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The Bones of a successful painting

One of the most important skills required for of any type of painting is the ability to draw. Not just to produce a likeness, but also to make vibrant, expressive marks that amplify the character of your subject. 

Drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But one who draws well can always paint".
Arshile Gorky



A common mistake is to see drawing and painting as two separate disciplines. I have heard students say they are not interested in drawing, they just want to learn to paint. Unfortunately, without a solid underlying structure, no matter how well the pigment is applied, a painting is doomed to failure.

I like to think of drawing as an integral and on going part of the painting process. The initial, structural marks made with charcoal, pencil or brush can be considered as, potentially, part of the finished painting. Leaving some of these early marks exposed in the finished work adds a loose, honest character, revealing part of the working process.

Drawing need not be restricted to pen and pencil. Quick, confident calligraphic marks made with a brush and paint add wonderful, expressive character to a painting. The controlled arm movements used to produce this type of mark are more akin to drawing gestures than painting skills.

Draw as much as possible – one side of the drawing equation is to acquire the ability to make your hand produce what your brain sees. The other side of the equation is to gain the skill to make beautiful confident marks – and to recognise them when you do.


Your lines don’t need to be perfectly accurate. It is more important that they are crisp, clean and confident, and the only way to gain this confidence is through constant practice.

Through Broken Wire - combining drawing and painting


“Through Broken Wire” was painted on an oversized sheet of watercolor paper. Initial drawing was done with a brown pastel pencil, washes were applied then ink lines and more pastel pencil were drawn over the washes. Many of the initial lines are still visible, adding to the loose, simplicity of the painting.

Through Broken Wire - drawing detail


Detail from the wire fence shows drawing with masking fluid and a pen (light toned wire) oscillating with dark pencil lines (dark toned wire). The drawing with masking fluid was done before the washes were applied and the pencil lines were applied after everything had dried and the masking fluid was rubbed off.

This painting of a Dublin Pub started as a fairly accurate line drawing. Watercolor washes were applied, areas of  detail were added with Gouache and rigger brush lines were threaded through the painting. After everything dried, ink and pastel pencil lines were worked over the surface.

Charcoal Pencil drawing over watercolor


Loose sketchy lines of gouache and charcoal pencil contrast with the formal pattern of bricks and tiles


Calligraphic brush marks and loose scribbly charcoal pencil add to the wobbly staggering motion of characters outside the pub.

This London Taxi could have been treated in a clean, accurate manner, but by contrasting areas of black polished duco with loose sketchy lines and barely suggested detail,  the result is a far more exciting painting.

A small amount of Cadmium Yellow neutralises (or desaturates) the color giving us a slightly darker tone of the blue/grey we are after. 

Black and White Charcoal Pencil drawing over watercolor and gesso


This detail shows a large swipe of gesso obliterating part of the image. This lost section is then reinstated as an area of loose pastel pencil lines, blurring the boundary between painting and drawing.

Don’t underestimate the power of drawing in your work. Not just in the initial arrangement and layout of shapes, but in the animated spontaneous character it can give to an otherwise ordinary painting.


How To Draw

Unfortunately drawing is often pushed into the too hard basket. It is really not that hard and is a lot of fun. The best way to improve your drawing is to practice. Buy a cheap sketch book and fill up the pages. Dont try and produce masterpieces – simply document the stuff around you. Make your drawing book a personal thing, not something you have to show others. Make a mess, scribble stuff out, draw over things, fill it up.

Draw the simplest things – the teapot, a cup, a shoe, a table anything you can see. Draw what you see not what you understand to be there. After a while your ability to see shapes and proportions will improve and you will gain the confidence to put down just what you see, not what you understand or imagine the thing you are drawing should look like. Once this happens your drawing will improve out of sight. Not only will your ability to make a likeness of something improve, so will the quality of the marks you make.

Watching the video below shows how making a likeness is important, but the clean, crisp, confident line quality is equally important. Notice how all the longer lines are made in a single sweep with the arm not finger or wrist movements.

Drawing Boats

Drawing Boats

Drawing Boats
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Drawing Boats Made Easy

Drawing Boats Made Easy

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If you liked this video, you might like to check out the Resting Trawlers Video Project

Some Drawing Tips 

Hold your pencil loosely. Place it on the edge of the table and pick it up from the blunt end. This is the grip you should use to draw. Not the tight finger grip you use to write – writing is tiny short repetitive strokes, drawing is bigger, looser and freer.

Pencil grip for drawing


Just the tip of your pencil needs to touch the paper. Move your arm to make the marks, not just your wrist or fingers. Work lightly – your first mark may not be right simply make adjustments with more marks until things look right.

Loose pencil drawing


This is a rough, loose sketch – notice how inaccurate many of the marks are – first placed incorrectly then adjusted. The incorrect marks add to the character of the drawing and should not be erased – they are part of the story showing how the drawing came to be.

If you want your drawing to be tight and accurate, start with a harder, lighter toned pencil to put in the initial construction marks. Once you have established an accurate framework, move on to more precice lines with a softer, darker toned pencil.

Think about your subject and make mental measurements – how wide is it compared to its height, are there things extending from the main shape, what is the position of any extensions or intrusions? All these questions help you put things in the right place.


Consider the Negative Spaces 


Sometimes, drawing the areas around your subject is an easier way to put things in the right place. Half closing and blurring your eyes can help simplify your subject, making it easier to see it just as abstract shapes.

One part of drawing is training yourself to see the position and relationship of one shape to another. The other part is the ability to get those shapes and relationships down on paper, and all it takes is a bit of practice!


As well as a degree of accuracy, the abstract quality of the marks you make are what separates a good drawing from a mediocre one. Confident, spontaneous marks amplifying the character of your subject should be your goal.

Try Drawing Big

A sure fire way to improve your drawing confidence is to stand at an easel (or a propped up vertical board) and draw on large sheets of paper. We used to buy packs of butchers paper at art school and wear pencils down to stumps. The drawings were big and physical and usually thrown away – it wasn’t what we produced it was what we learned that was important.

So get a couple of interested friends together, get hold of some easels or means of supporting large sheets of paper and have some fun. It doesn’t matter what your subject is – a lamp, a hat, a chair, the cat, anything - Just Draw!


Many restaurants use large disposable paper table covers. These are great for large drawings and are cheaply available through catering suppliers.

Remember, it’s the fun of doing it and what you learn that matters – not what you produce.


Author: John Lovett

See Also:

Drawing Sketching and Scribbling

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