme of Yellow-Orange, Red-Violet, and Blue-Green (see samples). The thing to remember as you use these colors (unmixed or in combinations) is that the contrasts, intensities, and values of your scene should not be changed. The only dimension you are really changing is hue.

If using Prismacolor, select 918 Orange, 930 Magenta, 905 Aquamarine. If Lyra: 600-13 Light Orange, 600-33 Wine Red, 600-53 Peacock Blue. If Faber-Castell: 113 Light Orange, 133 Wine Red, 153 Peacock Blue.

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