The Artist’s Secret Weapon

Before you ask where I was, I’ll tell you: I had the Flu from Hell and was laid up for the last week, hence the lack of posts. (At some point I’d like to reach the point where I have enough posts queued up where you don’t suffer, even if I am. Cough. But we’ll get there.) However, I’m on the upside of recovering now, and can look forward to a Christmas without the flu next year. Onward!


Today, I am here to talk to you about one of the most important weapons in an artist’s arsenal. Pens and brushes are all very well and good (and, one might argue, relatively important in the grand scheme of drawing) but the weapon I’m discussing today is the one thing that can make or break a drawing. It’s the difference between the life and death of your sketch. It’s the vital difference between getting your proportions right and re-creating Frankenstein’s monster (or a Picasso). The secret weapon is:

Know when to take a break.

Ever since I began drawing sheets of sea monsters as a toddler, once I began a piece I didn’t stop until I had finished it. I needed to complete the drawing before I could peacefully begin another task – which was, more often than not, drawing another page of sea monsters. I carried that behavior into my adulthood. Once I begin something, I am loathe to take a break from it until I’m finished. Unless a drawing is giving me a particular amount of grief, I’d rather remain bent over it for three hours when I’m on a roll than take a break every half-hour.

But once I began taking breaks halfway through, I discovered something upon returning. Nine out of ten times, the drawing I had thought was perfectly proportioned was, in fact, lopsided. The perspective was off, and more often than not, the eyes were extremely uneven. This frustrated me to no end. When I was hunched like Quasimodo (note: I do not recommend hunching) over the piece of artwork, it looked perfect and everything seemed well-rendered. When I looked at it with fresh eyes, I saw I was sadly mistaken, and there’s a reason for it.

When we spend a great deal of time looking at the same thing, we become absorbed in the detail. Instead of seeing ‘the big picture,’ we are caught up in shading the corner of the eye, or detailing the nose or the lip.

Instead of seeing the drawing as a whole, we begin to see it in pieces.

Our mind’s eye becomes so used to seeing the drawing one tiny section at a time that it blurs everything else together, creating the illusion of a proportionate drawing. We literally become unable to truly see what we’re drawing, until we take a break.

I have to remind myself often to stand up, to walk around, to go look at something else for five minutes or more. When I return to look at my drawing, I can once again see it as a whole and not simply a detail here and a detail there.

In his journals, Leonardo da Vinci also praised the virtues of pausing your painting and taking a stroll, because he understood how the artist can become so absorbed in the minute that they become incapable of seeing the entirety.

Note: You don’t need to take a break every five or ten minutes, but every half-hour or every hour is a good idea. If you begin to take breaks more frequently, you could lose your stride and getting it back might prove discouraging.

So, in the words of Eliza Hamilton, take a break! Look at other artwork, move around in different lighting, look at various shapes and colors before sitting back down and continuing on with your work. Your drawing will thank you.


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