No reference image? No problem! Believe in your marks!

Have you ever wanted to be able to draw things from your head without reference pictures or having the object in front of you? I do. How hard can it be to draw a tree when I’ve seen thousands, maybe millions of them in my life? Yet somehow, when I have a pencil and paper in front of me, I seem to revert back to my elementary school days. My trees look like doodles and I don’t like them.

I get the same feeling sometimes when I’m outside trying to draw a landscape from life. I can see the foliage right in front of me and yet I still don’t like what’s appearing on my paper.

Isn’t it frustrating?

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve been learning about classical Chinese landscape painting. During this learning process, I’ve realized that the artists who made those paintings used a simplified mark making style and I realized that my funky looking trees weren’t terribly different. They could even be pretty, given the right setting, just like these classical paintings.

So can yours! It’s not about finding the right drawing tutorial or the perfect supplies. It’s about changing your perspective, seeing your art in a different context.

Let me explain…

Simple, purposeful artistry

In classical Chinese paintings, compositions are typically simplified without extraneous detail.

There was a reason for this: Chinese society at the time this art form was practiced believed humility was a virtue. Artists were encouraged to keep their works minimalistic so as to show that they had true moral fiber. No amount of ostentatiousness was acceptable.

Therefore, instead of trying to make their landscapes more ‘realistic’, the artists spent their entire careers perfecting brush strokes and compositional techniques. Every stroke counted, every line had a reason for being in the work so that every extraneous nuance could be eliminated. Sometimes artists used meticulous brushwork, but at other times the marks were made loose so as to look effortless.

Appreciating Potted Chrysanthemum in Tranquility by Shen Zhou, from the Ming dynasty. Notice the way the leaves on the trees are painted very simply, how some are just lines.
A closeup of the same painting

A classical Chinese landscape may look very simple to us today, but a great deal of mastery went into making it that way. The result is that this kind of artwork not only tells stories of the land and events of the time, it also tells us about the ethics of the artists who created it.

A change in perspective

When I began learning about Chinese painting styles, I didn’t think the simple marks used in trees and foliage were that striking. But, as I’ve gained knowledge, I’ve also gained an appreciation for what the artists accomplished.

Making Farewells at Jingkou, also by Shen Zhou

It’s helped me to understand how my own mark-making skills, as elementary as they may look, are my own unique expression. If they stand alone they may not look like much. But when I put them into the right setting they can look quite striking!

Believe in your marks

Sometimes it happens, of course. You’re fully focused on your drawing when, all of a sudden, the pen goes off in the wrong direction. I like to think of this as an “unintentional mark”, not a mistake.

Good artists know how to work with unintentional marks. They can figure out ways to cover them up, turn them into something interesting, or incorporate them into the drawing. It takes practice to be able to do this, so if you’re constantly trying to get it perfect, you’re cheating yourself of valuable practice.

Also, I believe it’s important to use our creative talents as a means of expression as well as decoration. Unless I’m trying to learn something, it’s important to use my own mark-making style in my art instead of trying to imitate someone else’s, for two reasons:

First, using my own marks means that I’m not trying to be somebody else. It’s honest.

Second, no one else can make the same marks that I can, so if I don’t make them, the world will never be able to experience them. It’s how I communicate with the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the world will miss anything I make, my work isn’t that great. But what if yours is? Wouldn’t it be a shame if we never got to see it?

It takes courage. The marks you’re making are your unique style of art. All they need is a little bit of confidence.

So if you’re frustrated with your own attempts to draw what you think or see, take heart. Look at some classical Chinese paintings for inspiration. Your marks don’t have to look realistic to be beautiful. Their beauty comes from having a purpose in the world, to communicate your thoughts and feelings. No one else can make them exactly the same way.

Remember, how you make the marks can say more about who you are than what you make.

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