Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Drawing Lessons Amsterdam - Exploring Drawing Mediums

In this post I will try to offer some insights into the different media with which you can draw.  Each has pros and cons and they can be used depending on the kind of finish that you're after in your drawings.

During my Amsterdam drawing lessons I try to encourage students to get to know their materials as well as possible.  We normally begin working with pencil.  Here's my take on regular graphite pencil as a tool for drawing.


There are several advantages to pencil when learning to draw.  The first is simply how familiar we are with a pencil as an instrument. It is unassuming and well known to us, and we feel comfortable using it as an every day thing.  Therefore, it poses no challenges of its own and allows the student of art to relax and focus on learning about lines, and values and other things without being intimidated by the material.

Pencils are also easy to get, easy to carry and very easy to sharpen (for the most part). The drawing precision that we can get from a finely sharpened pencil tip is unrivaled, and we can create incredibly intricate drawings.  The calligraphy from a pencil drawing can go from very fine rendering, with extremely nuanced gradations between values, to beautiful cross hatching made possible by its fine tip.

Pencils also come in a large range of softness allowing for great nuance in our use of tones aided by the tool even if the artist's hand is still not fully educated. They are cheap, easy to find and create great finished pieces or drawing studies.  They come very handy to use with small sketchbooks that we like to carry around with us all the time.

So far so good.  You would think at this point that the pencil is the perfect drawing tool and that there's no need to depart from it. However the humble pencil has some unavoidable drawbacks.

For starters, the tonal range is very nuanced, but creates what can generally be considered high-key drawings: drawings that are fairly light.  Even the darkest usable pencil, which as far as I'm aware is a 9B cannot make very dark blacks.  Sure, they can be dark enough in relation to the rest of the picture and will make for beautiful drawings, but they're nowhere near what we could call true black.

This means that the pieces created with pencil will have a quite and elegant nature to them, but they will not be particularly impacting from a distance and in my opinion this also hinders the size of pieces that can or should be created with pencil.

What is more, using pencils in the high B's, which are the softer and blacker kind is far from ideal in my view.  Getting a really dark result tends to severely irritate the paper, and the graphite creates a very reflective dark, which is the worse dark you can aim for.   Also, I've tried many different ways to sharpen 8B pencils and the tip just keeps braking inside the sharpener or by the pressure of the blade, which means your high B pencils typically end up with a daft tip, defeating the entire idea of using pencils in the first place.

Because of the nature of the medium pencils will also be quite poor, in my opinion, at creating highly organic-feeling drawings.  The result tends to usually be quite clinical and often "cold". They are also not an ideal tool for learning to draw in a tonal manner, and favor the use of line.


This is a great medium too and its almost a polar oposite of pencils.  Vine charcoal are sticks of charcoal made from the vine tree.  There is also willow charcoal and as far as I can tell the main difference is how soft and powdery the sticks are.

Sometimes the sticks will be fairly straight as if manufactured, and others there will be quite some bending on them.

During my Amsterdam drawing classes, students will experiment with vine charcoal about 6 or 7 lessons in, once they've learned the basics of line, tone and edge.

This medium is extremely forgiving and fun to work with. You can toss it around the paper adding some tone here and deleting there.  It's a very tonal way of working and some say that it resembles painting more than it does drawing, and I would tend to agree.  We can obtain extremely "organic" and painterly looking drawings with vine charcoal and the material allows you to obtain something very close to black if you want to.

What is more, the powder that comes from sharpening the sticks can be saved and later used to tone paper to work in an even more tonal manner, what is called substractive or negative drawing where you add tone as much as you take it away.  There is no other way to obtain such results.

The ability to throw the powdery material around in such forgiving manner is unique to vine charcoal and when looking for expressive abstract and experimental results on a drawing I believe this is the best way to go.

Large formats welcome this medium quite well and the expressive fresh thick lines that can be achieved with it are quite unique.

There are, as with pencil, some downsides to the material.  The biggest one as far as I'm concerned is the fact that vine charcoal needs to be fixated onto the paper once the drawing is finished, or it would only take the swipe of a finger to obliterate the drawing.  The powder sits fresh on the paper and you must spray a glue fixative to make it permanent.  The fixative doesn't smell great and I suspect is also not very environmentally friendly.

What the fixative does do is allow you to add more layers later on and get darker blacks, though in my experience this distorts the value relationships you had previously achieved.

Additionally you looks a lot of precision compared to pencil.  Though the vine charcoal sticks can be sharpened with a normal pencil sharpener, they wear so quickly its not too practical, although I've been able to get quite a bit of precision this way, its never close to what you can do with pencil.  The medium is not meant for it.  Willow charcoal is impossible to sharpen and every attempt will result in a broken tip stuck inside the sharpener which is extremely irritating when you have a model posing and time ticking by.

This means that in general, formats A4 and smaller are not ideal for charcoal, and because of the need for fixing, neither is a sketchbook.

Vine charcoal is also more difficult to find as your typical stationary store will not carry it and you need a real art supplies store to procure it.


The charcoal pencil is somewhat of a hybrid between the regular pencil and the vine/willow charcoal.

It comes in a pencil form but the medium inside it is made of compressed black charcoal.  Its a fantastic tool because it comes in several grades of hardness allowing for a spectacular tonal range, which while not as nuanced as pencil can get both great precision and incredibly dark blacks, which I think go darker than vine charcoal.

The pencil can be easily sharpened with both a sharpener or a single edge blade and the tip can be brought to a very fine end.  It is fairly easy to manipulate given that it resembles the pencil so much.

On the downside, it is less easy to erase compared to vine charcoal and its marks tend to be a bit more sticky and permanent on the paper.

There is a variant to this type of pencil which can offer very nice results which is the use of red or sepia Conte pencil, which has color in addition to the properties mentioned above.

Hope this gives you some understanding of the materials.

Cheers from Amsterdam!

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