Exercise 6: Boxes and books

Choose at least 6 boxes & books of different sizes.  Places objects close together, at angles. Using just line, describe the rectangular surfaces. Draw as if you can see through the boxes.

How hard can it be to draw half a dozen books and boxes?  Very, as it turns out.  I had imagined (naively, with hindsight) that basic shapes would be easier to draw… but no.  Maybe because we’re so used to reading these shapes, it screams at us when they’re wrong?  Also, as a friend pointed out to me, there’s no opportunity for compromise or masking in this exercise.  There isn’t even any tone.  No shadows to give us extra information.  Just line.

Before I began, I read a section in Experimental Drawing (Kaupelis, 1980) on organisation and structure – Making Things “Work Together” (p.39), in the hope that it might give me some clues on how to set up an interesting arrangement.  I noted five elements to consider that seemed pertinent to this exercise:

  • proximity (p.39), which ’causes forms or elements to relate to one another as a result of their location. Generally, the closer forms are to each other, the greater the tension or pull between them’.
  • similarity (p.41) ‘Similarity factors most often involve line, shape, tone, weight, texture, color, size, direction, and associational, symbolic or spatial relationships’.
  • closure (p.41), which ‘makes it possible to “read” a given form in its totality, even though only a portion of it is actually indicated’.
  • direction/movement (p.41) Describing these as ‘integrally related’, Kaupelis explains that they ‘lead the eye into and around the entire drawing’.
  • equivocation (p.41) ‘an ambiguous dimension or element that may be “read” in more than one way and serves the artist primarily as a means of relating figure and ground (positive and negative space) within a given work’.

I set up an arrangement that felt reasonably cohesive (see below).

Boxes and books arrangement

Realising that I would probably be doing this exercise over two days, I put tape around the legs of the chair I was going to sit in, so that I could put it back in the same position the following day.

Taped chair legs to mark placement

The first drawing, in graphite, took me about 40 minutes.  Despite the fact that it looks very simple, I kept erasing lines and reinstating them slightly differently.  I soon realised that I’d completely misjudged the proportions, thus cutting off the bottom edge of the composition (see below).

Boxes and books 1

Also, the bottom book was far too narrow and not really long enough.  I think I shortened it, unintentionally, when I saw that the bottom was going to be chopped off anyway.  Once I’d finished it, I could see that I’d drawn the entire composition as much taller and narrower than it was in reality (in reality, it was very nearly square).

Boxes and books 2

The following day, I decided to begin by roughly sketching the shapes as solid blocks of colour, to see if it might help me understand them better.  It didn’t.  I chose felt tips for this, and the blue pen I used to depict the shape of the wooden box just disappeared into the green of the book below it.  Yet again, I cut the bottom off the composition.  In the second felt tip drawing, I drew just the outlines again, each shape outlined in a different colour.  It still didn’t make it any easier to understand though.  I found it impossible to get the books and boxes to sit flat enough – they always seemed to be tipping towards me on the page.  Even though I’d started by looking at the negative space this time, by the time I got to the internal lines, I was confused.  In addition to this, I’d completely messed up the bottom book again – worse this time as, not only was it too short, but it was also far too thick.

Boxes and books 3

In my final attempt, for which I went back to graphite, I spent more time looking before I drew.  Consequently, the drawing took me about 50 minutes in total.  On the positive side, I thought the bottom book was possibly the closest I’d come to capturing the real thing.  Again, though, all the objects have a ‘tipping forward’ feel about them.  And although I couldn’t see the top right hand corner of the wooden box in reality, in the drawing, it looks strange that it isn’t there, which confirms that my angles were off.  Also, once again, I’d chopped a bit off the overall arrangement, but this time it was the top of the cereal box.

In the last drawing, I discovered that it’s easier to get reasonably straight lines by holding the pencil at the ‘wrong’ end, clasping the middle between my fingers and thumb, and ‘pushing’ it along the paper.  Holding it in the usual way (as I would in order to write) simply resulted in wobbly line after wobbly line. As I was doing this drawing, I remembered reading some advice a while ago (can’t remember where) to put in as many lines as possible, because the right one was bound to be in there somewhere.  The trick then was to spot the ‘right’ ones!  Easier said than done.  As for making the objects ‘see-through’ – I couldn’t fathom that at all, despite my best efforts.  When I tried it, I got hopelessly confused and lost my way altogether.  It did help a little, though, when I put in some lines to suggest the table on which the items were sitting.

All my drawings looked as though I drew them standing over the arrangement of objects, when in fact I was sitting in front of them, looking down on them only slightly. Despite trying my best, I was unable to change this, which was hugely frustrating.  Similarly, I can see areas which aren’t ‘right’, and yet I can’t see how to improve them without creating even bigger problems elsewhere.  This might have turned out differently had I employed the rules of perspective – I considered finding out more about this but, as it hasn’t been mentioned in the course book so far, I decided to treat it as an exercise in pure observation.

It was tempting to keep on going, but I felt that I could spend days at this, and really wanted to get on with successive exercises.  I’m sure that similar challenges will come up again, many times over.

Looking ahead, I think it might be useful, either in the next exercise, or in revisiting this one,  to try drawing just the external outline.  Or to work in a looser way, aiming less for precision, using loose, broad lines, working over them until it looks right.  Might try this in biro, to deter me from rubbing out the lines I don’t like the look of.


Kaupelis, R. (1980) Experimental Drawing, USA, Watson-Guptill.