I sure wish I could do that…
Let me back up, I do block in, after a fashion.
We’ve all seen pencil artists as they sketch in the rough outlines of their subject. They get the basic shapes, dial in the perspective and plot the overall composition of the piece.
For that matter, and painters will often sketch in the rough shapes on their canvasses before plopping down the color.
But traditional pencil technique takes the rough sketches and hones them and refines them directly from these sketchy outlines. One of the crappy things about laying down a larger area of tone is that it’s all too easy to get that distracting back and forth ‘sketchy’ look.
Take Two Aspirins and Call Bob in the Morning
There’s something about watching old Bob Ross videos that really helps one push through a hangover. In fact, I find a good dollop of booze somewhere in the equation to be a vital component of watching Bob and his happy little trees.
Anyhoo, one particularly blinding hangover in the mid 90’s found me prone on the couch and gasping to one of Bob’s classic “the cabin, the lake, the mountain” layouts.
He was schmearing in the mountains when a thought burbled up through the mire…
“You know, it’d sure be handy to be able to block in larger areas of tone with something bigger than a pencil point…”
Typically in these types of stories, the protagonist becomes galvanized to action and displays a flash of brilliance that changes everything. But in my case, I think I had a drink of water and fell asleep.
However, the notion steeped in there for a few weeks until I was ready for the next project. Vis, figure out a way to increase the surface area of my drawing tools and block in larger areas of tone.
Thus began years of continuous experiment with things such as blending stumps, tortillons, cotton swabs, paper towels, chamois and you name it to find ways to lay down tone.
Don’t Touch That!
Blending pencil with your fingers – that time-honored tradition – is a really bad idea.
In addition to the mess, the oils in one’s fingers make little deposits that bind to the graphite particles, which make them almost impossible to manipulate further.
It’s like an oil stain – and I suppose that it is.
Also, sebum, the disgusting name for skin oil, can damage the paper over time. The Colonel’s the real authority on conservation framing, but suffice to say that sebum (yuck) on uncoated paper can hasten its degeneration.
Do this instead
My two favorite ways of blocking in tone are to ‘draw’ with a dirty blending stump, and to spread powdered graphite with either a paper towel or a felt pad.
When I say ‘dirty’ blending stump I don’t mean actual dirt or anything a Mother Superior would denounce you for, I mean a blending stump that’s been ‘loaded’ with graphite.
This ‘dirtying’ up a stump can be from dipping it in a little powdered graphite, or more commonly by blending graphite on the paper. This is one of the reasons I like to make sure that I have lots of outside border left on the page around my drawing.
I take a pencil of whatever tone I’m after, say a 2B or a much darker 9B, scribble some of it on around this border, then take a stump and blend it – just like a painter picking up paint from a palette with his brush, and use the stump to make my marks or lay my tones on the paper.
This has revolutionized my career.
Bitter Detractors Begone
True, there are people who say, “Well Owen, you need to work on your technique”, and they may be right, but I prefer to apply my creativity to solving a technical issue instead of kowtowing to someone else’s dictums of what I should or shouldn’t do.
I’m still drawing by hand; I’m just adapting another art tool to apply the graphite. Painters use all kinds of brushes, palette knives, sponges, and who knows what else to lay the paint down, so p!ss off.
Sometimes a big bunch of tone ISN’T what you want
Sure, it may look like a barn, or something, but part of pencil’s magic is in finding that perfect balance where the white of the paper flows through the graphite to add a certain luminosity that can’t be replicated by applying light tone.
If you look up close at a newspaper photo, you’ll see that it’s made up of a series of dots. Lighter tones use smaller dots that let more of the paper be visible between the ink dots. It can give the illusion of being “backlit”, or of reflecting light.
It’s the same thing with graphite.
If you take a dark pencil and shade very lightly, you get a lighter tone…but it’s not caused by the particles of dark graphite somehow becoming lighter; it’s because the eye perceives this area of a few dark graphite particles scattered around a white paper as being a lighter gray tone.
It takes the scene and registers it as a sort of ‘gray average’. But this gray has a different effect than finding that same gray tone that your eye sees and laying a smooth area of it.
Both have their uses, just make sure you get what you’re after.
Thus, there are times when NOT schmearing in tone – however lightly – will give you a better effect.
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