In preparation for an upcoming article on shell carving, I realized that I suggest a fair amount of freehand sketching. In the past, suggestions of that sort usually elicit groans and complaints from students and apprentices about how they can’t draw. Now, I’m not asking for pencil drawings of the Mona Lisa. I’m talking about some basic sketching skills many people find useful in other areas of woodworking.
Many people look at a drawing and are overwhelmed. When you break down any drawing (or painting) to its base elements, you’ll find any line can be broken into one of three categories; straight, convex, or concave. As long as you keep those three elements in mind, sketching becomes less daunting.
When I was first taught to sketch, in Mr. Michener’s mechanical drawing class in junior high, the first lesson was to sketch a straight line. A few decades (and a ton of experience) later, I actually think this is the hardest thing to learn to sketch.
Our bodies naturally move in arcs. It stands to reason that learning to draw convex and concave lines would be the place to start. And of the two, concave lines are easier to draw for most people than convex.
The whole idea of sketching is to use short, overlapping strokes to create the lines. When drawing concave lines, I pivot off the heel of my hand – essentially using it like the fixed leg of a compass. Set the heel of your hand in place on the paper and sketch a circle. You may need to rotate the paper or yourself in order to draw the circle completely, but be sure to draw it from inside the circle. Once complete, try drawing one from outside the circle.Which way seemed more natural? And which way were you more successful?
Another exercise to try is drawing a cyma, or “s” shaped, curve. Try sketching each half of the curve from the inside (this means you’ll need to rotate the paper between segments), then try drawing a cyma curve from a single position. Again, which way seemed the most natural and which was the most successful?
Drawing straight lines usually involves using your forearm or elbow as the pivot point. Mark a starting and ending point on a piece of paper. Begin sketching from one point to the other using short, overlapping strokes. Check it with a ruler or straight edge and see how successful you were. Don’t panic if it’s not a perfect line – this is your first effort after all.
Many people took to the suggestion of cutting a dovetail each night to improve their joinery. Why not take ten minutes every night, before you set to cut that dovetail, and practice sketching straight, convex and concave lines? If you draw circles and cyma curves in a variety of sizes, you might just get the hang of it. In which case, I expect to see some fairly good renditions of the Mona Lisa in my inbox.