Seriously, why isn’t Intermediate Drawing a 4-unit class?

I must have been drawing for 5 hours straight, yesterday.  I did learn some good things, but still.  5 hours.  I was told that others were “amazed that I was doing my homework,” and “why didn’t I take this class before?”

I’m getting a little more comfortable with drawing, I guess.  I still feel a bit timid, but the outcomes of my experiments have ranged from “blah” to “surprisingly good.”  In this post, I’ll go over the process I went through, roughly, to produce the first drawing I really impressed myself (and can still remember impressing myself) with.  Right now I have it written down on an index card — I got 100 of these at Staples for $0.99 and a case for them for an additional $1.  I’ve been using them to rough out compositions before dedicating a full page to the process.  But, I’m jumping ahead of myself here.

As I might have said sometime earlier, I’ve had some practice with the creative process via working things out in the printed word.  Because of this, I know that revision may well be part of the process even when it comes to art.  And sometimes, even in fiction, it’s possible to get bogged down in details and miss the entire picture.  For me especially, it’s very easy to start drawing what I’m comfortable with and “know,” and neglect to plan the rest of the composition before starting.  This is something I’ll have to work on — envisioning a piece before beginning it.

I have, however, started to be able to take notes on this.  Let me list the 12 steps I took for my botanical drawing:

  1. Photo brainstorm/photo acquisition/inspiration-source
  2. Sketch of initial idea (including layout)
  3. Photo selection
  4. Crop/rotate
  5. Pencil in basic/overall shapes with 2H graphite pencil
  6. Lightly draw detailed drawing with hard (2H) pencil
  7. Color scheme selection
  8. Blocking in main/base colors or main design
  9. Background/highlights
  10. Forward details/highlights
  11. Heavy darks/outlines
  12. Final details/date/signature

Okay, now, one by one, here:

1.  Photo brainstorm:  The botanical drawing started out as a series of photographs of plants which have popped up in my yard.  I wanted to photograph these, as I didn’t know how long they would stay back there in the way they were — that is, I’m prepared for them to be ephemeral.  Right now they’re mostly small — about 1′-1.5′ in diameter.  Like I said earlier, I’m pretty sure these are deer gifts, which I’m not really against, because they’re pretty and they take care of themselves.

2.  Sketch/layout of initial idea:  My time of inspiration occurs very often late at night (while I’m trying to sleep) or in the wee hours of the morning (same).  I already have what I call my “random thoughts” journal next to my bed, where I document everything that seems important enough to remember at the time, regardless of whether it’s true or not.  Now, added to that, is a small stack of white index cards, which are lined on one side and blank on the other.

As I was trying to fall asleep, I somehow generated seed ideas both for my botanical drawing and for my graphic drawing (the latter of which had elements loosely based on a portfolio design — it turned out to be my second finished piece due today).  I turned on the light and quickly sketched the layout of my initial designs in miniature on the blank sides of two 3″x5″ cards (the “canvas” can be any dimension, just forget about the frame — or make different-shaped cards), along with notes on what media I’d like to use and any other notes which came to me.  Then I went to sleep.

3.  Photo selection:  The day I was supposed to work on my two drawings, I found myself hesitant to go outside to draw, feeling that I’d need to make myself presentable or at least put on some sunscreen.  I hate sunscreen.  So what I did instead was get up, upload my reference photos to the computer, and preview them one by one.  Because I’d had the layout vision the night before, I knew I wanted something entering the frame from the right side, with my paper in “landscape” layout.  I found one photo which was attractive enough to use.

4.  Crop/Rotate:  I began to attempt to draw an entire plant that would lead towards the edge of the right side of the paper.  Someone else saw what I was doing and recommended I crop the image to simplify things for myself.  I copied the image, opened the copy, and cropped out everything but the leftmost portion of the plant.  This, unexpectedly, blew up the cropped image, with amazing clarity remaining.  It would have been easier to rotate this had I printed it out, but unfortunately, I found that my printer is running out of two colors, and I was too lazy to change out the cartridges.  😉  In lieu of this, I worked in my notebook in front of the monitor, with the cropped copy-of-the-original saved to disk (in case my computer crashed).

Never alter the original master…you may never get it back.  Always make one or more different copies, to edit and alter, just keeping in mind that at least, JPEG is a “lossy” format which compresses with every save, and will degrade every time it’s saved.  However, one copy away from the original probably won’t degrade that much.

5.  Pencil in basic/overall shapes with 2H graphite pencil:  Why 2H?  Although I love the expressive and velvety qualities of soft graphite, the higher numbers of the B series (6B, 8B, 9B, etc.) are very difficult to completely erase.  What you’re looking for here are guidelines, not final outlines.

I used 2H this time around because it’s the hardest graphite pencil required in my class, and I didn’t want to dent the paper too much.  I also ended up leaving in the guidelines in the final drawing, so if you plan for this, you don’t want your guidelines drawing attention to themselves.  2H is relatively light, and if a light touch is used, it’s relatively easy to erase with a soft eraser, while still remaining visible enough to be of use.  (I used a General’s Tri-Tip…not the most functionally perfect eraser [it’s a little firm, and produces rolled-up dust like I’m used to from erasers] but the triangular shape is fun, and it won’t stain the paper.)

At this point, you’re going to have to start thinking about what details to include, which to exclude, and which to include but gloss over.  In this, you’re thinking of what’s important.

I put in the major shape I wanted in my composition — like a very light fence of an enclosed area, which itself is a constellation of different elements.  Compositional balance is important here, but more things than what I’m going over can affect balance (like hue, and value [or lightness/darkness of tones]…I’m probably not the greatest person to explain it, though I do seem to have some sense of it.

6.  Lightly draw detailed drawing with hard (2H) pencil:  For me, this is the most demanding step, but YMMV.  At this point I took the basic “yard” that I’d fenced in with my lines and began to detail what lay inside that “yard,” lightly enough so that the lines wouldn’t show as highlights.  In this, I was particularly paying attention to shapes, and the relationships between the shapes.  It’s kind of hard to explain, so I’ll leave this for now and move on to something I can explain.

7.  Color scheme selection:  This is really fun, for me.  I’m assisted in this, in that I have an extensive range of colored pencils, which I used for this drawing because of their feathery/delicate quality; and because a long time ago, I made “color chips” (like “paint chips” from home improvement stores) out of each of my colors.  These chips have gradations of one colored pencil on one side, and the name, number, and lightfastness rating of the same pencil, on the other side.  I basically drew these in a grid and then cut them apart, leaving me with a lot of frustratingly tiny color chips that scatter everywhere, which identify the colors somewhat better than looking at the pencil itself…or so I seem to assume.  Looking at the tip of the colored pencil is also a good hint, but can be misleading in cases of pale colors.

I wanted the colors in this composition to be close to what they actually were in reality.  I took the colors of the photo on my monitor as a good-enough relation to what the colors reasonably had been, outside.  Of course, this leaves me open to a hole where the colors on the monitor don’t match the actual colors of the actual thing I was drawing, but I decided not to worry about that.

I held up each color chip which seemed reasonably close to the colors on the monitor.  If they were close enough, I included them; if it seemed the colors were an overtone (like Light Phthalo Blue), I included them.  This is just a net to catch all the colors which might be in or which might harmonize with the composition, if you’re working from drawing an object.  Obviously, the method differs if you’re doing something abstract.

So I picked out about 12-14 colors which either harmonized with or matched colors in the composition.  I only ended up using about 5-6 of them, though.

Anyhow, once you identify the basic palette, pull them out of your colored-pencil tray and set the others aside.  Examine them to make sure they all seem to harmonize well enough.  For me, they did, so I moved on.

8a.  Blocking in main/base colors or main design:  For this, I started lightly blocking in the positive space of the composition, that is, the leaves and stems on the plants.  I was seemingly somewhat fortunate in that I had one color which exactly matched the base color of the leaves.  However, blocking that in flatly really doesn’t do justice.  What I was doing was trying to get a sense of presence.

If I were to do this over again, I would have added a step here:

8b.  Press undergirding highlights into the paper:  I found that pressing a sharp, white or light-colored pencil firmly into the paper creates a dent which resists filling up when darker layers are applied over it.  This is what I eventually did with the second and third whorls I illustrated, but the first whorl was still an experiment.  However, be aware that if your paper is backed by a pad, you may want to protect the lower layers of paper to make sure they aren’t indented as well (because you’ll get your highlights on subsequent drawings, too).  Or, remove the drawing from the pad, back it with a few sheets of newsprint on a drawing board, and then impress the paper with a sharp colored pencil.

This creates highlights which do not show until further layers of color are applied over them.  You can continue to stack more and more layers of highlights this way by periodically adding more impressions.

But basically speaking, what you’re doing in step 8a is just getting a sense of what’s there and what is not.

9.  Background/highlights:  At this point, I began to lightly block in the color of the background.  Keep in mind areas of light in your composition, because you may well want areas of white to show through to indicate luminescence.  I did this, even though in my photo, there was no white anywhere except in the stems and immature blossoms.  I think that if I had kept more white in, it would have been a more…vivid composition.  But I was thinking too literally for this, at the time.

10a.  Forward details/highlights:  Here I began to add detail to the leaves, so they weren’t just flat blocks of color.  Again, there was no white here in the original photograph, but if I’d left some, I think the contrast would have been higher and the image would have “popped” more.  If you did the impressions with the white pencil for veins, coloring over them specifically with a darker color can draw attention to them as details.

There was also the problem of the blossom centers, which were so complex + unimportant (to me, in this composition) that I didn’t want to draw them all.  I ended up making little French-knot-type squiggles for the blossom centers and underlining them with a light green in order to give the illusion of depth.  I don’t think they really needed any more than this.

10b.  Shadows.  I almost forgot this part.  Here, once things are visible, you’ll want to block in the shadows of the composition, in order to give a sense of depth.  You don’t have to stick with black for this.  I used a combination of dark green, mid blues, and yellow to try and create a chromatic grey where the shadow touched something in the foreground.

I might have been more successful if I’d used a violet-blue (like Ultramarine) plus a yellow, instead of a green-blue (like Phthalo Blue Light) plus a yellow, for this.  The yellow and purple would have combined to create a chromatic grey; as things stand, it looks more like one of the shadows is a more vivid green than desired.

11.  Heavy darks/outlines:  At this point, I began to finally sketch in the darkest colors, which were random lines in a dark, desaturated brown, meant to represent dead grass.  The darkest areas of the photo got the darkest brown lines, and some got dark fill as well — keeping in mind that my highlights from step 8b were still in place and showing through, as though on top of the darker shadows.

I also was doing this all along, but at the edges where the positive and negative space met, I would trace over the borders with a sharp colored pencil, matching either the foreground or background color (depending on which was darker).  This really brings clarity to the composition and enables one to see the shapes of what one is creating.  When it’s all fuzzy, the picture can be hard to make out.

12.  Final details/date/signature:  This is one step to take to make sure everything is going a way one wants it to go (or cannot correct, if it’s already gone).  I did a lot of crisping-up borders, evening out yellow/blue balance in the leaves, basically just finishing work.  You’ll want to date this if you’re ever planning on using it as a portfolio piece, because it will show your level of skill at one point in time.  You’ll probably also want to sign it.

Phew!  I think that goes through the entire description of my process as regards the botanical drawing of 8/27/14.  I think that the only real new things here are the index cards, and the color chips.

Now, I suppose, I can work on that “fear of creating” tangent, plus the newer tangent which reads that maybe I can communicate well enough through Fine Art that I don’t require a narrative to back it up (as in Comics).  It certainly feels expressive enough…


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Haru ("Codey") is a second-year Master's student in Library and Information Science, hoping to find a way to fuse their desire to make the world a better place and to finance their art.

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