The Shadow Knows

Probably the first thing we notice when we observe an object is its shape. This is an enormously useful characteristic because it gives us an immediate impression of the spirit of the subject.

Think of the shape of an elephant. Its mass and tree-trunk-like legs suggest the slow, unstoppable movement of the animal. Contrast this with the shape of a grasshopper, whose delicate antennae and jutting-back legs suggest a more nervous, fast kind of energy. Responding to shape is the first step in our logical and intuitive search for the meaning of what we draw.

If responding to shape is a fundamental aspect of seeing an object, it also interacts with all our other perceptual responses in helping us make sense of our subjects. When one is actively observing a subject in order to draw it, the mind is ping-ponging among different visual responses, shape-to-color-to-contour-to-shadow-to-proportion, and from those purely “eyeball” calculations to all the memory and psychological associations we have about our subject.

This ability of the mind to intermingle all our different kinds of reactions enriches our response and strengthens each part of that response. Shape is made more meaningful by seeing color and volume, and particularly by our recognition of our subject’s “thingness” — what makes an elephant an elephant, for instance. Understanding the significance of each part of a shape — seeing that the bump behind an elephant’s head is where the strength of the shoulder reveals itself and is different in nature from the soft curve of the belly — helps us to draw lines that evoke various kinds of energy. This is in contrast to making a contour line that moves around a shape as though each part is equal, like a neutral diagram. What we want from each stage of the drawing is to try to answer more and more of the question, “How is this thing different from every other thing?”

I include a watercolor drawing of a tap dancer to show how the silhouette of a figure can convey a particular vitality better than the details themselves.

In the process of drawing a shoe and a chair, I will show you how you can see their shapes as part of your response to their functions, and as the beginning of a much richer mental game than contour alone. You can either draw the shoe and chair from the photos or find a shoe and chair of your own to draw, following my steps.

I begin by thinking about how I put on a shoe and how I walk in it. In the drawing I made over the shape of the shoe (at right), I emphasize the aperture that the foot uses to get into the shoe, the embracing forms of the instep, the heel and the toe, the point at which the ball of the foot hits the ground and the flexible area on top that gets wrinkled by the constant bending of the material. At this stage I am ignoring all the logos and surface designs so that I can concentrate on the fundamental issues of how the shoe is made to accommodate the foot and its function. In this way, I have enlivened the shape of the shoe in my mind so that different parts have different qualities and it is no longer like the map of a country I have never visited. This analysis (which you can make by simply thinking about the shoe and without diagramming it) will guide me in making a more detailed drawing of the shoe.

As I start, I am still thinking about the large enclosing areas that I emphasized on the silhouette shape. I first make the bottom line of the sole where the pressure of the ball of the foot is exerted — it feels to me like a basic aspect of the “walking” function of the shoe. Then I make lines that enclose the heel, toe and instep, and a looping line that begins to describe the aperture of the shoe. Even though these lines form a kind of contour, I have tried to make each of them express the particular kind of pressure and implicit volume I feel in that area. This is in contrast to a contour line that simply describes an edge by moving evenly around the shape.

These first lines are especially important because, just as in the drawing of the lily, I am choosing among the myriad details I am seeing to find the issues that seem particularly central to the function of the shoe and, in that way, I take charge of the drawing.

Now I make volumetric lines around the heel and below the instep to establish the larger forms of the shoe. I add more detail to the aperture and the laces. As much as possible, I try to use the design details to reinforce the three-dimensionality of the shoe, even trying to imagine what zoomy, wrap-the-foot feelings the designer had when he decided to make these particular shapes. As I draw, I see that I have slightly missed the chunky proportions of the sneaker, so I make correctional lines around the top lining to make that part higher. A drawing should feel like a live, open-ended experience in which you can amend your lines as you absorb more and more of your subject.

This is the finishing stage of the drawing, and I concentrate on strengthening the roundedness of the forms, adding more volumetric lines around the area at the ball of the foot, heel and toe. I add darks to the surface the shoe sits on to give it more spatial presence and to set off the white color of the material. As I draw the designs on the surface I hold back slightly on their darkness so that the graphic elements won’t overwhelm the sense of form in the whole shoe. This lack of logo enthusiasm on my part helps the drawing to maintain it’s unity, but it probably won’t lead to any phone calls asking me to do product illustration.

The happy guy at ease in the furry chair represents the beginning of my thinking about drawing the chair. I let the idea of sitting register strongly in my mind as I look at the chair — I can imagine what the seat and the back feel like as I sit, and remember the trust I put in chair legs to do their job stoutly and not collapse. I think of soft chairs and hard chairs and put this particular chair in the medium- hard category. The design of the chair slots into 1940’s English no-nonsense with some mild Art Deco around the slats. A likable bourgeois seat from which to eat your soft-boiled eggs. This little common-sense exercise helps me to see the chair as both a chair-chair as well as a specific chair, anything but a neutral shape. The lines I have drawn over the chair silhouette emphasize these core functions of sitting and support.

I start the drawing by making the rectangle of the seat, then the line describing one side of the back and the connecting leg. Next I draw two lines delineating the near front leg. Now I have implicitly set up the position of all four legs. As you see from my red lines, the rectangle on the floor is anchored by the two legs I have drawn and echoes the rectangle of the seat. My basic sense of perspective helps me to draw the lines so that the elements recede. Part of the satisfaction of starting the drawing in this way, is that it’s like the answer to a puzzle — how do I figure out in the most efficient way where the ends of the legs are?

Once the positions of the various rectangles that comprise the chair are pinned down, it becomes a matter of adding the details so they are both where they should be and they also retain the character of this specific chair. As I draw the legs, for instance, I think about the difference between the edge of a sawn wooden piece and the same part of a chair if it were made from an extruded steel pipe. They are both straight, but the wood has a certain softness in it’s straightness that the steel would not.

It may seem odd to think about different kinds of straightness, but a sensitivity to the materials that an object is made from is one of the things that I believe experience in drawing will lead you to. In the final stage of the drawing I use cross-hatch shading to bring out the sturdiness of the chair and the flatness of the seat — the qualities of structure and “sittingness” with which I began.

Learning to understand the structure of a shoe or a chair and be able to draw it in a straightforward manner gives you the basis to consider those objects (or any others) in a more personal and intuitive way. These two paintings by Van Gogh resonate with the memories and associations that this pair of boots and this chair had for him in his life.

Vincent van Gogh A Pair of Shoes, 1886
Vincent van Gogh Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888