The Virtues Of Sketching With A Pencil

People who follow my blog know that I’m a pen guy.  I used fountain pens long before I started trying to draw so it just seemed natural that I should use one as my drawing tool.  In fact, I was told that this was THE way to learn to draw by those who hung out in sketching groups.  Working with pen, it was said, would make me see better, make better decisions, improve my hand-eye coordination, and a whole slew of other great benefits.

Five years later I’m still using a fountain pen as my principal drawing tool.  More importantly, I can better assess all those well-meaning people who were advocating the use of ink to learn to draw.  And you know what?  I don’t think they were talking about ink at all.  They were talking about erasers.  They were talking about being sure about where you wanted to put a line before you put it.  They were talking about not spending a lot of time erasing and replacing lines.  When they said ink would improve my ability to see, they were really saying “If you know you can’t erase, you’ll pay more attention before you make a line.”

I suppose, they were right, BUT that is not the whole story.  There is room for pencil in the drawing process, even if you ultimately use fountain pens as your primary drawing tool.  For instance, I use a pencil when I start most drawings.  I use it to generate layout lines, to evaluation locations, major angles, and object sizes BEFORE I start thinking about drawing actual objects.  This is a step that pro artists may do in their heads but they are nevertheless doing it.  Less skilled folks, like me, need the pencil lines to evaluate those relationships and correct those they got wrong BEFORE they actually start drawing the outlines of the objects they’re trying to capture.  Most beginners skip this step completely.  I might talk about this at a later date but today I want to talk about a more fundamental reason to use a pencil to actually draw.

Using ink causes people to concentrate mostly on outline.  Whether it is buildings or people, basic lessons of contour drawing are very evident and, for the most part, that’s where the process of drawing ends for most people.  They may follow up with watercolor or maybe even hatching but these are done as after-the-fact processes once the contours are all drawn.

But if you draw with a pencil you start thinking more about form and less about outline.  Folds in clothes become areas of tone rather than a single line.  Curves become gradients of tone, or they should as the surfaces change their angles with respect to the light.  If you’ve ever tried to turn a circle into a sphere with a fountain pen you know how difficult this is, but with a pencil it’s a quite natural thing to do.

Because of this, drawing with a pencil will teach you more about seeing and creating tonal variation than will using a fountain pen.  You’ll concentrate more on 3-dimensional form rather than outline.  In short, you’ll start seeing in a different way and in doing so, even your fountain pen drawing will improve.

Because of this, I try to draw something in pencil every once in a while.  I always find it a struggle because I’m a left-handed sketcher who drags his hand across the drawing as I draw.  The smudging that results is not pretty.  The fact that I don’t do it as much as I should also limits what I can achieve, but each time I get a little bit better and I see just a bit better.  I also gain a keen appreciation for the pencil as a sketching tool.

Here’s a drawing I did of a statue in our museum.  I did it with a 0.5mm mechanical pencil which is a convenient tool, but probably not optimal for doing pencil drawings.  Please excuse my smudging; I’m just a lowly pen driver afterall.  Do you ever draw in pencil?

Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone?

Oh how I hate that phrase.  It’s used in various ways to suggest something, but I never know exactly what, at least when it’s directed towards me or my sketches.

But maybe it’s a soft way of talking about something very basic to learning art.  I’ve noticed that amateur artists in particular don’t progress because they conflate learning with simple doing.  We believe we will improve by going out with our sketching group once a week, doing sketches just as we’ve done every other week.

Sure, you’ll improve, slowly, by this approach.  The problem is that when you go out with your sketching group, you want to produce something that you can proudly display when everyone says “what did you draw?”  Because of this, you sketch in the way you know.  There is no experimentation.  You choose subjects that are similar to ones you’ve drawn in the past.  So, you get better and better at what you know, avoiding anything that you don’t know.

I’ve always thought about my drawing as a two-part thing.  One part is the execution/performance part.  I use what I know to produce the best sketch I know how to make.  I do learn a bit from this process but mostly it’s about producing sketches that day.

It’s the second part, the learning part, that improves all of my sketching and I feel that progress has come more quickly than would be the case if I’d simply concentrated one that first part.  This learning part burns through paper a lot faster than the first part of my sketching life.  In this time I’ll create pages full of elllipses and hatching of all kinds.  It’s really fun to just draw a random amoeba-like shape and then contour it with hatching.  I’ll also draw lines between dots drawn in advance.  I’ll try to draw over a single line repeatedly trying to do so without widening the line.

I’ll draw parts of other people’s sketches, trying to get a feel for how they’ve made the lines they’ve drawn.  I’ll quickly sketch stuff, mostly from commercials on TV.  I’ll draw lines and divide them into thirds, fourths and fifths, followed up by measuring how good I was at it and correcting the errors.    I’ve filled a bunch of cheap sketchbooks with this stuff and it’s rare that any of it sees the light of day, but it’s the most important “art” I produce.  Now that I’m thinking about it, I should post some of those pages so you can see how disjointed, loose, and how little thought is given to producing “art” of any kind.  It’s all about training my visual cortex to gather the right information and disseminate it onto the page. Hmm.. maybe I’ll do that.

Anyway, while I’m very much in love with making lines with fountain pens, I also draw with ballpoint pens, brush pens, and watercolor pencils.  Sometimes I’ll draw in pencil.  Most of this is done while I watch movies or TV shows but sometimes I’ll just sit down and draw with the notion of improving on things I don’t feel I know.  This gives me a lot of things to choose from and on this day I decided that drawing with pencil was the order of the day.  Sadly, I didn’t think well enough and just started drawing on a piece of Fabriano Artistico CP paper, which is not an ideal paper for pencil.  There are numerous errors here but I learned a lot in the process and am now motivated to do it again but on a more suitable paper.

Drawn with a 0.5 mechanical pencil

I Don’t Do Portraits

Oops…I guess I do.

One thing the art world has taught me is that I don’t have the “people are interesting to look at” gene.  While everyone else attends life drawing classes and draws portrait after portrait, I prefer to draw fire hydrants, buildings and telephone poles.  I don’t know why but if I were to rank sketching subjects, people would be at the bottom of my list.

BUT, sketching a person walking by a fire hydrant, that’s an interesting idea and so I spend a fair amount of time doing quick, loose sketches of people.

Yet another BUT is that I’ve come to realize that being able to draw a likeness can get you into places.  My buddy, Yvan, is always drawing people and because of it people in groups immediately understand him and what he does.  It’s harder to comprehend a fire hydrant sketcher.

Canson Mi-Teintes (5x7) using a Col-Erase pencil. Very hard to get darks

Also, to me, there are several “core” skills that make up drawing.  These are 1) the ability to measure/estimate angles and proportions, 2) achieve accuracy of line and form, and 3) mastery over whatever materials you’re using.  I’ve spent the last 3 1/2 years, starting out trying to draw cubes, with a rather myopic “gotta learn those things” approach.  I’m getting so that my ability to assess angles and proportions is becoming a feature, not a liability in my sketching, and I’m ok with pushing my fountain pen around (watercolor is another matter).

Canson Mi-Teintes (5x7), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black - This is tough with pen but I barely know which end of a pencil to put to paper.

Canson Mi-Teintes (5×7), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black – This is tough with pen but I barely know which end of a pencil to put to paper.

It seems, however, that fire hydrant drawing can only take you so far when trying to learn form and accuracy and so I’ve spent a lot of time in museums, drawing all sorts of stuff that I would never “choose” to draw, all in the name of improving my accuracy, ability to see half-tones, and the rest.  I figure I only have another 40-50 years of doing it and I’ll have it figured out.  By the age of 115, I might be able to call myself “artist.”

All of that is to say that I’m even drawing portraits… kinda.  I head to a local park every Thursday night, where a small group sits on the porch of a small chapel and we sketch one another, during 20-minute poses.  I’ve never mentioned it before because… well, I’m pretty bad at it.  I thought, however, I would share a couple of the sketches I’ve done recently, just to change things up here just a bit.  It’s ok to laugh.

Canson Mi-Teintes (5x7), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black - I'm really lost when it comes to hatching really light shades that are the form of the face.

Canson Mi-Teintes (5×7), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black – I’m really lost when it comes to hatching really light shades that are the form of the face.

Alfred Pellan: Quebec Artist

Alfred Pellan is well-known to the Quebec art crowd as a guy who produced surreal imagery, kinda-sorta Picasso-like (I’ll probably be stoned for saying so).  Born in Quebec City, he became closely associated with École des Beaux-Arts de Québec.  Like many Quebec artists, he also studied at  École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  He died in 1988.

There’s a bust in honor of him in the Jardin de St. Roch and I drew it.  I struggle with pencil shading.  I’m sure this is in no small part because I do it so rarely but to make matters worse I decided to try to do it with red pencil.  My buddy Yvan does it so smoothly so I know it’s not the tool, but the guy I see in the mirror every morning that is at fault.

Nevertheless, here is my attempt.  It was drawn on 8 1/2 x 11 Strathmore Bristol (vellum) using a 2mm lead holder and Turquoise red lead.  There was also a couple hours involved.

2015-07-16AlfredPellan

 

We Continue The Statue Quest

We gathered at Quebec’s Place d’Armes to sketch the large fountain, or at least the statue that stands atop it.  For some reason I just wasn’t in the mood.  I’m not sure if it had to do with the subject or my new obsession of sketching in these small, mustache notebooks and their toned paper.

In either case, I decided to continue experimentation with that book, trying different approaches.  I turned my attention to one of the buildings.  I had luck adding a bit of color previously so I thought I’d see if I could use my waterbrush with dilute ink in it.  It worked better than I thought and I’ll use this technique again.  No ghosting or bleedthrough on the back side.

2015-06-04PlaceDArmes01

 

2015-06-04PlaceDArmes02At this point the sun left us and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  I’ve been amazed at how much being cold has a similar effect on my desire to sketch.  What happens is that my attention span goes to near zero so I cope by doing a lot of really quick-sketches, just trying to grab proportions of the people walking around.  I won’t bore you with a bunch of scribbles but here’s an example of people walking across a street.

2015-06-04PlaceDArmes03I’ll include this one too as it’s an example of what happens when you decide to draw a guy standing, while talking to a couple people sitting on a bench. I was a minute into this sketch when the people stood up and the three of them walked away (grin).  It was time to turn the page and I did.

Once the statue sketchers had finished, it was decided that we’d head to another location to sketch the bust of another guy.  At least the sun had returned.

2015-06-04Dauteui01lI still wasn’t excited about sculpture sketching and I continued to work in tiny format.  It was an opportunity to try red lead in a Pentel Kerry 0.5mm pencil.  I did the sculpture sketch quicker than I should have and I generated a head that was too tall, but it gave me time to do a second sketch of a hotel entry on the other side of the street.  It was fun and, once again we had a great time.

2015-06-04Dauteui02l