Teaching drawing – part 1

Although my role with the Arba Minch Art Project is primarily that of documentary photographer, in this second (for me) iteration of the project I felt I had a lot of knowledge regarding drawing and other foundational exercises to impart. I taught a number of modules to the more advanced group with the idea being that they would in turn teach them to anyone from the beginner group who wished to continue painting after we had left.

The advanced group consisted of six men who had been with us the first time we were all there. They had been painting fairly continuously since we left and were very eager to learn anything new we had to teach them. The beginners were 33 men and women, some of whom had been on one or two of the in between trips but many were completely new.

As an overriding theme we decided that this time around we would get people to focus on drawing and painting scenery from around the prison – by practicing on scenes and objects they could see in front of them they would learn more and could move to painting from their imagination later on their own if they so wished.

For the most part the painters seem to use drawing purely as a basis for painting – rough line sketches on scraps of paper which they then staple in some cases onto their easels to paint from. once the painting is completed the drawing is discarded, no value is placed on it. I had brought a number of sketchbooks from my first year in art college with me to show them some examples of different drawing styles and also the idea of working in series.

The series of exercises I taught was basically condensing down the first six to twelve weeks of art college into 2 hour sessions, one per day. First off I showed them the sketchbooks and talked through the approach of using a sketchbook as a place for experimentation – somewhere to test ideas which may or may not ever be seen beyond that. I used to treat a sketchbook as a sort of diary, with drawings, photographs and written notes scrawled through them. That was followed by a brief questions and answers session.

The first exercise was in observing positive and negative space – highlighting that the space around and between objects is as important as the object itself when trying to accurately reproduce what you see. Another important aspect of this exercise is to break down the scene you are drawing into a series of small shapes – any lines or divisions that can be used to help make the shapes as small as possible, will assist greatly. In order to to do this we used a piece of white string placed in a random but tight nest like shape on the page. First draw only the spaces in between the strings building up the picture in a series of shapes, adding line to line and angle to angle. Next, having re arranged the string, one begins to draw the string and it over and underlaps, as well as the spaces in between. Finally one can also include the shadows as tools to help build up an accurate drawing. It is a difficult and somewhat tedious exercise but once understood has a significant influence – I was delighted to see that in the next set of images they produced they tackled much more complex scenes without fear.