Techniques and Tips

Slow Down? Speed Up? Advice for Pacing Yourself When Drawing

Slow Down? Speed Up? Advice for Pacing Yourself When Drawing

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Before I spend most of my day teaching and painting in my studio, I like to take a long run and enjoy the beauty of Anguilla, a Caribbean island. I’ve been chased by a lot of things: dogs, women, chickens and so on. You learn a lot when you’re running away from stuff. Very quickly you realize that you don’t have to be the fastest, you just have to pace yourself to stay in front of whatever is chasing you. This is a great lesson for people who are developing their artistic practices.

When learning to draw, developing a productive pace that allows for a quality result is important. Often, instructors see two types of students: one who is so excited about their work that they blaze forward leaving a field of mistakes behind them (this was my approach), and the other who works so incredibly slowly that they never even come close to finishing anything. Once a professional sees some success they’re faced with the reality of deadlines and personal responsibilities that infringe on working time, increasing the pressure to produce work faster. On the opposite side of the spectrum we sometimes find artists creating brilliant work, but their slow working process hinders long term success.

First and foremost, let’s be clear: you want to do great quality work. That doesn’t mean you have to work really tight and make images look photographic. Rather it means that you’re in control of your process and are efficiently achieving the result you desire.

If the skills you use frequently can be isolated, then you can devote time to mastering those skills to become more productive. In this brief video (below) I demonstrate a gradation block exercise that Anthony Waichulis taught me. Most of my drawings are done with a combination of black and white charcoal. If you’d like to see a list of my normal art materials click here.

Gradation Block Exercise

In this exercise the goal is to cleanly control the mixing of the two materials at the rate of change desired. If you attack this exercise too fast, it’ll be an abysmal mess; this I know first hand! On the other hand, if you do the exercise tentatively you’ll be unable to get the cleanest finish possible. Cleanliness is used in the exercise to show clear execution of skills.

As confidence is developed and control in drawing improves, the subjects become even more complex, which may lead to fear and anxiety. Keep in mind that no matter how complex the subject, the drawing procedure remains constant. Often when someone new to drawing is faced with a subject that’s outside of their comfort range they’ll drastically alter their working procedure, creating a myriad of problems.

How To Draw An Eye

In this step-by-step drawing of an eye you get a chance to see how the working procedure is the same as the one we used in the gradation block exercise.

The objective of the first step is to loosely define the contour line where all of the major forms, form shadows and cast shadows are located. This stage is probably most common to everyone’s procedure. Take the time to clearly identify which direction your light is coming from and be absolutely clear as to what’s in light and what’s in shadow. The distinction of placement of light and shadow can greatly reduce your working time and foster greater efficiency.

In the second step establish all of the shadows. Take care not to burnish the paper in anticipation of later refinement. Build the material slowly and if you’ve practiced the gradation exercise above you’ll be much more confident now.

The third step is the most crucial. Working off of the shadow shapes we begin to lay in the tapers of charcoal that will become the halftones. Many beginners don’t take enough time to lay in the tapers down at their appropriate strength. Another common mistake is lack of attention in application, which can lead to burnishes or major breaks/gaps in transitions. Thorough study and practice during the early exercises will correct all of these problems.

The final stage is taking the drawing to the desired finish. Using pressure control and multi-directional strokes the drawing begins to come alive. Each edge and transition of value is thoughtfully considered and brought to the appropriate level of finish.

I truly hope you find this post helpful and remember: If you’re running away from a lion, just run a better pace than the person next to you.

See Timothy W. Jahn’s work in Strokes of Genius 3, The Best of Drawing: Fresh Perspectives. Visit his website at

Watch the video: How to Speed Read. Tim Ferriss (July 2022).


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