Straight-Line Block-In is a Spiritual Mindfulness Practice and a Life Philosophy


When I first learned straight-line block-in drawing, in a workshop with Juliette Aristides in 2007, I felt like dark clouds had parted and a golden ladder had descended, leading to drawing abilities I never before thought I could attain. I felt like I had been given a tool like fire, handed down from the drawing gods.

Juliette gave us a lecture on the last day of that week, a brief history of art education, and how our legacy handed down from artist-teacher to artist-teacher could be traced back centuries to the dawn of the Renaissance, and how this legacy had been largely abandoned in the 20th century. I was deeply puzzled. This was a version of art history I had never learned before.

This drawing technique, which instantly expanded my mind and felt like lightening bolts from my fingertips, was one I had never heard of before.

Despite the fact that I’d been attending figure drawing classes at top institutions since I was 15. Despite the fact that I had focused my art history studies in art school on late 19th-century French artists, I knew nothing about what Juliette was teaching. I could tell you all about Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Degas, but I knew absolutely nothing of Meissonier, Bouguereau, Gerome, or even Sargent. I had been taught over and over, by many teachers, that a band of brave artistic “revolutionaries” had “saved” art from the stuffy restrictions of the Salon, and that the key to being an artist was relinquishing all influences and being true to your own unique vision to the exclusion of all else. The idea was that studying artists of the past too closely, or even studying anything from life too closely, would lead to emulation, copying, and copying would cripple you as an artist.

As for Block-In, while I’d been taught gesture drawing and blind-contour and massing-in and construction drawing and all manner of various exercises designed to get art students to “loosen up”, and although I had studied human anatomy, I had never once encountered anything like straight-line block-in. And yet, Juliette presented it as the most logical way to draw, and indeed I found myself that very first week creating the most proportional figure drawing I’d ever made.

Since that day, I threw myself into studying this lineage, and also studying why I had been blind to this lineage. Why had it been hidden from me? How had I not discovered it thus far? Why would such a powerful tool be kept from me?

Since then, Block-in has become essentially a spiritual, mindfulness practice for me. As I’ve taught it now to literally thousands of students, it’s given me a window to observe not just how humans draw, but how the human mind works. I’ve had to observe myself, observe my own mind functioning, to be able to demonstrate and explain it to my students. For 15 years now I’ve been passing along this fire, this lightening-bolt ability, and the act of teaching block-in has been as profound to my artistic development as learning to draw with it has been.

Block-in is a tightrope act. It’s using all the major functions of the mind all at once, or at least in very quick succession. And like walking on a tightrope, if your confidence or attention flickers, you fall.

But most importantly, block-in teaches you how to recover. Attention always falters, mistake are always made. Block-in offers a scaffolding and a path back to center.

Drawing is always iterative, for everyone. A series of trials and errors. Every error adds to our bed of knowledge, so we are able to make more and more accurate decisions and move forward.

But the act of drawing is also very fraught. Most people in our current culture feel very ashamed when they make mistakes, or when they look at their own drawing and they don’t like what they see. We think if we are talented we won’t make mistakes, and if we make a mistake it means we are not talented. This is a deadly philosophy that stifles learning. How can we learn to do anything if we can’t embrace mistakes as learning opportunities?

Learning to hold a drawing softly, learning to be flexible and accepting, while also holding ourselves to a high standard of precision, is a balancing act. Block-in teaches us how to receive information and sensations with open curiosity, and how to respond with flexibility and precision.

In this way, block-in is a life philosophy.

Drawings by Sadie Valeri

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This weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You’ll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums. Contact You can write me at: James Gurney PO […]
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