Monday, March 31, 2008

Dandelion Delight

mule deer drawingLast summer, a pair of mule deer came into my back yard. I happened to be right by the patio door and grabbed my camera. I got a lot of great shots, many closeups, but they were all through the glass or screen. They didn't work for photographic pictures, but they are great for reference. I combined a couple to get my drawing here. I used charcoal for the background, eyes, nose, and inside of the mouth, and graphite for everything else. And surprisingly, it only took me 7 hours.

Prints are available.

Next up is a sea turtle. Should be interesting, I've never drawn a reptile before. Vote in the poll for what comes after that!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Drawing Tip #8: Graphite vs. Charcoal

So often graphite and charcoal go hand-in-hand. Done correctly, they complement each other. Done poorly, however, and an otherwise good drawing just won't look right. What are the differences, and how should you use each?

First take graphite. The traditional pencil, so easily obtained, yet often underrated. Graphite ranges from very hard and very light (9H) to very soft and very dark (9B). With this range of values you can produce great depth in your drawings. You can get very dark with a pencil, but it's not the same blackness as charcoal, and here's why: graphite is shiney. This makes it very good for some applications and very bad for others. For example, I like to do rocks and leaves in graphite. The whites or light irises of an eye are also good candidates for graphite.

Charcoal, on the other hand, is black and soft. You won't find the range hardnesses that graphite has, but you don't need it. Charcoal can give very dark black, or added to the paper with a stump or tortillon to give very light grays (see my Polarity drawing). Since it is so soft and blends so easily, it is the better tool for drawing fur, especially soft or fluffy fur like that of cats and koalas. I tried using a combination of charcoal and graphite for my latest tiger, and it just didn't come out right. I think if I had done it all in charcoal it would have come out better. But I was experimenting. On the other hand, I used graphite for my deer (almost finished), and I think it worked. Deer fur (hair?) is much coarser. I also prefer charcoal for backgrounds, especially even-toned areas. In fact, Hillberry says charcoal is best for background and graphite for foreground because of the difference in the way they reflect light.

While these are some good guidelines for which to use when, it ultimately comes down to your ability and comfort. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Drawing Tip #7: Sleep on It

I think I mentioned in a previous post that I used to think that a drawing that couldn't be done in one sitting wasn't worth doing. I also feared that my technique would be noticably different from one sitting to the next. Now my drawings take several days, not only because they take 12 hours or more, but also because a stay-at-home mother of a one-year-old can only have so much time to herself. I can see now how wrong I was.

First off, once you have a style or technique, it doesn't change much from day to day. At worst, my mood affects how hard I press the pencil and how fast I go, but it's really not noticeable in different areas of a drawing. And if I feel particularly out of sorts, the best thing is not to draw at all.

But the biggest thing I noticed is how much a little time away can help. It's more than just stepping back and looking at the drawing from a different angle. With detailed drawings, I get so intense that I sometimes don't see the "big picture." By putting it away for the night, I notice little things that could be changed when I return. This area could be darker, that needs to look fluffier, this line isn't right, whatever. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to notice certain things. So take a step back, put it out of your mind for a while, and sleep on it. When you return, you'll see things you didn't while you were working.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


bengal tiger drawingThis drawing was so much fun to work on. This guy is a bengal tiger from the Albuquerque Zoo. I took several photographs of him as he paced in front of the crowd. In the photo, his body is actually to the left, but I thought it would look a little better with it to the right and the black background to the left. It really brings out those whiskers and his chin. As with my other charcoal/graphite drawings, this is 14x17 vellum, and he took about 12 hours total. Prints are available.

What's next? I'm not sure. I'm debating a few subjects, but I'm going to focus on getting my last few scanned and framed, and then I'm going to enter two art contests next week with them. Wish me luck!

Drawing Tip #6: Fingerprints

When I started reading about making good drawings, one thing that was repeated was not to touch the paper. Yeah, right, I said. If I wash my hands before I sit down to draw (or even if I don't), I can't have enough oil on my fingers to alter a drawing. I live in the high desert, my hands are dry. I can understand not using your fingers to blend, but just holding the paper can't do much. Well, I'm here to say that a little handling of paper can do a lot of damage, especially if you're trying to get the area a nice even, solid shade. See what happened to the edge of my one of my drawings. So let me tell you first-hand, try not to touch the surface of the paper with your bare hands.

Book Review: Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil, J.D. Hillberry

This is the book that got me set on my current path. Hillberry starts off by explaining the basics - what kinds of pencils there are, what kinds of blending tools to use, and what kinds of paper to choose from. He talks a little about light and shadow, and gives a few simple demonstrations. Then he delves right in to the good stuff: how to make your drawings look real (you have to know how to draw - he just shows you how to create textures). He does several examples of different textures: wood, leather, metal (shiney and rusted), paper, skin, and more. Then he presents two full drawings and shows step by step how he did them. One is a still life of drawing equipment (the image on the cover), and the other is a cat.

So given the summary, what do I think of the book? Even though most of my drawings are animals and most of his aren't, I still got enough valuable information from this book basically to do what I am doing. Before I read this book, my pencil drawings were mere sketches and I had never really used charcoal (it's messy). Now, I love charcoal (I use charcoal pencils) and my drawings have more depth and life than ever. And it is almost all because of this one book (the other reason is a change of attitude, described in a previous post). It is the only pencil drawing book I own.

Take some time to see Hillberry's website for lots more stuff, including his gallery, workshops and forums. You can even get an autographed copy of the book there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

WIP - Bengal Tiger

As I mentioned previously, my new project is a bengal tiger. I am working directly from one of my own photographs, and am just over five hours into it. In order to capture the differences in color of the fur, I am using a combination of charcoal and graphite - charcoal for the black stripes and graphite for the gold and white areas. As I am fairly new to this style of drawing, I am experimenting a little. The bridge of the nose has several layers because I keep thinking it's not dark enough. I may make it darker still, I don't know. At any rate, I like how it's coming along. I'll post an update in a few days when the head is done.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Photorealism?

My new goal in my artwork is to produce drawings that are photorealistic. Sometimes I have heard the question, why bother? I have seen paintings and digital art that could easily have been an actual photograph. So aside from being able to say, "yes, I did that," what is the purpose of it?

snow leopard

I can't speak for everyone, but to me, photorealistic drawing (or painting or whatever medium) is a chance to improve upon a photograph, especially the background. Animals are particularly difficult to photograph, so getting one in a good pose from a good angle doesn't mean you'll get a decent background. For example, I loved the photograph I took of the snow leopard. But it had an ugly cement wall in the background and a chain-link fence in the foreground. I think I made a good change when I just made the background black. Also, for my koala, I changed the species of tree to look more like an Australian eucalyptus tree (not sure what he was actually sitting in). Again, it was a boring zoo background that I modified to appear outside high in a tree.

Then, of course, you can create expressions and situations that look real but would be extremely difficult or impossible to photograph - something I hope I will be able to do given enough practice. Or, better yet, what about extinct species? How could one draw a mammoth from a photograph? Photorealism has its advantages, and more than just being able to say, "I did that."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Drawing Tip #5: Using Reference Photos

There are two ways of working from photos. One way is to work directly from your own photographs. Since they are yours, you can copy them exactly if you want. However, I don't know about you, but I don't have access to most of the animals I want to draw, and I don't feel like sitting for an hour at the zoo hoping the lion will wake up and turn around (for example). In these situations, you can use others' photographs as reference.

I must say something very important here: You cannot copy others' photographs. Everything on the internet is copyright protected. Everything. Unless it specifically says otherwise. Many people think that anything you find on Google image searches are free-use images, but this is not the case. You can use those images to study proportion, flow of fur, expressions, shadows and highlights, color, or any number of things. But ultimately, the drawing must be your own composition.

When selecting reference photos, I look for a few things. I usually have an idea in mind first, then go looking for images that will help. Two or three for the general pose, a few for markings, and perhaps a few detail shots for mouths or paws. They are meant to aid you in your drawing, not to provide an interesting piece for you to copy.

Friday, March 14, 2008


black and white wolves
This pair of wolves is representative of the yin yang in nature. Opposites, but not extremes. The black wolf has white, the white wolf has black. White is often associated with male and black with female, so I made the white wolf bigger and more masculine.

I used only charcoal here. I started doing the white wolf by applying the charcoal with a stump, but it didn't progress as I had hoped. Eventually, I gave up and used the 2B charcoal very lightly and blended with a stump. The black wolf has several layers of 6B blended and kneaded to create highlights. The background is two layers of light 6B blended with a tissue. The original drawing is 14"x17", but I cropped it a little to make it shorter. Prints are available.

Ultimately, this drawing didn't come out exactly as I had planned. I had great ideas of it being photorealistic and incredibly detailed. It started out well, but I hit a point where I felt compelled to rush. After a few hours of careful sketching, getting the eyes and noses just right, and starting the base coat of the black wolf, I kind of threw it away, so to speak. I'm not disappointed with how it came out, I am disappointed with how different it is from my expectations. Art really is effected by your state of mind. I should take my own advice about patience...

I think it also had a lot to do with the fact that I was not working directly from a photograph. I had several reference photos for positions, colors and shadows, but since none of them were mine, I couldn't copy them. I've decided I'm going to keep practicing with a few more of my own photos, then see how I do with an original composition.

So with that in mind, my next drawing will be a bengal tiger.

Drawing Tip #4: The Sketch

The sketch is the foudation of your drawing. A bad sketch will lead to a poor finished product. Aside from accuracy, there are a few things to keep in mind when making a sketch:
  • Use very light pressure. Any indentations on the paper will show up as white marks if you put any charcoal or graphite over them (this is why, of course, the indentation technique works when making whiskers or white hairs).
  • Use the fewest lines that you need. Outline the big shapes, color changes, shadow areas, and highlights. You don't need to locate every clump of fur. Also have only one line for each purpose. Don't scribble and don't make several passes. Your lines should be efficient and accurate.
  • Use scratch paper to work out the proportions first, if needed. You can be messy on this one, and then transfer only what you need to the good paper.
I will comment about setting up a sketch with reference photos in a future post.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Drawing Tip #3: Draw What You See

My Dad always told me, "draw what you see." Such a simple rule, but so complex in practice. I know, for example, what a hand looks like. However, I may not know what a foreshortened hand in a particular position looks like. Our brains try to insert what we think should be there. Don't let it. Don't think of it as a hand; instead of drawing a hand, draw the shapes that make up the hand. Value drawing is a good way of doing this. You draw contours of varying shades instead of objects. Look at the shapes the shadows make. And draw what you see.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Afternoon Nap

koala drawingKoala is finished. The drawing actually took about the same amount of time as the snow leopard, but here I spent the majority of the time on those leaves. The koala is charcoal, everything else is graphite. I might have had this online a few days ago, but I just couldn't get a good scan. The upper left branch was just too light and washed out. So ultimately, I photographed it.

I have set up prints, and I plan on getting the original framed as soon as my snow leopard is finished being framed.

As for my next project, I'm going to wait until the poll closes, but it's looking like the pair of wolves. I've been going over this drawing in my head for weeks, and I'm very excited about it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Drawing Tip #2: Don't Be Afraid of Black

Someone once told me, with respect to ink drawings, that you should not be afraid of large areas of black. I think the same holds true for pencil, and even color for that matter. Very dark tones add a lot to a drawing, and it's important to use the full value range to achieve a realistic effect. When I was younger, I did almost all of my drawing in pencil, and usually an HB exclusively. While I was technically good (proportions and all that), I never could get the depth of realism without dark shadows. As I experiment and learn, I have noticed that it's those really dark areas that make the drawing more realistic. The key is not to be afraid of them.

I used a lot of black in the snow leopard drawing. Not just in the background, but also on the cat itself. Dark shadows also helped lift the fur of the koala and give depth to the leaves. Observe the change in values of different objects under various lighting. You may notice that the shadow side is a lot darker than you thought.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Drawing Tip #1: Composition

While my koala is being finished, I thought I'd take some time to start a series of entries I've been thinking about. I hope to have a bunch of these drawing tips over time.

Any good drawing starts with good composition. Unless you are doing a portrait, the arrangement of your subject(s) will greatly change the outcome of the final drawing. There are a few simple rules to follow:
  • Use the 1/3 rule: that is, don't place your subject in the middle. Place interesting parts 1/3 of the way from any side, or even better, 1/3 from two consecutive sides.
  • Get in close. You don't have to include a whole face or whole body to make a good picture. Body parts can hang off the edge of the paper.
  • Never intersect a corner. If you have, say, tree branches, don't let them go off the paper at a corner. Go just above or below instead.
  • Use contrast to your advantage. This is especially important for black and white work. Include bright whites and dark blacks to make your drawing pop. I've seen a lot of technically good drawings that were just a lot of one shade of gray. It made them uninteresting. Use light and shadow to help with this.
Also, use your instinct. What do you think will look interesting? Consider the pose of your subject, the interaction of it with its surroundings, and the background. Make it pop.

Monday, March 03, 2008

New Project - Koala

I started this koala last week. I am actually further along than this image shows, but not by much. Here, the koala is mostly done. He is sitting in a tree, and I want to do all the foreground leaves before I finish his rump and leg. It only took me five hours to do this much. I haven't had a lot of time to work lately, so even though it's going quickly, it'll probably be another week before I finish.

Like the snow leopard, this drawing is based on a photograph I took at the Albuquerque Zoo last fall.