Drawing Sculptural Metal Ideas: Sketch Your Way to Better Jewelry Designs

Do your jewelry-making ideas fly through your mind faster than you can make them a reality? Do you struggle with getting your ideas from your mind to paper? Do you wish you could draw better? The ability to draw isn't necessary for creating beautiful jewelry–but it sure is helpful to be able to keep all of your jewelry-making ideas in a sketch book. Being able to work out a design on paper instead of in expensive metal is also a worthy ability.

Here's an excerpt about how a metal sculptor uses sketches to work out his designs–a practice that you can apply to your own jewelry designs.


The artist checks an unfinished sculpture against the wing shapes originally drawn in his sketchbook. The dense conglomeration of tools and carvings in the surrounding studio gives some indication of the intensity of Beck's artistic practice.

From Sketchbook to Sculpture, A World In Motion
By John A. Parks
From Drawing magazine, Winter 2014

David Beck makes sculpture that combines intriguing mechanisms, fine carving, a taste for exotic materials, and an extraordinary imagination. In one recent piece, a fancifully carved bird is perched atop a metal stem. It becomes animated when you turn a handle beneath, flapping its wings and turning its head. In his most elaborate piece to date, the cast and audience of an entire opera house are set in motion by motors, cogs, and pulleys built beneath the floor of a table-size sculpture. It is a work that took almost six years to complete. 

In some ways Beck's sculpture harks back to the fanciful clockwork productions of 18th-century craftsmen and to the Victorian interest in collecting and displaying natural curiosities. It also reveals a thoroughly contemporary sensibility informed by a deep knowledge of modern art, a wide-ranging interest in popular media, and a wit that embraces the ironic and the absurd.

Central to Beck's production is his sketchbook. "I use it all the time," he says. "Most of my ideas first appear as sketches. If I'm making a three-dimensional object I will draw it out in the sketchbook and then figure out its details right on the page." To create a sculpture of a dragonfly, for instance, Beck worked out in his sketchbook how many segments to make in the body, the exact shape and formation of the wings, and various other details. "When the sculpture is small like this one, I trace my drawing and then transfer it directly onto the piece of wood I'm going to carve," he says. He explains that he will often go back to his sketchbook in the middle of working on a sculpture and use its pages to sort out ideas and clarify details of things he is about to undertake in the work.


Designs for a dragonfly. On the right of the page Beck makes decisions about the number of sections that will make up the tail.

Although he has tried a number of brands of sketchbooks over the years, Beck has settled on a product of the Mirage Paper Company, a 6"-x-6" format with pages made of 80-lb cover stock. "It's a pretty hard surface and takes pencil very well," says Beck, "and it's heavy enough that it doesn't wrinkle up when I use watercolor." The artist usually works with a mechanical pencil that he keeps sharp with a little strip of sandpaper attached to a block of wood. Occasionally he will paint a page with white gouache and then work on top of it in silverpoint. At times he also employs watercolor and full-color gouache. "Sometimes I'll be doing a drawing and I just start to elaborate it," says Beck, "that's when I start in adding color, and the page becomes an end in itself."

Beck's sketchbook pages reveal an approach that can be both precise and highly inventive. The crisply drawn line allows close description of forms, real and imagined, while the mechanic's side of his artistic persona can be seen as he lays out ideas for animating sections of his sculptures. At other times the imagery veers into stranger territory as various animals appear in curiously mutated and often hilarious guises. A group of elephants forage happily in a forest dominated by elephantine trees. Fanciful lobsters and spiders are crammed onto a page along with careful drawings for decorative cabinetry. The cumulative effect is rich and engaging as page after page offers a diversity of delights and diversions. It is the sort of thing that might easily beguile the eye of a collector.


"I have occasionally sold pages, but I really don't like to take a page out of a book," the artist says. "It just feels wrong." For Beck, as for many other artists, the sketchbooks act as an artistic diary, a record of a long creative journey that it hurts to dismantle. "In the early years I would never show my sketchbooks to anybody," he recalls. "I'd even hide them away when people came to the studio. Then I began to feel more proud of some of the pages and began sharing them with visitors." Beck says he has sometimes considered exhibiting his sketchbooks but that the right occasion hasn't yet come about. Besides, exhibiting the ring-bound pages without dismantling the book presents obvious problems. "The only other time I have torn out pages is when I use the paper to cut up patterns that I've drawn in order to use them as templates for a sculpture," he says. "But even that makes me feel a bit guilty."

Like most artists, Beck finds himself occasionally using a sketchbook page to jot down a phone number or a note concerning his daily life. "I'll find I have a doctor's appointment written down in the middle of a page of frogs," he says. Usually he goes back and erases these additions. Another quirk that Beck shares with many artists is an unwillingness to do any drawing on the opening page of a new sketchbook. "I really don't know why," he says. "Maybe I feel that the first drawing will be protected if it starts on the second page. Maybe it just feels too exposed."


Finchcanique. 2012, oil pigments on boxwood, cherry, amber, and leather, with brass mechanism, 9 x 4 x 3-1/2. Private collection.

Certainly there is a very private quality to these sketchbooks, a sense that they present an unusually transparent window into a highly fertile, indefatigable, creative intelligence. Looking through them is an opportunity to watch ideas appear, grow, mutate, and reappear in different guises, sometimes over many years. They also allow us to see the artist's increasing fluency and command with line and color as his interests shift, range, and return to circle around central, recurring themes. We can never fully know what goes on in the artist's head to allow him to come up with such a range of curious and provocative ideas, but looking through his sketchbooks gets us very close indeed. —JAP

See the difference in your own jewelry designs when you let them blossom and grow in a sketchbook, working out the kinks and intricate details before you ever pick up a tool. Subscribe to Drawing magazine and enjoy the improvement in your jewelry designs.

About the Artist: David Beck grew up in Indiana and studied at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and exhibited there for many years with Allan Stone Gallery. His work has been shown at the Guggenheim Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York, and two of his sculptures are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, DC. He currently makes his home in San Francisco, where he is represented by Hackett-Mill Gallery. For more information, visit www.davidbeckartworks.com.



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