Making an Accurate Sketch

A Study of an Oak Tree, c. 1638, by Claude Lorrain. Black chalk, pen and brown ink with gray-brown wash on white paper, 13 by 8 7/8 inches. The British Museum, London

In the old days, when cameras were awkward and film development was expensive, young people wanted to learn to draw. Now they have their smartphone cameras, so that they don’t need to observe their surroundings and friends very closely, or remember what they just looked at that was so fascinating. It’s all safely put away, stored in bits and bytes. But we who had no cameras ready to hand tried to learn to draw.

The first thing a serious grown-up draughtsman has to learn to do is to distinguish between the object he is looking at and the stereotypical object in his mind. Children draw stick figures. These are understood to represent people, but visually they bear no relation to the play of light and shadow on a human form. You can get books that tell you how to draw horses, how to draw hands. If you study them carefully you will be able to draw a horse or a hand the way the person who wrote the book saw it.

In grade school I had an art teacher who taught us how to paint trees. first you make a dark-brown trunk and branches, then you stipple leaves all over the branches in three colors of green. Voila, your tree. But the fact is that trees are really hard. There are no short cuts to drawing a tree. You have to study the thing, its habit of growth, the time of year, the time of day, how the light hits it.

So it is with fiction. You write a scene. Are these actual people as you have observed them, or stick figures? Are they drawn from life, or are they borrowed from somebody else’s work, however successful? Are they interacting in a way that you recognize as human, or did you read a book on how to write that told you you have to have conflict all the time?

This is something to think about, if you are a young writer just starting out. I’ve been around the block a couple of times and I’m still working on it.