Getting to Know an Old Friend…the Pencil

The study of art is a never-ending challenge. There’s always something to learn, explore, improve, or build confidence in. This fall I’ve been working toward portraiture. I don’t feel as though I’m really there yet. It involves too many elements that I’m still trying to learn, not the least of which is pencil drawing.

You might think that should be easy, since most of us were experimenting with pencils before we ever started school. Even aside from getting the proportions of the subject correct, drawing demands knowledge of the materials and what they can do. Unfortunately, because I took pencils for granted, I had pretty much ignored the need to thoroughly familiarize myself with them. Drawing also requires lots of practice, but I haven’t taken enough time for that kind of practice in the past.

141021 Tibetan Youth 2

When challenged by a friend to use pencil to recreate an image he had shot while on a recent trip to Tibet, I dug out some 6B pencils (the softest and darkest of my stock), as well as a few slightly harder ones—4B and 2B, and began playing with them to figure out their capabilities and limitations.

I studied the planes of the face I was to copy, and considered what the unusually strong shadows might be concealing. The shapes of any features are always individual to the specific subject, and I knew that if I got the value shapes correct, the portrait would succeed. So my focus was on accuracy of value, shape, and proportion.

Then I unearthed some old black and white family photos to see how closely I could copy them in both line and value. The exercise was humbling and showed me how much work would be required to hone those basic skills.

It took several attempts—some more successful in representing their subjects than others—before I managed to come close to successfully drawing my friend’s challenging subject. I made the mistake of undertaking one study not on a smooth-surfaced paper but on cold-pressed watercolor paper, which has a noticeable texture that interferes with the continuous flow of a pencil line. As you can see in the image above, the paper’s texture made it difficult to achieve the edges and values I was striving for.

141021p Tibetan Youth 2

Rummaging around in my supply kit, though, I came across a tortillon–a rolled-paper smudging stick, which I applied vigorously. It served to fill in the white dips of the paper, to provide transitions from one value to another, and to allow me to make subtle value changes that I’d fought for unsuccessfully before. With a few corrections and refinements, the drawing, “Tibetan Youth 2″ (#141021, above), was finally completed.

Meanwhile, my study of portraiture has barely begun…

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