Sadly, my life has to be fraught with layers of white-noise anxiety, to get me to the point of noticing, and saying to myself, “Hey, you’re irritable and testy. Maybe you need to do something for yourself”. Some people meditate, some go for a walk, some write in their journals or listen to music. All are wonderful ways to go within, slow down, and center oneself in the moment. For me, the best “attitude adjustment” tool I can employ, is to play in my sketchbook for half an hour. Or, if I’m feeling especially generous with myself, an entire hour.
Having gone through grueling years in art school, followed by non-stop illustration deadlines, it took me several years to realize sketching or doodling (with no expectations other than experimenting and playing) could be relaxing, fun and even a meditative practice. Aside from my personal knowingness as a barometer for validating that the process is good for my soul, my family (partner of almost 20 years and 4 children) tell it best with their happy, supportive smiles, and I dare say relief when they see me take this time for myself.
Wednesday morning, I was feeling more prickly and edgy than normal, so I hung the “do not disturb” signs on the studio doors and pulled out the sketchbook. Days before that, I had happened onto a photo that captivated me, that I’d flagged to enjoy for one of my sketch dates. That morning, my “need” was to relax, and sink into the portrait, rather than experiment with a new medium. I selected my old familiar friends: warm gray paper and charcoal pencils, sepia and white.
This was a technique taught to me by William Maughan, who was one of my most influential professors at Art Center. I took head drawing and head painting repeatedly from him attempting to extract every bit of knowledge possible. For those that would like to try out this technique, I’ll provide a few basic steps to keep in mind. However, if you’d like to explore this in more detail, I highly recommend his book, “The Artists Complete Guide to Drawing the Head“.
There are subtle variations in the pencils and papers one can choose. I always recommend going with what is suggested and then trying out others to see if something else appeals to you more.
William Maughan prefers: CarbOthello pastel pencil #645 (Caput Martuum Red), CarbOthello pastel pencil #100 (Titanium White), Charcoal paper in Velvet Gray, X-Acto knife, sand pad and kneaded eraser.
My current preferences for the pencils and paper are: Charcoal White #558, Prismacolor Sepia Drawing pencil, Strathmore Gotham Gray paper.
Sharpen your pencils with an X-Acto and then hone the point with a sandpaper block. Sharpening your pencils in this way is important because you do not hold your pencil like you’re going to write with it. You hold it with three fingers at a much lower angle to the paper. If one hasn’t been trained to draw this way it can feel especially awkward at first, but in time you experience the exquisite variations of line quality and edge control that cannot be achieved when holding a pencil the other way.
Photo reference and lighting the subject:
This is an absolutely crucial aspect of a successful drawing or painting, and one that should be discussed at length. Remember, a drawing is only as good as your reference. Learn to select reference that sets you up for success rather than hours of frustrating noodling. When drawing or painting, we’re creating the illusion of three-dimension. Choose a photo or light the subject yourself, so there is a beautiful arrangement of form-shadows and cast-shadows. This is what describes the form. The antithesis of this is a straight-on flash-photo shot. I avoid flash shots like the plague. In general, stay away from multiple light sources and rim lighting. These tend to complicate and flatten the form.
A note about value and form:
The white pencil is reserved for highlights, the tone of the paper is for the middle values in your drawing and the sepia for the shadow areas. Block out the gesture and composition with your sepia pencil very lightly at first, slowly building up your dark shadow shapes, refining and adjusting those shapes as you go along. Avoid drawing an actual line and focus on the “shape” of the shadows. A nose, for instance, can be described almost entirely by the shadow it casts on the upper lip. Lines create borders and boundaries, eliminating elegant, soft-and-found edges, which allow ones eyes to smoothly flow into and explore the subject. This subtle, soft approach to building up the darks should feel smoke-like. You can use your finger or a chamois to lightly blend areas, but I prefer to keep this to a minimum, if at all. As with the dark areas, start with a soft touch when applying the lights with the white pencil. Don’t skip the foreplay and hurriedly dash in the brightest highlights. Caress the subject in a sensitive, gentle way and build up to the final highlights.
This technique has many similarities to painting in acrylic and oil. Mastering it will enhance your paintings and illustrations. There is much much more that can be learned and explored in greater depth.
My professor Bill Maughan often said in class, “I’ve yet to have a model or client complain about me making them look better than life.” There are secrets about what to leave out or greatly de-emphasize, and other things to exaggerate to add to the beauty of the subject. Just being aware of these and implementing them in one’s work can have a profound effect.
For those of you interested in furthering your artistic knowledge and skills, I will be teaching an information-packed weekend in August focused on how to create idealized realism in the human figure. There will be an emphasis on creating dramatic lighting and choosing reference that makes your chances of success much easier. For more information on the workshop, and how to sign-up, click here:
If you register for Terese’s TLCWorkshop before Monday, June 18 you will receive 10% off the regular tuition price. All you have to do is mention our blog! Contact Tara Chang at TLCWorkshops1@gmail.com if you have any questions.