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It’s Alive! 3 Ways to Bring Your Drawing to Life

What I  Learned From Egon Schiele

 

When we first learn to draw, so much of our effort is spent on getting it right—placing the lines, rendering the values, representing the objects just so.

Liegendes madchen

Liegendes Madchen (Lying Girl)

These are important first steps, because we are learning to really see the world. But if we want anyone to look at our drawings for more than ten seconds, then we need to do more than represent the physicality of a thing. We need to convey its life and energy.

This is where Egon Schiele can teach us all a few things. Schiele was an early exponent of Expressionism, and although he was dead by the age of 28, his artwork would survive him to this day. One hundred years after his death, we are still fascinated by the energy and emotion Schiele conveyed in his work.

There are three techniques in particular that we can learn from Schiele’s drawings to help us improve the life in our own work. Schiele worked primarily in self-portraits, the human figure, and landscapes. I’ve taken examples from each to help us understand the importance of going beyond mere representation.

  1. A Line is Not Just a Line

Like a jazz musician playing variations on a theme, it’s important to bring variety to the elements within a drawing, particularly line. So, how can we vary line? Consider these two qualities: weight and continuity.  By weight, I am referring to the thickness and boldness of the line. Is it wide or thin, dark or light? By continuity I am referring to a line being solid vs broken, as well as line that modulates its weight for effect.

Two Kneeling Figures

Two Kneeling Figures (Parallelogram)

Let’s take a look at Schiele’s Two Kneeling Figures (1913) to see how he uses line. We see thick, bold lines describing the contours of the garments worn by the figures and, interestingly, to describe the negative shape between the arm and body of the farthest figure. These heavy lines have the effect of blocking in or framing the young man’s gaze. By contrast, the figures themselves are constructed using thin lines, some bolder than others. We can almost feel the weight of the garments hanging on these fragile, young people.

Liegendes Madchen (above) is a great example of Schiele’s use of lost line. Line is broken and soft at her weight-bearing right shoulder that pushes into the surface she lies on. And the lines completely disappear at the outer extremities, placing focus and emphasis on her face and torso.

In our own drawings, it’s important to vary line weight and continuity. For example, thicker, darker lines can denote areas in shadow or surfaces contacting other surfaces. Thinner, lighter lines can recede a form into the background or curve it into the light. Highlights on a surface can be denoted by lost or broken line.

 

  1. The Shortest Distance Between Point A and Point B is Boring

In order to describe the world around us we sometimes need to use straight lines.  But unless you have a good reason to convey perfection, it’s best to leave the straight edge in its drawer. A nearly-straight line will almost always be more interesting.

Old Houses in Krumau

Old Houses in Krumau

Old Houses in Krumau (1914), one of Schiele’s landscapes, necessarily uses straight lines to describe the structures of the drawing. It’s evident, however, that these lines are not perfectly drawn. He didn’t use a straight edge. His lines are parallel and squared where they need to be, but there is a subtle looseness about them that keeps the drawing lively.

If you find it difficult to draw a straight line, the issue might be with how you are holding your drawing instrument. Instead of holding your pencil, for example, in the writing position, try cradling it across your fingers, thumb on top, with the tip pointed away from you. Then place your point and pull downward on the paper. The trick is to counter the natural pivot of your wrist.

The energy that straight lines drawn freehand can bring to your work is further described in our last point.

 

  1. Find a Balance Between Control and Fluidity, and Then Nudge Toward Fluidity

Schiele’s drawings have a quality about them that is best described at free. Take a look at Self-Portrait as St. Sabastian (1914). There is a looseness and fluidity in his work that comes with a familiarity with (and in Schiele’s case mastery over) the medium.

Self-Portrait as St. Sabastian

Self-Portrait as St. Sabastian

The closer you hold your drawing instrument toward the tip, the more control you will have. But you will begin to lose grace. As you move backward, away from the tip, you will start to lose control. But you will gain grace. The trick is to find the balance. If you’re drawing with a pencil, you have to be able to control it, but you don’t want to sacrifice the grace of line that will give your work life. When practicing this style of drawing, find that balance, and then give up just a tad more control. It’s practice after all, and you will get better at learning to control those graceful, fluid lines.

Schiele was an expressionist. He brought his own style and interpretation to the table. We can’t all draw like him, nor do we want to. But if we can bring that sense of freedom to our own work in our own way, our drawings will certainly improve. The goal shouldn’t be to merely represent a thing. If that’s the case, the best tool for the job is probably a camera. Instead, we should try to convey a sense of what we are seeing and, more importantly, who we are as artists.

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All images courtesy of www.egon-schiele.net.

Luna

from Fairy Tales for a Dying World

 

Luna

Graphite and Charcoal.

I once heard a story about a girl who fell in love with the moon.  I heard the story from my babysitter when I was a child. Of course, after so many years, I can’t guarantee the accuracy of any detail.  She told me about a girl, slightly older than herself, who everyone simply called Luna.

I asked my babysitter to describe Luna, but she had trouble remembering exactly what she looked like, only that she was pale and very thin.


Luna’s parents had died, and she was being raised by an aunt who was kind to her, but too tired to watch after her properly.


One evening, as the story goes, Luna woke to a gentle tapping at her bedroom’s window. She listened for a while to the soft thud that came in spurts and pauses, until she finally slipped from her bed to draw back the curtains.


The full moon before her radiated a haunting light. Another few taps brought her focus to the windowpane. There, she saw a moth fluttering against the glass. But her gaze was quickly pulled back to the brilliance of the moon hanging low in the sky.


Luna put on her robe and slippers, then headed down the stairs and out the back door of her aunt’s house.


She walked for hours that first night, trying to make her way closer to the moon as it rose higher and farther away in the sky. When she finally stopped, she realized she had reached the outskirts of town. She turned to head back, and suddenly felt a hand caress her hair.  Startled, she reeled around. No one was there. Only the moon—now a pale disc of light sitting small and distant in the sky above her.


On the second night she was once again woken by the tapping of a moth on the window.  The moon was nearly as full as the night before and clearly beckoned to her.  For the second time, she left her aunt’s house and walked to meet the moon. And again, the silver orb rose higher and farther away with every step she took. In despair, she finally stopped and turned to make her way back home.


Once again, she felt the sensation of a gentle hand stroking her hair. But this time she did not react. She resisted the temptation to turn. And with a shaky voice she asked, “Are you there?”


“Yes,” came a whisper in reply.


“Who?” asked Luna.


“Moon.”


“Moon?” repeated Luna.


“Yes. I’m the one who woke you.”


“Why?”


“Because,” said the moon, “you were crying in your sleep.”


The moon was right. For the first time, Luna realized that she had indeed been crying when she had woken. It was just that tears had become so commonplace.


The moon walked Luna back to her aunt’s house, and along the way they talked about many things—about how lonely her aunt’s house felt, about how empty her school felt, even though it was filled with other boys and girls. They talked about Luna’s parents and how thinking about them made Luna want to curl up in a ball on the big, orange chair in her aunt’s study.


When Luna returned to her aunt’s house that night and climbed back into her bed, she found that sleep came easily. When she opened her eyes the next morning, she knew that they had not been crying.


The third night was the same, as was the night after that. Night after night, Luna and the moon walked along the streets, sometimes talking, sometimes not—and each night Luna returned to her bed and fell into a deep and peaceful slumber.


During the day, Luna would attend school. She began to realize that people noticed her less. Eventually, it seemed to Luna that people were gazing right through her. In classes, the teachers never called on her anymore, and the other students moved around her as if they were ghosts, their voices mere echoes. Even her own eyes had trouble holding her reflection in the mirror. It wasn’t until nighttime, bathed in the light of the moon, that her body felt fully formed.


One day, however, something unusual happened. After bending to pick up a pencil that had rolled from her desk, she looked up to see a boy named Ravi starring straight at her. His gaze startled her. It had been so long since anyone had noticed.


“I still see you, Luna,” he said.


Luna starred back without replying.


“But you’re thinner,” said Ravi. “There’s less of you somehow.”


“What do you know about anything?” Luna asked indignantly.


“You need to stay out of the moonlight,” said Ravi matter-of-factly, as if helping her solve an algebra equation. “My grandmother says that we’re children of the Sun.”


“Mind your own business,” said Luna before turning around. But she glanced back quickly and added, “stop looking at me.”


Luna quit going to school after that, and her aunt never received a call questioning her absences.  Instead, she used the daytime to sleep, so that she could stay awake longer into the early hours of the morning. Even after the moon had said goodnight, the stars would keep her company. But it was the moon that Luna loved, and when the moon began to wane beyond her quarter, Luna felt the old loneliness and tears once again fill her eyes.


“Please stay,” she begged, watching the thin scrap of light through the bedroom window.


“I can’t. But I’ll be back.”


“Take me with you,” Luna pleaded.  She ran out of her aunt’s house determined to dissolve in what remained of the moon’s dying light.  There, near the apple tree in the yard, at the edge of the tree’s shadow, the moonlight seemed most bright. Luna rushed into it. She tore at her clothing, heaping it at her feet.


“Take me with you,” she repeated. “There’s nothing left here.” The tears burned at her eyes. She looked at her pale skin, grown paler in the silver light. “Take me with you,” she whispered.


The next morning, the sun rose as it had for countless millennia. The birds woke and came to pick worms from the ground around Luna’s discarded clothing. The aunt sat in her kitchen, head in hand, breathing in the aroma of coffee, dancing around the idea that something or someone had been lost.


Only the boy Ravi knew who that someone was. And after the waxing of the moon, as the light once again sat large and full in the sky, he would look up and swear that the moon looked brighter—and perhaps also happier.

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