Tools Instead of Rules: Aids to Drawing

For centuries, artists have been using various aids for drawing, with Albrecht Durer's perspective machine—a complex device for translating points from the subject onto a drawing plane—one of the most famous. But for some reason, traditionalists insist that artists should stick to using only the naked eye and a pencil—that anything else is “cheating.” David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters created a storm of controversy over his claim that many of the old masters used optical devices to assist in their drawing. The debate still flares up here and there, but ultimately, it doesn't matter; artists make the marks, and as the renowned illustrator Glen Vilppu says, “There are no rules, only tools.” To say that a “real artist” doesn't use technology to aid in her artwork, one might as well claim that a “real chef” doesn't use a nonstick pan or a “real musician” doesn't use metal guitar strings. Technology might make the artist's job a little easier, but it doesn't replace creativity or craftsmanship. The following is a list of some of the tools available to artists:

  • > Artists’ glass: This tool is essentially a framed glass panel on which the artist sketches the scene beyond, enabling the accurate representation of perspective. An attached viewfinder helps the artist maintain a constant viewpoint, to eliminate error. You can make your own by securely taping the glass into an old picture frame and using an easel to hold it in place. A grid of squares is drawn on the glass to provide reference points when drawing. You can use a loop of wire to make a viewfinder: a quarter-inch circle, on a 6-inch stem of wire—like a bubble-blowing wand—taped to the top of the frame. Line up the center of the loop with the middle of the glass. (Be careful with the glass, and your eye!) You can see an authentic artist's glass in the Peter Greenaway movie The Draughtsman's Contract.

  • > Camera lucida: The camera lucida is basically a glass prism, through which the artist peers to see an image of the subject superimposed upon the paper surface. David Hockney's claim that Ingres used a camera lucida generated a great deal of interest in the device, but they are awkward to set up and use. At best they might be of some assistance to the still-life or portrait artist, used along with an easel, when a digital camera is not available. Otherwise, they are of little real value to the artist.

    Being an artist isn't about age, fashion, or social standing. Creativity is not about following some set of rules; it is about producing artwork. The essence of being an artist is simply spending time making art, drawing, painting, or sculpting, in some form or other.

  • Opaque projectors: A great timesaver, opaque projectors are used to project reference images or artwork—especially a detailed layout sketch—onto a drawing surface. These are particularly useful when using Bristol board or heavyweight watercolor paper, which is not suitable for tracing or image enlarging.

  • Pantograph: This tool is used for copying an outline, either at directly, or at a smaller or larger scale; most are not particularly adjustable. It has two hinged V-shaped pieces of plastic or timber, one inverted and placed so that the legs overlap. One end is fixed to the table, and the drawing is placed under the stylus at the point of one V. The paper under the pencil is fixed in the top of the other. These instruments are almost as cumbersome to use as they are to describe.

  • Light box: These are immensely useful for tracing drawings to lightweight paper. A light box is simply a box containing light bulbs, with a frosted glass lid. If you don't have one, a window does the same job. Just tape your drawing to a sunny window, and tape your paper over it. Don't try to just hold it—you'll invariably move the paper! If you work at night, use a piece of Perspex held up to the light.

  • While drawing aids are useful tools, don't let any of these methods become a crutch, or you'll end up artistically crippled. Always practice drawing and sketching from life, even if it is only a small exercise, to keep your eye, hand, and mind in top form.

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