Blocking-In the the Laocoön
Ever since I bought a plaster cast of the famous Laocoön Group statue several years ago I have been wanting to draw it. Here I'm drawing with the classical drawing technique I teach in my online atelier: Straight Line Block-in.
The original Greek statue is 2000 years old and has been on display in the Vatican Museum since it was excavated in 1509. It depicts a Trojan priest and his two sons being consumed by sea serpents. The complex group of figures, writhing as they fight off the serpents, has captured the imagination of artists for centuries.
This animation show the steps of the process I used over the course of several days to make a contour (outline) study of the cast:
I call my process "Freehand Block-in" to differentiate it from "Sight-size Block-in" which is taught in some ateliers.
With sight-size method, the artist lines up their easel with their view of their subject, and makes marks to line up their drawing vertically with key points on the subject. The size of the drawing exactly matches the view of the subject. This is an excellent method for creating very accurate drawings, and everyone interested in drawing from life should try it at least once.
However, it's not the only way to draw accurately, and I prefer to draw in a way that allows me to work at any size regardless of subject position.
I also find that many students of drawing are very focused on measuring. While measuring is a useful tool, one I rely on, I find that most students need to learn to trust their innate, intuitive sense of proportion and accuracy, by seeing how individual landmarks interrelate to make a harmonious whole. Measuring can be learned relatively quickly and easily, and is an excellent objective "check" for our best guesses, but it's also important to develop the accuracy of our guesses.
Therefore, I always start drawing with very long, soft, loose, abstract lines. These lines are mimicking what my eyes are doing: Scanning the whole subject up and down and side to side, looking for relationships of distant parts to the whole.
As I start to roughly sketch in the basic shapes, I am keeping everything very simple and blocky, and with a soft touch so all marks are easily erasable. Working this way allows me to make adjustments as my mind slowly begins to understand what I am seeing.
The temptation to focus in on the most interesting details is always a distraction. As I draw I am constantly monitoring myself with my inner "teacher voice", reminding me to continue to develop every part of the drawing at once.
Once I have the whole drawing roughly sketched in, I take a few basic measurements. I always hold off on measuring too soon in the process: Even if my drawing is not "correct", if I spend a good amount of time just drawing my best guesses instead of relying on measurements, I am allowing a deeper part of my mind to do the learning.
The measurements tell me what I had started to feel: The drawing needs to be taller and more narrow overall. If I had already drawn a lot of detail, this would have been a frustrating discovery. Instead, I know this is just a normal part of the process.
The most important thing I have learned about drawing is to remain flexible and open to changes. Keeping all the contours simple and erasable means I can continue to make a more accurate drawing deep into the process, without being too attached to rigid details.
When I have a better understanding of how each figure and part relates to one another, I can start to solidify the forms.
As I progress, my shapes are getting smaller, and my line-work is vibrating intensely. I often draw 2 or more strokes for one line, waiting to see how the drawing evolves as a whole before committing to specifics.
At this point I overlay a piece of translucent drafting film, and complete the drawing on the new surface. I often draw this way, because it is easier to transfer the line drawing from a translucent paper onto a high quality paper or a canvas, if I plan to use the drawing to create a finished work.
I plot a few of the basic measurements in a large grid, and start the drawing again, building on what I can see through the drafting film.
Drawing requires switching frequently and easily between a controlled , analytical way of thinking, and a free-flowing intuitive way of thinking. Both ways are equally vital to a successful drawing.
Since we already know how to measure and stare closely at details, most of my teaching is focused on practicing a more intuitive way of thinking. Breaking the larger shapes down into smaller shapes, the drawing begins to feels solid.
After a process of large adjustments gives way to smaller and smaller adjustments, the drawing starts to feel like it "snaps" into place. Finally I get to a stage where I can enjoy the details.
I may continue to refine the line drawing at this point, but I don't plan to make it a finished, shaded drawing. This block-in was "just for fun".
Learning to embrace the "messy middle" stage of a drawing, and accepting that dead ends, mistakes, and do-overs are a necessary and normal part of developing a drawing, leads to enormous leaps forward in one's drawing and painting ability.
My students start with blocking-in simple subjects like arrangements of fruit and the early "Bargue plates" (master drawings designed for students to copy) to learn the process, and as they gain confidence they move on to drawing more and more complex Bargue plates, still life objects, and plaster casts of historic sculptures.
If you would like to learn more about block-in and classical drawing, come join us for weekly critiques in my Online Atelier.
For this drawing I used Tombow Mono pencils, with hardnesses from H through 4H, and I worked on Strathmore 400 Drawing paper first and then a high-quality translucent drafting film that comes in individual sheets. I use a retractable pen-style eraser to shave down the thick lines to thin lines.
Casts come in a wide range of sizes and prices, but drawing from the Bargue Book is an excellent way to practice classical drawing of famous casts if you are not able to attain a cast of your own. Links to where to buy casts and the Bargue book are on my Books page, my Studio Setup page, and my Drawing Materials Lists.