Of Charcoal and Newsprint
February 19, 2011
Doubtless there are at least a few artists out there who can look at a reference photo, and, with a few deft strokes of a pencil, produce the guideline basis for a picture that is both pleasingly aligned, and well composed. I congratulate those folks. I am not one of them. I first discovered the difficulty of aligning subjects properly in the creation of color portraiture. For example, if I am depicting a dog, I must be sure the tips of the ears aren't going to stick out of the picture, and, if the whole body is to be depicted, the dog mustn't be too big, or I'm going to run out of room.
Most of these problems can be resolved in the "guideline" stage, but this usually calls for repeated erasing, which can be both time consuming, and, in some cases, hard on the support. I would like to briefly touch on a couple of traditional techniques used by many artists to streamline this process, and then explain how I incorporated them into my own method.
One commonly recommended procedure is to start with a photo of about the same aspect (length to width) ratio and then divide each into comparable grids, that is, having the same number of rows/columns. It then becomes a simple matter to determine where everything "belongs". Obviously, this method will work best if you aren't making many changes to the original composition in the photo.
Another technique some artists use, is to work out the composition guidelines on a separate piece of paper, and then either trace or transfer that pattern to the final support using some kind of carbon-paper substitute.
I use both of these methods, sometimes together, especially for works where it is important that the artistic interpretation represent the subject(s) faithfully, as with portraits. In so doing, I have discovered what has been to me a very useful "duo" for producing most of my patterns---newsprint and willow charcoal. I make my pattern as follows.
Making the Pattern
I take my Blick newsprint sketchbook, which has thin, smooth sheets--just right for my purposes--and, for smaller patterns, simply insert a piece of solid cardboard below the first page or two to provide a firm work surface.The piece of cardboard enables me to work flat or at a slight angle, without bothering to tear out the sheet, but for large work, (16 x 20 in this case), I will more likely put it on my easel, so I can easily back off for a better perspective.
If I am going to use grids, I mark them off on the photo, (a laser printout, NOT a good film print), and the newsprint pattern-paper, using dividers and a ruler. (If you aren't familiar with dividers, I have described their use in another post: “Co-opting a Drafting Tool”).
Whether you use a grid or not, it will be necessary to line off a “box” on the newsprint that is the same size as your final support, and the same length-to-width ratio as the reference photo. The best thing for lining off the grid/box is a colored pencil, for a reason which I'll explain in a moment.
As for the photo, if it is a laser printout on regular ,(non-glossy), paper, a colored pencil will also work for marking off its grid. The boxes won't necessarily be exactly square, but this probably won't matter as long as:
1. The photo and the pattern/support have the same aspect ratio.
2. Both the photo, and the box drawn on the newsprint pattern, are divided into the same number of rows/columns.
I then use a thin stick of willow or vine charcoal to make my sketch. The first thing one learns about this kind of charcoal is how easily the lines can be rubbed out, without even an eraser-- in most situations a rag will do just fine. This is especially true when using it on a fairly smooth support, like newsprint. This is an advantage, but also a potential frustration, especially if you work on a nearly horizontal surface, as I often do. You have to be careful you don't rub out any lines you want, (with your sleeve, for example!). I have found overall, however, that this is a very quick way to work out a composition. The lines can be rubbed out and redrawn with little effort, so you can start out quick and loose, and easily make changes/ fill in details after. An eraser still comes in handy whenever need to remove a line completely. I always draw my box and/or grid lines with a colored pencil, the reason being that they won't get smudged or rubbed out with the charcoal.
If after awhile the paper begins to deteriorate and not accept any more willow charcoal, I either trace what I have so far to another piece of newsprint and continue, or switch over to charcoal pencils. These aren't easily erased, but they are good for refining details. If the paper does start to wear out and I end up needing to trace it, I can use a lightbox, a naturally lit window, or I can transfer it in the same way I will transfer it to the final support, a process which I will describe in my next post. When I am satisfied with my pattern, I lay it flat on the floor on a piece of cardboard, and spray it with an aerosol hairspray; (the pattern isn't archival anyway, so why use a good fixative?). I spray it from a couple of feet up-- lightly, so the charcoal doesn't run. Hairspray dries quickly, and you can continue to add lines on top of it, though not necessarily erase old ones. I always use an aerosol, as it disperses better than the spritz that I tried.
Lastly, I cut the pattern out along the "box lines”, to make it the same size as the support to which I will transfer it. As I mentioned above, you can check my next post for how I make this transfer.