Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Drawing and Mindfulness: Part one: Preparation

Georgio Morandi: Still Life

I'm very aware that drawing as a window into mindfulness is something I have been having to address more and more at the moment. So perhaps it is time for me to put my thoughts down about this. There is a particular mental and physical conjunction that is required in order to make a drawing that helps you to achieve such a state; however as a name, 'mindfulness' when using drawing as a way towards some sort of mind/body awareness, is for myself the wrong term. 'Mindfulness' suggests that you want to achieve some sort of awareness of the mind and how it works, the word suggests that you need to become 'full of mind' and in actual fact, the opposite is the case. The mind needs to be emptied into the body and drawing is a wonderful way to do this, but it takes time and practice. So in this case what I am suggesting is that if you want to achieve what I would call ‘mindemptyness’, a ‘mindmeld’ or a ‘mindvoid’, you could follow the exercises I will be suggesting over the course of the next few posts.  

There are several stages that you need to move through in order to use drawing as a tool to help you embody a ‘flighty’ mind and to balance the mind body relationship. I have therefore decided to break the subject down, so that if you want to follow the process, you can do this in a measured way and not be tempted to rush. Like most things, if you slow down and take one step at a time, you will eventually feel the benefit of deeper knowledge and in the process calm down and become de-stressed. Think of how calm and still the Morandi still life drawing is above. It is stripped down to its essence and nothing is superfluous. The drawing seems to echo a state of mind and this is what eventually I would hope anyone can achieve by applying themselves to some not too hard to learn approaches to drawing. 

Preparing to draw

The subject. What to wear, where to do it, lighting, choosing papers, materials to draw with and your supports such as tables, easels or donkeys. 

There will always be a certain amount of preparation required before you begin drawing, and how much will be up to you. At its most basic you can simply decide to go with what and where you are now, just grab the nearest pencil and drawing pad and just draw what is in front of you and there is nothing wrong with that, but you may want to think it through in more detail, I offer you both options. 

Choosing a subject. 

The reality is that everything is interesting. Those artists that you meet that are always looking for inspiration or the ‘right’ subject matter are I firmly believe deluded, and its not what it is but how its looked at that is important. A drawing by Van Gogh is instilled with his energetic looking, whether it’s a brick wall he is looking at, a starry sky or a wheat field. Therefore your subject just needs to be something that allows you time to look at it. This is the vital element, ‘time’. For instance if you want to draw the dog it may be one of those dogs that never stops moving, therefore you will need very fast responses to capture anything useful, so I would suggest if you are a beginner to this sort of drawing, selecting something that is much slower moving, such as a still life situation or a view through a window, or architecture. Nothing is ever totally static, but everything has its own timeframe, a rock is much slower than a human being, which is faster than many plants, but slower than a mayfly. In many ways your subject will be how to capture a series of time bound relationships. 

What to wear?

You do need to be comfortable, and when we come to looking at what you will need to do, one important issue will be balance, so this means either to go barefoot or to wear comfortable shoes that help you stand for as long as possible. You will need to stretch and bend, so think of clothes that you would wear if you were to go to Tai Chi or contact improvisation dance classes. You can do this anywhere, inside or outside, so adjust clothing in relation to temperature and never wear anything that you don’t want to get dirty. 


Lighting is always an important factor; the quality, intensity, angle and direction of light will effect what you see and you can either control this to the nth degree or respond to whatever lighting conditions you find. For instance you might want to light your subject from one side, thus giving more focus on shadow and the way light can model form. Some life classes have hanging lights that enable the drawer to light their paper in order to assess and control changes in tonal value, whilst the life model may sit in the dark under a spotlight. You may want to draw using the natural light of a window to illuminate your paper, whilst the rest of the room disappears into gloom. This is up to you, but even if all you do is decide to simply use whatever the situation is, just remember it is light you are actually seeing, not things. If you want to think about this in more detail there are other earlier posts on light. 

A few posts on Light


Choosing paper is a complex subject and there are plenty of earlier posts on paper that might help you think about which ones are best for you. Perhaps one of the most important factors is paper size and shape. In order to capture body/mind transference, your paper needs to be of a size that enables you to develop body movements in front of it and of course to make marks on it using those body movements. Therefore A1 or larger might be required if you are thinking of really pushing this type of work forwards, however you can still do this on a post-it note if that is all you have, but the amount of visual scale translation is much higher and the challenge much harder if you want to go that way. 

Paper shape will affect your physical relationship with the situation, think about the differences between working on portrait, landscape or square formats. The degree of roughness or smoothness will determine the flow of lines or type of mark being made and the paper’s weight will determine the amount of ‘work’ you will be able to engage with it, in terms of rubbing out, scratching into etc. 

Further posts on Paper that would be useful to read if you want to undertake an in-depth preparation before setting out to make a drawing.   

More thoughts on paper (includes further links to other posts on paper)

Paper supports

Sundeala soft board

The support for your paper is very important. A good drawing board is essential if you are to develop a firm support, this needs to be further supported by an easel, a table or a donkey. For drawing boards I have traditionally used Sundeala ‘K’ Quality standard pin board, which is manufactured from waste paper, and has a light grey textured surface. Boards are 6mm, 9mm and 12mm in thickness and a standard sheet size is 1220 x 2440mm. I then cut drawing boards to size. You can get other sheet sizes on request. An 8 x 4ft Sundeala board will cost you £60 from Amazon, not that you would normally need a drawing board that big. If you are going to stretch paper a good solid wooden drawing board is better, but far heavier. 

Artist's radial easel

Most art schools will have the artist's radial easel as a standard support for undertaking observational drawing. It can be set up at different heights and has adjustable wooden clamps so that your drawing board can be held in place firmly. However, when using this type of easel any untoward pressure on the drawing board can cause the easel to rock and thus destabilize or upset the delicate balance needed for fine motor control. H frame or studio easels are much more sturdy and although more expensive you will only ever need to purchase one and it should last you a lifetime. Donkeys are ok but if you want the full spectrum of body movement to be built into your drawing, something that allows you to stand is always best. 
'H' Frame or Studio Easel


If you are going to use wet materials you may need a table, but check that you can see your drawing subject easily when working at this table. In this case you may want to think about stretching the paper. 

Don’t forget you will need to attach your paper to the board, again opinions vary, but whether you use drawing pins or clips, they will each leave a distinctive impression within the final drawing. 

Drawing board clips
Find a link to a video on how to stretch paper at the end of this post which also gives you several drawing exercises to try which can be used as warming up processes when you are trying out materials.

Drawing materials 

Your drawing materials may be wet or dry. However there are big differences between them and as always there are previous posts that are designed to help you think about what you might draw with. However there are some basic differences. If working using very wet materials, such as ink and brush, you may want to work standing at a table, with the paper horizontal, dry techniques such as charcoal or chalks, are fine when working on more vertical surfaces.  The applicators you use are also of course very important, whether these are brushes, charcoal holders or electric erasers, each will have a certain set of qualities that will shape the way the drawing is made. 

Earlier Posts on drawing materials 

This initial preparation is an essential first step towards mindfulness, because it is beginning the process of converting your thoughts into a physicality. It is a first step towards ‘material thinking’. Therefore spend some time playing with the papers and materials you are thinking of using and get to know more about them by testing out their limits. 

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