The What and the Where


I’ve been writing about ideas from “Powerful Watercolor Landscapes,” a terrific book for artists of all media, written by Catherine Gill.  My last post looked at the “why” of a drawing.  Now let’s consider the “what” and the “where”  together, since you really can’t have one without the other.   The “what” is something that expresses the idea(s) you want to convey.  It’s logical that the “what” becomes the focal point of your picture.  The next consideration is “where” to put the focal point.  Slightly off center is usually best.

We were looking at this scene:


I decided I would draw it to express the joy and comfort I feel when I’m there.  I could highlight the flowers or make more of the front door.  I could even move the tree over a bit and make the kayak rental shack my focal point.   Those colorful flags fluttering in the breeze are happy, they make a good “what.”

This scene naturally lends itself to a good composition.  The flags are in the upper left quadrant of the page, a perfect location.  The color highlights and draws your eye to the focal point.   The bit of green for the grass and the red sign balance  the bright flags and lead the eye to “where” the “what” is.


What if the scene in front of you is nice  but doesn’t offer a great composition?  This is more often the case.  Items need to be added, deleted or moved around to make the picture more interesting.  A little artistic vision is helpful to see the possibilities.  Take this garden scene:


One could draw this as it is and make some strong patterns in the leaves in the foreground to lead the eye back to the garden shed.   But I have a different idea.  To the left of the picture are some large, deep red poppies:


These are so lovely  they should be part of the drawing.  They become the “what” and the “where” is the foreground.


Much more interesting!  It’s often difficult to let go of the exact scene before your eyes to try new arrangements. By using “why,” “what,” and “where”  you will discover ways to evaluate your subjects more easily and design your drawings to become more powerful.

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The Why

Continuing with ideas from Catherine Gill’s fabulous book, Powerful Watercolor Landscapes,  (see previous post)  on page 18 Cathe explains:

“When you begin a painting [or drawing] and can’t think where to start, remember ‘why,’ ‘what,’ ‘where.’  

  • Your ‘why’ is an emotion, an association, a mood, your personal connection.”   
  • Your ‘what’ is your center of interest, what the painting is about
  • Unlike your ‘why’ which can infuse the entire painting, your ‘what’ is the visual story.  You can point to a ‘what.’ X marks the spot.  That spot is your ‘where’.”

Understanding how this “why,” “what,” and “where” applies to your work is valuable.  Let’s start with “why.”   Drawing is personal.   The wonderful thing is that you are totally unique and only you can draw your thoughts.  We are each drawn to different subjects for different reasons. Some draw or paint to make a social statement, others want to express their love or commitment to a theme, and still others seek subjects that are whimsical and  fun. Maybe you see something you like and you simply want to draw it, without analyzing it.  That’s OK too.  It doesn’t have to be of earth-shattering importance.

Some years ago when I was doing a lot of plein air oil painting, I made myself begin by writing down why I was painting whatever subject was before me.  It was an interesting exercise.  Until then I hadn’t realized how attracted I am to subjects that are beautiful and harmonious.  It’s no surprise then that my work often expresses beauty and harmony.


But I draw for other reasons, too.  I drew this old tractor because I was fascinated not only by the shapes of the wheels and the mechanical parts, but by its connection to family and farm.  There’s a lot of history in a faithful tractor.


When you understand your “why,” and consciously consider specific ideas, your drawing will be stronger.  Your drawing will have purpose and expression.  And when combined with “what” and “where” it will have even more impact.

Let me give you an example.


This is the general store and main office for a charming resort in the San Juan Islands.  It’s a happy place where people come to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.  The “why” for this drawing relates to my comfort level when I’m there.  It reminds me of  warm memories and good friends.

In the next two blogs I’ll get into the “what” and the “where” of this subject and we’ll see if the drawing that results will express this.


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Book Review: Powerful Watercolor Landscapes

From time to time I enjoy sharing some of my favorite drawing books. There are  many great ones out there, chock full of winning techniques and inspiring advice.  One of my favorites is not actually a drawing book, it’s Powerful Watercolor Landscapes by Catherine Gill.



Why a watercolor book?  Because Cathe’s explanations of powerful and successful painting techniques are spot on for drawing too.  She covers essential topics  that will lift any type of art work up to the next level.  I find her descriptions of composition guidelines especially easy to understand.  And being a watercolor fan,  I drool over her luscious watercolor examples.

Whether drawing or painting,  Cathe’s  wonderful advice applies.  Here’s just one tidbit from the opening pages:

“The first step in the path to more powerful painting is to re-write your mental job         description.  Burn this into your brain:

My job as a landscape painter is to thoughtfully capture the response I feel to the landscape, not to accurately paint  the things I see in that landscape.

Many people can paint perfect looking trees.  Only you can paint how being among those trees make you feel . . .  As you get better and better at capturing your special relationship with each landscape you paint, you will see the power of your paintings grow and grow.”

Beyond successful rendering, I couldn’t agree more that drawing with expression is the ultimate goal in art.   I’ll explore more of Cathe’s ideas in upcoming blog posts.   Stay tuned!


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Celebrating Earth Day

As you might guess from all the trees I draw, I am a nature lover.  I can find enough inspiration from a quiet walk in the woods for a month of drawings.  Soaking up the beauty of the forest feeds my soul.


I love that Earth Day is a world wide movement,  Nature is an art form unto itself that is well worth protecting and valuing.  Wouldn’t it be great if Earth Day could become a true International holiday where every country united to honor and protect our precious environment?


I invite you to celebrate Earth Day by drawing a tree. Take some time to really look at the lines, the colors and the shadows.   Whether it’s a tiny sapling or a mighty sequoia, each tree expresses unique qualities that are powerful and positive.   Once we see that in one thing, we can see it others.   “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  John Muir is my hero.  He painted beautiful pictures with his words and inspired the world to cherish the natural wonders all around us.

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New Work

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on some new drawings.  In addition to teaching, and sketching on location, I show larger, more detailed works in galleries and exhibitions.  I used to think I didn’t have the patience to create a piece that might take ten or more hours.  Now I find that  I enjoy the long stretches of quiet focus needed for these works.  By large, I mean anything bigger than 10 x 16 inches. Currently, I have a 15 x 20 and a 22 x 30 in progress.  Here’s a sneak peek of a portion of the largest one:


Much of the work in galleries and exhibitions today is some kind of painting.    And while my work could be called mixed media, I consider them drawings since 90% of the time I have a pen in my hand.  I used to exhibit paintings and it’s  a delight now to show my drawings along side oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings. Just this week I was excited to learn my ink and watercolors have been juried into a plein air painting competition later this summer.  Watch for more about that in August!

Drawing is a valuable form of fine art.  While I love sketching, working on location and doing spontaneous work, I also savor these more deliberate pieces.   I can put on some music, or listen to a podcast, and escape to the drawing zone.   Time to get back to the work.



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Let’s Take a Field Trip

I like to take my classes to a local coffee shop to gain experience drawing in public.  For those new to drawing, it’s a comfortable place to get their feet wet sketching on location.  And for the more experienced, it offers a wonderful variety of subject matter.   Tables and chairs fill the middle of a large room, and overstuffed sofas and chairs provide conversation areas along the windows.  In addition to a variety of quirky decorations, like a large metal pig hanging from the ceiling, there are always seasonal displays and interesting knick-knacks.  It’s well attended by a range of locals from mothers with small children to seniors doing crossword puzzles.  If that’s not enough, there are large windows with views of trees, flowers, and the Tudor style shops across the street.


The first time sketchers often select a piece of furniture or a decorative item for their first subject.   Once they gain a little comfort, they begin to expand their work with perspectives and people.  I love drawing the folks that spend time there.   I’ve discovered that my students make handy subjects; they’re focusing so hard on their drawings they don’t realize I’m drawing them.



Best of all, it’s an enjoyable way to spend a few hours during our damp Northwest winters.  Do you have a favorite place to sketch when the weather is cold and wet?



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Staying Inside the Box

Drawing boats is always a challenge.  Those curved shapes are graceful and symmetrical and yet so difficult to put in perspective.  How do you draw the right shape and make them look like they’re floating on the water at the same time?  Whether it’s a giant tug tied up at dock, a sailboat heeling in a steady breeze, or a small dory pulled up on the beach, I have found a box to be the answer.   What kind of a box you might ask?   Well, a box big enough to encompass the boat.  By putting the boat in an imaginary box, it’s easy to see how to keep the boat in perspective. This method requires being able to “see” the imaginary box, so it may not work for everyone, but it has really helped me.   Let me show you what I mean.  Let’s start with a boat on the beach:


Imagine it in a box.  By noting the angle of the stern and the angle of the center line of the boat – from the stern to the bow -I can find the perpendicular lines to create my box.    This drawing is a little light, but hopefully you get the idea:

135 box

Some aspects of boats are straight and parallel, like the seats on this boat.  In a dingy the seats are often parallel to the stern. That means that all of the vector lines from the seats and the back of the box will go to the same vanishing point.



If a sailboat is leaning with the wind, draw the box at an angle:


The box concept also helps me draw cars.  I find the box enables me to more clearly understand how something is made, what should be parallel and what should be symmetrical.  It also gives me a framework to consider proportions from one item to another.

Shore Boats



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One Week 100 People

Did you see the online drawing challenge this week?  #Oneweek100people2017.  I thought it would be kind of fun so I jumped right into the fray on Monday, drawing people every chance I had.  In order to make the daily quota of 20 people, each portrait needed to be simple and quick. The first day I was pleased to draw most of my subjects from life.


The second day, working around  my teaching schedule I decided to work from photographs.  This day found me spending too much time on details.


By Wednesday it was time to ramp it up so I drew groups of people.  But by the end of the day I was only halfway to the goal.


I was starting to feel a little stressed because I had quite a few other commitments in the next few days.  I paused to consider why I was doing this.   Liz Steel and Marc Taro Holmes initiated #OneWeek100People to encourage sketchers to improve their people drawing skills, certainly a worthy goal.  I loved seeing each day’s results on Facebook and Instagram. But I was scribbling faces and bodies just to reach the count with no thought to improve my skills.  I made the decision to stop at 52.  This was a big deal because I really like to see things through.  But I made the right decision for me. I will continue to draw portraits slowly, hone my skills and progress at my own pace.




Be sure to  look up the drawings for this great challenge.  There is a fantastic array of work. I now recognize I was excited to be a part of this global event. The work from sketchers around the globe never fails to inspire me.   Congratulations to all who have joined in and posted their work!



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Do you see what I see?

Working with straight lines is one thing, but how do you deal with round?  Circles in perspective can boggle the mind.  I find it helpful to put the circle in a square.  This makes it so much easier to to see how the circle relates to the rules of perspective.

circle                 circle1

A good example for drawing round is a simple paper cup.  If we hold the paper cup squarely in front of our eyes, with the round bottom of the cup perfectly centered within the opening, we know we are looking at a full circles. But the minute we tip the cup or move it up or down, the round opening starts to become elliptical.  The more we move the circle away from us, the narrower the ellipse becomes.  This is where seeing becomes critical.  To draw a believable paper cup, pay attention to the exact size of the ellipse.




The  simple stools in the art studio where I teach make a great subject.   As the stools move away from my vantage point, the seats become not just smaller, but narrower ellipses too.  The brain insists that those seats are round, but your eyes reveal the truth. Do you see what I see?   I’m thinking some new words to the old Christmas song might remind us to check our ellipses.


Circles are everywhere – tires, flower pots, plates,  traffic lights, tools, spools, and more.  Learning to draw round objects accurately will enhance your work.  One final tip: if you’re  not sure whether or not your circle is correct, measure the proportions of the ellipse with your thumb and pencil point. So often the width is much less than we think it is.  Just one more way to check what you see.


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Looking Up

For most drawings, basic two point perspective works just fine.  Occasionally, we might want to try a more dramatic angle.   Let’s use this classic New England church to demonstrate three point perspective.  From a distance one can draw it nicely using two point perspective.  The steeple is tall and, although it reduces in size with each level of ornamentation,  all of the vertical lines will remain parallel to the vertical edges of the paper – the standard for all two point perspective subjects on a horizon line.



Now, move in close to the building and look straight up at the steeple. You can see that the vertical lines get noticeably smaller as they move away from you, in fact if we were to extend them, they would meet somewhere in outer space.  This is the third vanishing point.


Because this vanishing point is so far away, it’s best to hold a pencil along the angles that you see, then recreate those angles on your paper.  Do you know where the horizon line is for this picture?   It’s off the page  below the scene.   It’s important to understand that when you look up or down at a sharp angle, the third vanishing point is not on the horizon line.  The horizontal lines depicted in your picture will, however stay on the horizon line. I know that’s a bit tricky to understand.  But trust me on this, once you see several good examples of it, it begins to make sense.


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