How the Death of my Dog Helped me Teach People to Draw Better


drawing-300x170Many times I will come across someone who loves to draw.  She is proud of her ideas and when I’m shown these drawings, I notice facial, figure and animal drawings that are out of proportion.  I don’t ever have to say anything because within seconds, I will hear “I know the nose is too long” or “the eyes are to far apart” and “the ears are too big”.  When I ask how they started their drawing, most of the time it’s from a photo or a magazine which is fine, because we all can’t draw from life.  When I ask how they worked out their outline sketch, this is where it gets interesting:

  • Traced the photo onto tracing paper, then used graphite paper and a stylus to transfer the outline to my drawing paper. Most times, new students will add that there was too much pressure with the stylus, that the paper was gouged and they couldn’t erase anything.
  • Another answer is using a graphic program to convert the photo to black and white, use a bunch of filters to get dark lines, print the revised photo and trace the photo using the same method above. Then when they are done tracing, noticing that important pieces are missing because the graphics program removed or modified the contours.
  • I like this one “I winged it”.

Embarrassment and Frustration Sets In

I can see the look on their face, hear it in their voice and see it in their emails that they are embarrassed and frustrated.  First…I’m thrilled that they are at the point of understanding there is a problem and they are being brave to figure out what it is.  I LOVE working with people that WANT to learn.  I can relate to this in a big way, because it happened to me a few years ago.

The Passing of a Beloved Pet

Harley---First-Day-HomeOur Harley passed away at the age of 14 from Cushings Disease.  What made it worse, was that we were told about 9 months before he passed away that we didn’t have much time left with him.

I had to create something to remember him by while he was still with us.  I wanted to draw a graphite portrait of Harley.  I’ve done many memorial pet portraits before, but they’ve always been in acrylics or oils.

I had never done a memorial pet portrait with graphite pencils.  My ego told me it would be a piece of cake.  First of all, anytime you create artwork based on something so close to you, “perfectionitis” always sets in.  It’s never a piece of cake and this experience was no exception.

I knew what I had to do to get started.  Worked on setting up my work area, stopped for a few tearful moments watching Harley sleeping in my studio, shook it off and sat down with my little 2” x 3” photo.  It was the photo taken the day we adopted Harley at the SPCA.  Proportions had to be perfect, but I wanted something larger than this tiny photo.  I’ve always used a grid method learned from the old masters, so I had to calculate the formula to take a 2×3 photo and upscale it to 8”x10”.  After many revisions and crumpled pieces of paper, I was so frustrated with the time I just wasted drawing silly grids when I could have been drawing.

My outline sketch was perfectly done.  I started to erase the grid lines, accidentally erasing part of my sketch, retouching, repeating, repeating and repeating.  When I was all done, I erased all the graphite and eraser particles with my drafting brush and my heart sank.  The grid lines were gouged into the paper!  I had pressed to hard with the stylus.  If I was painting the portrait, it would have been fine…the paint would cover it up.    But because I was going to use graphite pencils, those gouge lines were going to stand out in a big way.  So back to the drawing board and after two more attempts I was ready to draw.

Harley.jpgThe Portrait was Perfect

In the end, the graphite portrait was perfect and was able to complete it before Harley passed away.

This had to be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but the portrait is proudly displayed in our living room next to other pet portraits that are close to my heart.

Had to Create a Better System

I posted a photo of the portrait on my website and social media not so much for kudos, but as an inspiration for people who had lost a pet.  I was contacted by a lady for memorial portrait of her own pet.  I didn’t want to do commissions anymore, so I offered to teach her how to draw her own memorial pet portrait.  But there was no flipping way was I going to put her through what I went through.  I had some time before she had all the supplies she needed, so Joe and I got to work.  We had to come up with a better system so students could concentrate on drawing and not spend hours and hours on the prep work and may or may not work out in the end.  The people coming to me to learn how to draw don’t want to take 4 years of art school to freestyle everything, so this system had to be usable by all different skill levels.

Line-Less Grid System by Art Place StudiosIt took many, many revisions and tons of testing before we had ourselves a “Line-Less” grid system.

  • Students never had to draw a grid, which means there weren’t any lines to erase
  • The outline sketch was reusable – perfect for people making money off their creations
  • The master grid could be used to re-check proportions and measurements during the drawing stage when it came to fine details.
  • The grid system also worked perfectly for all other types of mediums, such as acrylics, oils, watercolours, pastels and even mixed media.
  • This system could be used for live subjects as well, not just photographs.


My Biggest Reward

Not having to see the frustration in the students face, hear it in their voice and see it in their emails was my biggest rewards for this entire experience.  Instead, students expressed the love that they don’t have to draw silly grids over and over again, they could create a reduced or enlarged drawing using one method.  They are so happy that they were able to spend less time on prep, have more time to draw and enjoy the process.   That was all I needed… for them to enjoy the process.

Click here to see a free video of the “Line-Less” Grid System in action.

Have you ever wanted to create a drawing or painting of a beloved family member?  please share in the comments below.