Drawing – Knowing Your Subject

"Holleigh & Hannah" © Janice Tanton 2018. Pencil on 140 lb Arches, hot press. 30"x22. Grey horse with rider jumping over a fence
"Holleigh & Hannah" © Janice Tanton 2018. Pencil on 140 lb Arches, hot press. 30"x22.

"Knowing your subject makes all the difference to the final drawing." - Janice Tanton

It seems quite obvious that you need to know and understand your subject in order to capture a likeness and spirit, but what do we really mean by “know”?

  • Do we mean personally knowing the actual person?
  • Do we mean knowing the narrative around what it is that we are drawing? 
  • Do we know the back story?
  • Do we know the technical aspects of the subject – anatomy, equipment….mechanics?

I would argue that as artists, we need to know all of these. We must have a curiosity in order to capture the essence of the subject, and perhaps the details also in order to assist in the narrative of the work to the viewer.However, the most interesting works of art have a sense of mystery that you, as the artist, should not or perhaps even cannot imbue into the work. Something is withheld. Something is unsaid. It leaves us to think about the artwork and create that narrative from our own experience, and to ignite continued curiosity for the viewer of visual art. No matter how detailed or technical the work, there is always something that can sit within the drawing to ask us…just what is going on here?

All hail the human spirit, and happy drawing. Stay tuned – I have a series of six finished drawings coming up over the next two months that certainly will have some mystery about them.


What is the most mysterious painting or drawing that you have ever encountered?

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