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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Behind the Front Lines II - Pastel Portrait - Laying in a Foundation

Hey remember that pastel drawing I was working on?

Yeah, yeah...I almost forgot about it too. What can I say? I've been busy with a lot lately.

So it's on to the next step in this Behind the Front Lines series. I should warn the casual reader that severe technical jargon is about to resume.

Planning the Foundation
I began working by selecting my support, which in this case is a half sheet of Rives BFK paper that I had left over from a pastel project. Why Rives BFK? Well, it's pretty much what my professors told me to get, so I haven't been able to compare other options. But, Rives BFK is acid free which is very important, and it's a nice thick weighted paper that has a decent tooth (texture) that can hold several layers of drawing and pastel.

I mount that to a piece of masonite which I bought at the hardware store. Masonite is usually what most drawing boards are made of, and depending on your needs, it's often cheaper to just grab a sheet from the Home Depot and have it cut to your specifications in-store. Grab some nice big bull dog clips and you have a drawing board. If you are just drawing on a single piece of paper, remember to secure all corners firmly, but not to the point that the paper will be creased or dented. You can use the bulldog clips to do this, but I went with Artist's tape; this seemed to be a better alternative to avoid damaging the paper. Just make sure you don't substitute it for regular masking tape! Artist's tape has a specific tackiness that prevents it from damaging the paper when removed - although this isn't a guarantee that you can't damage the drawing. Always be careful and patient removing tape.

Paper at the ready, I next ignore it completely and start warming up on my sketchpad. Why? Well, I never draw all that great from the starting line, and I have a feeling few artists out there do any better. It's ideal to loosen up and focus before you get serious with a drawing, and so I just take a regular HB (#2 softness) pencil to my sketchbook. This is what I ended up with:

I usually am not much of a sketcher - I do a single sketch and I'm ready to tackle a piece. For the most part, I see what I want to do in my head before pencil touches paper, so I get a bit antsy to get started. I know this isn't the norm though, and if I were suffering from any kind of artist block, I'd probably draw lots and lots of different sketches, showing different angles and framing until I got it just as I like.

In the sketch here, I just drew the photo, and then decided how I wanted to place the drawing on my support. Since this image is just as much about Gumby the Monk Parakeet as it is the model, I'm framing the drawing in a way that negative space around Gumby dominates a majority of the image. By setting it up this way, I draw a lot of attention to Gumby. You might ask if that detracts from the model, and it does; but one of the things about human beings is that when it comes to focal points, the human figure generally draws attention really quickly. So, what I'm hoping to do is balance the drawing's focus by giving more real estate to highlighting the bird.

Another thing to keep in mind is the story telling involved in this piece. When I speak about story telling in artwork, I'm focusing on the way my viewers' eyes move around the piece. Remember that in the last post I spoke about Gumby sharing a laugh with the model? Well, since that is what draws me to the image, I want to embellish that in a way that makes it more obvious that the bird laughing is what I'm going for. I could alter the image itself to make it seem like the bird is really indulging in a deep belly laugh, but simple things like arranging the focus points can make it so that your eye will follow from one smiling face to a smiling bird. Focal points can be enhanced not only through placement, but also through line work, repetition, value and color. I want to make sure that every aspect that can affect it is considered.

Beginning the Foundation
Once I decide on how I'm going to approach my drawing via my sketch, I begin the very controlled process of laying down my under drawing. With pastel works, I lay down a charcoal drawing first, and it's approached as if it will be a regular charcoal drawing. Once it is done, I tone the paper and then apply color pastel as the final phase.

When I begin drawing with charcoal, I start off with at least two 6B or extra soft charcoal pencils that are sharpened with a box cutter razor blade (two to avoid having to resharpen too often). I'm a big fan of General's Charcoal Pencils, which you can find in any art store I imagine, but if you plan on doing this a lot it never hurts to just buy a whole bunch at a time from a website like DickBlick.com. The sharpening is pretty straight forward, but since it involves a box cutter, I'd offer that you just stick to regular pencil sharpeners until you are comfortable with the process. The reason I sharpen with a box cutter is to get more surface area of the charcoal; my sharpened pencils usually have a sharpened end that tapers to a fine point, as long as about an inch from point to the sharpened base.

I keep a kneadable eraser and a chamois handy to make corrections. Being an art supply freak, I have a large variety of erasers that I make use of frequently, often depending on the circumstance. My favorite erasers are the Factis extra soft eraser, the Mars Plastic eraser, and my Sakura Electric eraser (it's expensive, but it erases like nothing else!).

I also have a painter's stirring stick, which is just as valuable as the pencils and paper when it comes to doing a job well. The stick, which I'm sure can be found anywhere they sell house paints, is a flat piece of wood that is beveled on one end to make a handle. I have mine painted white with gesso so it can be marked off with my pencils. It helps me keep all my proportions in line, and it's perfect for keeping my hands off the artwork while I'm working - functioning as a mahl stick.

Using my painter's stick, I mark off the size of the model's head on the photo reference, and using that measurement, also mark the halfway point. From there, I measure how tall and wide the image is going to be in terms of "head-length". Once I know the image is 2 heads high and 3 heads wide, for example, I can make sure my drawing follows suit.

So, I first determine what length on my drawing will match the proportions I'm looking for in my image. Sometimes I actually determine the ratio of the enlargement, and that ratio is used to upscale my drawing's head-length. Other times, I lightly sketch in what I think will fit - it often works for me, but I've been doing this for awhile, so it could take lots of practice to get it down just right.

Once I know the head-length for my drawing, the corresponding half-way mark and the corresponding measurements from my photo, I just start with the face and work my way out.

This can seem tedious, but this part is critical to the realistic depiction of your subject - reference every distance you can! If the length from the tip of the nose to the space directly above the bird's eyes is half a head in the photo, it better be half a head in the drawing! Doing this over and over again develops a series of points, that develops into line work.

Hopefully you can see the developing lines in the image here. I just took my time and this is important...I used a light touch with my charcoal pencil. It's fine to have every eraser under the sky at my command, but erasing damages the paper, and I have to erase harder if I draw harder with my charcoal pencil. By keeping a light touch, I draw faint, easy to correct lines.

Later, I'll fill in the image and go much darker. For right now though, I'm ending this portion of the process.

I hope you find it helpful!

-ic