Vitruvian Studio Drawing Fundamentals: Week 2


Lines, lines, lines… more lines. That is what I have done for week 2 of the Vitruvian Studio drawing fundamentals course. 40 pages of lines this week.

Sounds easy enough – you have an exercise sheet with 4 lines on it, each about 3 inches long, each at various tilts. Then, holding the pencil in an underhand grip, you draw a line in one sweeping stroke to match the angle of the one you see… and you draw another next to that one, again and again until your paper is grey with lines. And repeat.

In simplicity comes an opportunity to learn more about oneself. I watched my thoughts try to play all kinds of tricks – persuading, cajoling. I’d find myself exhausted at the thought of starting, and when I finally told myself “just one sheet” and began, the tiredness vanished.

Probably the most pervasive thought is that if I don’t enjoy these drawing exercises maybe I will never really enjoy drawing or painting, so I shouldn’t bother. It’s a tricky one. How much do we need to enjoy practice, versus the fruits of our practice?

And maybe more importantly, what happens if I decide to enjoy practicing? Can I pull it off?





Vitruvian Studio: Drawing Fundamentals Online Course


Chimp Skull

In December I signed up for the Vitruvian Studio online Drawing Fundamentals course. I started in earnest, but then life happened. Now that it is March, my schedule has cleared a bit and I will try again, starting over at the beginning.

To be honest, it is not a very exciting course. It is akin to a musician practicing scales, or an athlete repeating a simple drill. Yet having a deep, intuitive command of the fundamentals are what make guitar solos and breathtaking gymnastic feats possible. I am trying to just be zen about it and embrace the simplicity. It is not easy but it is a good practice that can benefit many areas of life!

Vitruvian starts at the beginning, with the premise that if you cannot draw a line to match the angle of another line, how will you be able to draw a portrait?

Step 1: Learning to sharpen a pencil.

As a first step, I learned how to sharpen my pencil. Sounds crazy, right? The Vitruvian course does not actually require or even suggest this but others do (for example Watts Atelier and Sadie Valeri Atelier). Using a razor, you whittle away the wood exposing a long bit of lead, then sand the lead into a needle-like point. Like this:



This seems to have a few purposes. First, it encourages a light touch, otherwise you’ll break the tip. Second, this exposes a long flat expanse of lead so you can draw fat strokes for shading. Finally, once started, you don’t need to sharpen again for quite a while – your pencil sharpens itself as you draw.

I’ve broken some pencils so far! But I hear this is normal, and the whittling can be relaxing, and a good lesson in patience. Actually, all of this stuff is a big lesson in patience.

Step 2: Assessing angles.

Here, I have many pages like the top page in the photo below – with 4 lines at various angles. Vitruvian teaches us to assess the tilt of a line by using a “clock” metaphor. You ask yourself – is that line tilted at 2 or 3 or 4 minutes past the hour?

Each minute represents a shift of 6 degrees (so 1 minute past is 6 degrees, 2 minutes past is 12 degrees, and so on). Of course your angle may be 4 or 10 degrees, but the clock metaphor gives a useful starting point. Each of the lines below matches a particular minute on a clock face.


So first, I look at each of the four lines on the top sheet and ask myself “how many minutes before or past the hour is that?” and then compare the line to the bottom page. I mark whether or not I got it right, and write the answer next to the line.

Step 3: Learning to hold the pencil.

Another thing that sounds crazy – didn’t we learn this in grade school? Apparently not. In order to draw smooth, straight lines, you need to be able to draw from your shoulder – you hold your hand in one position and move your entire arm to draw a line. So you hold the pencil in an underhand grip, and brace your pinky knuckle against the page, like this:


It took me a couple of weeks to get used to this and it felt really awkward at first, but I am much more comfortable with it now. The chimp skull at the top was drawn almost entirely using this grip. This not only encourages a light touch, it also prepares you to hold and use a paintbrush.

Step 4: Line Matching.

Finally, you try to draw long, fluid strokes that match the angle of each line, drawing from your shoulder. You continue until your paper is filled with lines, like this:


The emphasis is on repetition, so I have about 25 sheets like this to do before I move on to the next step.


Why is art so expensive?


Morning at Hurricane Ridge

I’ve been painting these little landscapes (4” x 4”) and thinking about selling them on my Etsy shop. One of the hardest parts of selling your own art is finding and sticking to a fair price. Of course, selling art is a business, and it is the responsibility of a business owner to make something that brings value, for a price people are willing to pay.

With art, people’s expectations of a reasonable price seem a bit skewed.


Starting with the shadows and a limited palette of 4 colours

Take for example this little 4” x 4” painting. Being that it is so small, and that I am not a well-established artist, I might consider charging $60. Does that sound like a lot? It might, since you can likely get a postcard with a similar image for a dollar or two. But consider what went into the creation of this particular painting:

  • Travel to Olympic National Park for inspiration and reference photos
  • Purchasing supplies
  • Preparing the birch panel (sanding, plus two coats of sealer to prevent “support-induced-discoloration” which is when impurities in the panel slowly turn your painting yellow over time, more sanding, plus a coat of gesso)
  • Choosing a reference photo
  • Making thumbnail sketches (rearranging things from the photo to create an effective composition)
  • Drawing onto the panel
  • Finally, painting!

The last four steps might be considered “creating the painting” and those took me about 2.5 hours.


Getting there…

Then there is the training and study I have done to this point – like any professional – time and money spent on books, online courses, DVDs and workshops. And there are fees and time spent on maintaining an Etsy shop, a website, this blog, and Instagram.

Maybe people are reluctant to spend on original art because they think artists don’t really deserve to get paid for something they enjoy, something that “must be so relaxing”. (And isn’t that unfortunate – the perception that our pay should be contingent on how much we dislike our work?)

Painting is many things from fascinating to frustrating, but for me it is generally not relaxing.

It’s more like a rollercoaster – This painting is going to be so fun! Then… aargh, how do I mix that colour? What colour IS it? It’s grey – but is it a warm grey or a cool grey? I’ll add a little yellow – nope, ok, some red… Oops, I dropped my brush right into the paint – guess I must be tired since it is 11 pm and I worked all day! Never mind, deep breath, put on some music – oh! Lovely – that pink underpainting really adds some nice warmth to the sky!

I hope this post sheds some light on why original art is priced the way it is, and if you are an artist, I hope this helps you explain to others why you deserve a fair price for your work!

Painting an Apple in Gouache


Lately I’ve been trying to find the perfect medium for painting outdoors. Watercolour is convenient, but it is particular – it’s hard to cover your mistakes and easy to be too tentative.

Oil paint is lovely, buttery and vibrant, but it is messy to travel with, and it takes so long to dry that it is impractical for overnight hiking trips.


So I’ve been experimenting with gouache. Specifically Holbein Acryla Gouache, in a tin that used to hold magnetic poetry. I’ve got a Masterson Sta-Wet sponge and paper in there that I’ve cut to size – these keep the gouache from drying out. I’ve taped a 4″ x 4″ gessoed birch panel into the lid for painting on.

With my design sketched out, I’m ready to start painting!


And… it worked! You can wipe off the palette paper as you work, with a damp paper towel, and mix new colours right on top. Gouache will take some getting used to, but I think it will be worth the effort. It’s a great practice medium – I can be ready to work in minutes. The main thing I’ll do differently next time is start on a toned board, instead of the glaring white – I see more of these in my future!



Slowly Learning to Draw Slowly!



Skull Practice

Every now and again I get to thinking I would really like to get a better grasp on basic drawing skills – the kind where I could draw a decent portrait from life in a couple hours. After some searching, I found the online course “Drawing Basics” at Vitruvian Studio – thorough and professional instruction that starts with the assumption that you have never even learned how to hold a pencil.

I started with gusto, but then life got in the way. I do plan to get back to the course but this month have been keeping its principles in mind while sketching – one of the main ideas is to start as slow as you need to ensure careful, accurate measurement.


Coyote Skull I

Too late I realized I made the snout way too short! I did not follow the principle of careful measurement – I started alright but got lazy halfway through and stopping working to check my angles. So I thought I’d try again…


Coyote Skull II

This one was closer to the right proportions but seemed less interesting…


Coyote Skull III

Third time is a charm! I’m pretty happy with this one.

Practice, practice, practice, right?







Will it all come together one day?

Mt Olympus Acrylic on Birch Panel - Copy (800x524).jpg

Mount Olympus (4″ x 6″ Acrylic on Birch Panel)

Some days I wonder if all my art (and life!) experimentation will coalesce into something cohesive. I wonder if I will say my primary job is “artist” and especially “hiking and travelling artist” and whether I would crack or thrive. I hope things I make will bring value to people’s lives.

Seth Godin talks about “the dip” – pushing through the long space of mediocrity before mastery. I feel squarely in the middle of it.

(And I feel very grateful for everyone who has supported me emotionally and financially on the path so far!)

When I look at paintings I love, I start asking myself what is it that strikes me? I love Eric Merrell’s creative use of colour, and the strong graphic shapes of Billy Schenck. I love the light-filled sketches James Gurney and Nathan Fowkes and Mike Hernandez make on location, and I’m in awe of the subtle hue shifts that Clyde Aspevig pulls off.

I want to paint like all of them. And one day I might figure out how to paint like me.

When I look at my own work, I can start to see little glimmers of a direction forming. I think things are coming together. It’s slow, making artistic progress in the margins of the day job, but I think it is happening.

Carolyn Lord, in a fantastic podcast, said “To be an artist is to be on a spiritual path because you don’t see the evidence – but you have to have the faith that you are putting things forward and it’s going to come together”. I love that.

And I guess that’s the great mystery that keeps us moving forward – we want to see if all of our dreams will come true by the time we approach the door to the other side.


Accepting your own art style


Just Before the Storm – Sophie Graine – Oil, 5″ x 7″ (Sold)

This past week I revisited a great book by William Kluba called Where does art come from? Every time I open this book, I find something useful inside.

William talks about the importance of embracing our own unique artistic fingerprint. He asserts that we each have a particular, individual way of art-making that emerges out of our personality and taste. He advises us to pay attention, follow that, and refine our own style.

The renowned painter Clyde Aspevig hints at a similar idea. He writes “One of the most frequently asked questions is “do you teach workshops?” the answer is no…the danger is that many times [in workshops] you learn formulas that disrupt the possibility of developing your own personal approach.”

I think I’m starting to understand both how and why to follow my own trail.

This little painting was made almost entirely with a palette knife. I started using a knife to paint because I like the unscripted texture it creates. And because I don’t like cleaning brushes.

In a more recent painting, I started with a brush, and then laid in texture on top with a knife. This was an even more satisfying blend of detail and looseness. This all makes sense given my nature – I want my paintings to turn out well, but I am also impatient and like to flow and dance across the canvas without thinking. So I turned to controlled brushwork with spontaneous knife work on top.

And the result does not really look like other paintings I’ve seen.

The trick is to continue working toward being satisfied with both process and result, without taking shortcuts to conform to what “good paintings” are supposed to look like.

This might be a longer journey, and it requires more self-acceptance than I’m used to.  But, in a way, it might be impossible to do anything else.