This a line drawing of the Danube, one of the Four River Gods in Bernini’s fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona. The line is the quintessential element of drawing, able to convey to the mind’s eye three-dimensional forms in space, often not by its presence but rather by its absence—where we decide to stop a contour…and pick it up again.

These cropped enlargements of the original drawing use areas of black to emphasize the negative spaces of the drawing and the white of the sculpture. This brings to mind notan, the Japanese term for “light dark;” some translate it as “light dark harmony.” It is a concept revolving around the placement and interplay of light and dark elements in the composition of a collage, drawing, or painting. It is valued as a way to study possible compositions without the distractions of color, texture, or details.

Drawing Lessons

From a Rome journal, two pages of sketches drawn during a teaching session. The first page contains explanatory sketches accompanied by bits of concise text: “Pay attention to profiles”…“Suggest details within shadows”…“Visualize shape of curves.”

The second page illustrates how to estimate proportional heights above and below an imagined horizon line.

Taking Notes

Being able to listen, absorb, and process information during a lecture or conference is a valuable skill, one that can be practiced and cultivated by taking notes by hand. These notes can often be augmented with word diagrams and visual imagery that come to mind to reinforce points being made or expressing one’s understanding of what is being said. Here are a few pages of notes I took during a Design Communication Conference in 2018. See also my posts on 10.30.16 and 10.14.20 on the similar subject of taking visual notes. 

Near, Middle, Far

In this view of an art museum in Palermo, I am looking from an upper level, through a staircase in the middle ground, to a courtyard beyond. To convey a sense of spatial depth on the page, I attempted to use relative values and value contrast to suggest what is near, clarifying what is in the middle ground, and again merely suggesting what is far away. In the image below, I have stripped away the color to show the equivalent gray values of the sketch.

Projection: A Search for Meaning

The above image and following quote is from Drawing: A Creative Process.

“Merely looking at an apparently amorphous pattern can sometimes bring to a…searching mind a more specific image. In its search for meaning, the mind’s eye imagines and appears to project familiar images onto seemingly shapeless patterns until it finds a match that makes sense.” This recalls the familiar search for something recognizable when looking up at cloud formations.

The new year’s image I posted recently used as a backdrop this pattern that developed as I mixed and tested watercolors on a piece of paper. While squinting at that same colorful pattern, I can begin to “see” certain images. The following are two of several possibilities. What else can you see in these patterns?

The Pantheon

The combined effects of the ongoing pandemic and current cold, rainy weather have made it increasingly difficult to leave the home office to go out to draw. So it’s a good time to explore new ways of working. Just as with the portrait of Istanbul posted previously, this familiar view of the Pantheon in the historic center of Rome was created through a hybrid process involving a watercolor underpainting, scanned and imported onto my iPad, and using the Procreate app to draw over the watercolor image.

Keep in mind that using a photograph as a reference is very much different from drawing on location, from direct observation. A photograph captures a moment in time and reflects the processing that flattens out three-dimensional data onto a two-dimensional surface. A drawing done on location, such as the view above, takes longer to execute and involves our senses, especially that of active seeing.

But in both cases, like a conversation, we do not know precisely where the drawing or painting process will lead. Even though we may have an objective in mind when we begin to draw, the sketch itself takes on a life of its own as it evolves on paper and we have to be open to the possibilities the emerging image suggests.

Visual Notes

Drawing not only involves capturing what we see or imagine in graphic terms. Indeed, while drawing on location, from direct observation, we can also notice and take notes as well. Here are a few examples from my sketchbooks. These observations may entail written information, word diagrams, and visual notes.

Analog Dials & Digital Tuning

I remember a time when radios had an analog dial for tuning. To tune to a certain station, we had to turn a knob to align a moving hand with the desired frequency on a linear or circular dial. We had to rotate the knob back and forth and listen as the signal would get louder the closer we got to the desired station’s frequency, then get softer as we went past that point, and then back again to when the signal was loudest. The goal was to hone in gradually on that sweet spot where the signal was clearest and strongest.

Today, of course, with digital tuners, we simply have to scan and look at digital readouts. If a station has a frequency of 98.1, you merely dial that number in. Boom. Done.

I think of this comparison of analog dials and digital tuners as a way of contrasting the precision of digital vector graphics with the suggestive power of a hand drawing, which requires a tactile feel along with a lot of judgment about how what we draw matches up with what we actually see. if you look closely at the drawing of the Seattle Central Library above, you will see the multiple attempts I made to get the proportions of the Rem Koolhaas/OMA-designed building right. Each attempt was a turn of the virtual tuning knob until I reached the desired frequency.