Drawing Exercises

It’s possible that some of you out there might be interested in a few basic drawing exercises?

I hope you’ll pardon the bad cellphone pics.

I’m taking a class in historical oil painting at Atelier de Brésoles here in Montreal. We’re going right back to the basics. Doing a series of drawing exercises demonstrating various ways of creating a ‘solid’ looking  image.  I’m finding the whole idea of systematic methods of drawing quite interesting. I’ve done a lot of drawing over the years – but it’s been almost entirely intuitive.   So this exposure to step-by-step technical training is fairly different for me.

Here’s two methods that I’d heard of, but never actually tried myself before today.

Method One: Positive Drawing Shadow Shapes

Working with just a sharp pencil on white paper. Starting with a high contrast lighting situation, (in this case a white bust of Beethoven under a spotlight) we draw only the darkest shadows.


The exercise is to simply start blacking in the shadow cast on the face. Pick a point (I began at the bridge of the nose) – and begin hatching (squinting the eyes to merge everything below a certain value into a single black mass). Gradually expand the shape of the shadow like water filling a boot print.  As if the shadow shape was growing out from the center.

It’s quite abstract – at first it doesn’t look like anything, but gradually the shape of the face appeared. I found it quite strange – to be drawing a portrait, with out ever actually looking at the entire head.  Without sketching the shape of the face, or measuring the distance from eyes to chin, or trying to draw the nose – nothing. Just shading  a solid black mass.

It’s sort of like becoming a human scanner. You just create these blobs of black, that all connect to the edge of the blob next to them – and when you’ve drawn the entire shadow – the negative space left behind creates the head.

In the final stage we added a bit of half tone the terminator of the shadow shape – but it wasn’t really necessary – you could see the image without it.

[3 hours, HB pencil on bond paper, 18×14″]

Method Two: Negative Drawing – Erasing out

The next subject was a cast of a human skull.  To prep the drawing we fill a whole page with black vine charcoal – briskly scrubbing with the side of a half stick.  The drawing is to be made by erasing away the shapes of the light areas. Kind of the reverse of the shadow shape exercise – but with more ability to retouch.

This will not work with compressed charcoal or pastel, has to be natural vine charcoal. The others have binders that prevent the erasing trick.

The first pass is done with a special cloth – a chamois (sometimes called a ‘shammy’)  It’s a soft material that lifts the charcoal well. I think you can get them in automotive stores for polishing chrome?  You use the cloth wrapped around your finger to wipe away the white highlights shape of the skull. It’s basically impossible to draw any detail at all. It’s like drawing with your finger on fogged mirror.

However, you can make the big shape of the cranium with a single wipe of the cloth. It’s quite fast to block in – seconds really. If you find your proportions are incorrect in any way – it’s very easy to black it back in, and wipe away again. No shapes are permanant. It’s amazingly flexible. Like a chalboard and eraser.

In stage two, using tiny pieces of kneaded rubber eraser, we lift out the whites from the grey of the charcoal dust.  You can twist the kneaded eraser into points and pick out some of the finer detail.  It’s impossible to get back to real white paper – the charcoal grit leaves a hazy shadow. So the drawing had a kind of middle value that’s very restful and harmonious. It’s impossible to be overly contrasty. It’s like a guiding hand – preventing you from blowing out the white sparkle on everything.  Shading with training wheels. I personally love high contrast – but it’s an indulgence that has made a lot of my paintings  ‘cartoony’.

In the final stages, we used a hard charcoal pencil to poke in the tiny little shapes (like the triangles between the teeth) – and to softly shade some curved surfaces like the round forehead.

When you’re painting, they say use the largest brush you have, and work down. I freqently find myself going for a small brush too soon. By starting with a rag, and ending with a pencil point – you’re automaticaly working larger to smaller. It’s impossible to get side tracked noodling on details until you switch to the next tool.   These old school guys were pretty smart. This is an excellent way to learn to draw in tones, rather than lines.

[3 hours, vine charcoal on bond paper, 18×24″]

14 thoughts on “Drawing Exercises

  1. Excellent post! Maybe this appears obvious to others, but where is the color coming from in the charcoal drawings? I will definitely try some of these exercises on my own… too bad they don’t teach these sorts of methods in college.

  2. looks like that workshop is maybe following the Bargue method, sightsizing it and painstakingly copying. Ran across this article that makes it seem like Bargue himself didn’t actually work or teach that way, that the whole sight size thing is a 20th century invention and might be a dead end skillwise. Check it out… or don’t :P

    http://www.atelierstockholm.se/index.asp?id=64&parentid=64&lang=1

    love your sketches by the way, that’s what I was doing on your site

    1. Hey – looks like a good article – I’m at work, so I’ll dive into it later – but yes – rigid sight-size does seem to be too artificial for much use outside of the ‘human copying machine’ trick.

      The atelier I’m attending (very part time) is teaching a historical painting approach that I want to expose myself too – they start with something not precisely sight-sizing. I think it’s called “comparative measurement”. All I can say is it hasn’t made my plein air painting any less spontaneous (I don’t think – ) but it has been a lot of fun using measuring technique to get a better drawing!

      So overall, I’m not likely to totally transform my working method – but a few tips are handy. I like to think of myself as Bruce Lee :) Take from all schools to learn the way of the Intercepting Brush.

  3. Thank you for the descriptions of the technical workshop. I’ve often felt that I missed out on the technical side of art training at university. I was watching a group of McGill architecture students drawing in Lunenburg this summer and was thinking about draughtsmanship and perspective. Perhaps it’s never to late to learn some new tricks. I’m likely to fall back into my own ways, but like you say, a few new tips could be useful.

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