The thing with making art is that you get used to using favourite tools in a certain way. It’s good to shake that up a bit.
I belong to an art society, and draw there with a portrait group one morning a week most weeks. The model is in one pose for about 2 1/2 hours, with pleasantly social breaks for tea. My preference is to do one quick black and white charcoal drawing on brown paper, to warm up, get familiar with the way the model’s features are put together and explore problems like how glasses sit on a face (glasses are so tricky!). Then I’ll do a more careful and detailed drawing of the model in ink or pencil or whatever I feel like.
Similarly, when life drawing, I use charcoal for the quick-fire warm up drawings at the start of a session, capturing essential curves and lines, darkness and light for poses 2, 5 and 10 minutes. Half an hour is too long for charcoal; when the poses lengthen I switch to other media.
Because for me, charcoal is for warming up and drawing fast. Not really a medium to fuss and fiddle with, and that’s what I like about it.
How I usually use charcoal: quickly noting down the lightest and darkest parts of an image, and working out the shapes
The art society runs several ‘summer school’ classes in January, all of which offer the chance to take a full day or two to explore a particular technique or media.
One of the classes this week was about charcoal drawing technique. The teachers own work is very delicate and realistic, I hoped to learn ways to make what I thought of as a loose and casual medium look so accurate and refined.
It was interesting.
And mild torture.
The key technique is spending a long and careful time concentrating on the work.
The teacher suggested we pick a reference image from a small selection of photocopies. I (I realised, during the choosing) just don’t draw fruit. I find isolated flowers nearly as dull. I also have very little interest in people wearing entirely face-covering hats. Leaving me with the choice of . . . a fluffy wolf.
Slow accumulation of fluff
The technique taught involved working in layers. Starting with using powdered charcoal and soft erasers, smudging everything, blurring and then reworking and redrawing with soft charcoal, finally fixing that level, then repeating the process several more times, until for the last few layers working with white charcoal to create highlights. Each time the fixative was used it tended to blur and soften the current layer even more. So much smudging and blurring and redoing the same bits over. It took a whole day. It is a picture not in my style, and not really to my taste.
It possibly didn’t help that I’ve really not drawn much fluff, certainly no wolves. Without a sense of wolfish anatomy I struggled with the “how is a wolf not like a dog” shape of the face.
Such a stiff, stilted drawing.
And yet . . . there’s something there. Not in my drawing, but something in the technique. Something from the day that is/will be well worth knowing, and playing with more. In some ways maybe all that blending and blurring has similarities to how I started with digital painting (another neglected medium I should re-explore).
So, I’ve bought some new cans of fixitive, and I’ve ordered some charcoal powder. I will try the process working with my own reference, and maybe it’ll be much more my sort of work.
Not sure at all.
But it is good to try new approaches. Good, and irritating*.
*Assume some sort of wise or witty comment about pearls and oysters here.