Negative Drawing – part 3

We previously explored the ways that Negative Drawing can:

  • Allow you to concentrate on one texture at a time.
  • Draw a structure without reference to it’s three-dimensional shaping.
  • Divide any area into a collection of easily-managed elements.

Don’t try to draw many textures at one time. To draw effectively, you must understand the area you are working on, feel its texture, experience its three-dimensionality. We’re creating our own world one step at a time. In order to transmit your mental image of wood through your hand and onto paper, don’t try to draw grass at the same time. If you’re drawing the deep confines of an old wooden crate, you need to experience the deep shadows diluting into mid-tones as they approach the light. You KNOW what it looks like in reality, so don’t dilute your image by suddenly trying to draw the wood around the opening. Concentrate and LIVE one element at a time and you’ll built a reality into your work.

Negative Drawing can be used locally within any area, by using layers to divorce detail from shading. Work logically and with understanding and divide the task into two. Detail and Value. Line and Tone. Detail is often simple to comprehend, especially if viewed as a collection of abstract shapes and unidentifiable negative spaces between them, and line best suits their depiction. On the other hand, tone, which describes the lighting and three-dimensional form of the area, is best suited to an application with a broad, flat pencil lead with a complete absence of line. So why mix the two?

Let’s consider a dog, which has a rough coat of light brown hair, and we’ll work on a small area at a time, perhaps only a half-inch square. This, being manageable, aids our concentration and understanding. The detail layer, formed by line, contains all the cast shadows between the hairs, which negatively create the hairs between them and describe their texture and direction of growth. All tone is omitted so the hairs (created purely by negative drawing) remain virgin white.

Now a tone layer is applied. Some application may be global, describing the overall lighting, shade and three-dimensional form, and other may be local, perhaps enhancing a particular hair or suggesting colour. Further layers may be added as required.

Now, unique to this method, adjustments can be made with Blu-Tack (or a kneadable eraser), as the tone layer can be incrementally removed without affecting the detail layer beneath. I often find that the repeated partial removal and re-application of tone layers produces wonderfully subtle results. And for extra subtlety, try drawing the detail and tone layers and then gently and repeatedly remove both until the merest trace remains. It’s almost impossible to draw with that degree of finesse – something that this system overcomes.

Let Logic rule: If you reach a point in the area you are drawing where your understanding wanes, leave it. Stop. Move to an adjoining area and work back towards the problem. Your understanding will have greatly increased once you have surrounded the problem area.

Don’t be afraid to draw “too dark”. Blu-Tack or a kneadable eraser will allow you to adjust the intensity later. In the meantime, you have simply split a job into two again: by first establishing the required lines with a weight that helps you see them, then adjusting their tonal values until they meet your expectations.

Concentrate on and draw one texture at a time. “Live” that texture and you will inject life into it.

Don’t be tempted to rush ahead. Doing so may result in inferior drawing. Remind yourself: “My drawing will only be as good as its weakest part!”

Don’t be tempted to leave something if its removal would benefit the drawing – no matter how pleased you are with it. And don’t “showcase” an area of your work that displays your technical prowess. In the words of Pierre Parisienne, “Don’t show me that what you are doing is difficult”. Ultimately it will shout “drawing”, destroy the overall reality, and drag the rest of the study down with it.

Parson Russell Terrier pup study 'What?
“What?” A completed drawing showing areas of subtle white hair produced by drawing over-strong and then adjusting with Blu-Tack. The result has a delicacy that is difficult to achieve by drawing alone.

Negative Drawing – part 2

Negative drawing enables you to perform tasks easily. We previously saw:

  • How we can control separation of background, midground and foreground elements.
  • How we can isolate those areas we don’t yet understand.
  • How Negative Drawing protect our virgin whites.

Negative drawing involves the creation (or isolation) of an element within your drawing by simply drawing around it. To return to our dog example, by completing the background first, you have an established setting in which your dog can exist. Because you are drawing this dog as a part of its world, the two will become unified and possess an enhanced feeling of reality.

Up until now I’ve been referring to background and foreground. But in reality our dog is more likely to be situated in the midground. So by “background” I’m really referring to the major part of the setting – that area BEHIND the dog, and not the foreground, which is on a level with and below the dog.

We will have created enough of the dog’s world to give us an understanding on the environment – a ‘feeling’ for that world. Because we cannot avoid taking that world into account as we draw, the dog will inevitably become a part of it.

In practice, you might choose to partially draw the background to get a feel for it, then to begin drawing the dog, establishing the tones required for the background around its outline. That’s OK if that appears to be the logical way to work.

Logic, as I explained earlier, plays a major role in this way of working. Logic in this case is mainly dictated by understanding. You draw what you understand then, when that understanding wanes, you logically move to another area of understanding. This is difficult to describe but easy to understand in practice.

Let’s take one small area again – the junction of the dog’s coat along its back with the background. If you want that topline to be obvious to the viewer you cannot draw the dog first. Without a background, you have nothing to balance your tones to. So we draw that section of the background first, right down to the dog’s back. There we have two choices – if we fully understand the outline of the dog, we can draw around the hairs along its back, leaving them pristine white. Or we can stop short of the dog and make the junction a job in its own right. This gives you all the control you need. Finally you can concentrate on the dog, engineering the tones used within the coat to make it stand out from the background – to whatever extent you wish. It’s a logical progression that puts you in control.

Below you will see that I drew the brickwork down to but short of the dog’s back. Why? Because I was immersed in brick, not hair. Now I can concentrate on defining the dog’s outline while blending new drawing back up into the brickwork – I’m thinking “hair”, not “brick”.

Detail from Parson Russell terrier pup study 'What?'
Brickwork stopped short of dog. Now I can concentrate on defining the dog’s outline while blending new drawing back up into the brickwork. I was thinking “brick”, now I’m thinking “hair”.

Note that I didn’t attempt to draw the dog while defining its outline. My concentration was purely on the creation of the hairs around its extremity.

A drawing, any drawing, can be broken down and simplified in this way. If you’re drawing the wooden side of a barn, just draw wood. If grass overlaps it at the base, draw around it. You’re drawing wood – your concentration is on wood – you’re living wood! And, as a bonus, when you begin to draw grass, you’ll have full control over those negatively drawn stalks that overlap the barn door, so you can highlight them, push them into shade, or make them as dominant or subtle as you wish.

Where any two textures meet, ask yourself which is dominant. Which will logically control the tones of the other. If we draw the grass first, the tones used within the blades will control and limit the tones available for our barn door. If we draw the barn door first, its tonal values will control those available for the grass. Which is logically dominant from the point of view of physically drawing them? Which is easier to engineer to overcome the limitation imposed by the other? No contest, in my mind, the barn door wins on all counts. It’s so much easier to engineer the blades of grass to stand out from, or blend into, the barn door.

As a bonus, Negative Drawing prevents you from polluting the virgin white within your drawing. Erasing graphite from a spot that should be a pristine white highlight will rarely achieve a good result.

Negative Drawing – part 1

Negative drawing involves the creation of a element within your drawing by simply drawing around it. If, for example, you’re drawing a dog, it is often logical to draw the background first. This presents two benefits: you have an established setting in which you dog can live, so they will possess a unity; and you have full control over the dominance of the dog (the way it stands out, or blends in, to the background).

Logic plays a major role in this way of working. Let’s take our dog again. Because it is the main element, the focus of the drawing, we have a natural inclination to work on that first. But how light or dark should it be? Where is the light source positioned, and what sources of reflected light are present?

Now turn the strategy on its head. Consider drawing the secondary elements first. You should have a mental picture of what you want to achieve with the dog so, keeping that in mind, we have a logical starting point for the background. With the background completed we now have a setting in which our white silhouette of a dog exists. We have a feel for its environment. We know if the ambient lighting is harsh or diffused. We know what might overlap it, such as stems of grass or weeds, and how they fit naturally into the overall setting. So we now have full control over the separation of the subject from the background.

Let’s take one small area – the junction of the dog’s coat along its back with the background. If you draw the dog first, how dark do those hairs along the extremity need to be? Draw the background first, and draw around those hairs along its back and you have all the control you need. As you gently add tone and form to those hairs, you have the background to refer to at all times.

That single example has covered the three major benefits of using Negative drawing:

  • Offers control by separating the background, midground and foreground elements.
  • Isolates the unknown.
  • Protects virgin whites.
Background drawn before dog to allow maximum control when drawing dog.
Taken to extremes but this is a recreation of an actual event.

Section of finished drawing.
If those are the ‘rules’ then logic overrules them. In practice you draw until understanding ceases then you move to another area you do understand. As you draw, each area will suggest the treatment of the content of those surrounding it. Eventually, your drawing will expand to meet that unknown area. Now surrounded by enlightened drawing, you will gain a greater understanding of what that area requires. So, when I mentioned “completing the background first” that is not necessarily to be taken as the full truth! In reality I will work the background in stages around the dog, and I may (though not often) draw the adjoining portion of the dog too, but the order is always background first then dog.

To draw effectively, you must fully understand the area you are working on. You must be able to experience it in three-dimensions, to feel its texture, and to know how it relates to surrounding areas. We’re not copying source photos but creating our own world in which all elements must co-exist. If you have first established the background, the environment, then you have a world in which you can create your main subject. This assists your understanding of the subject as an overall element.

However, within that element other similar problems will occur, which can be solved using the same strategy. Perhaps you have a problem understanding the way the rear of the belly and rib cage meet the shoulder of the rear leg? Leave it. Draw the rear leg first and understanding will be clarified, so you can confidently draw the belly up to that previously ‘unknown’ junction.

In the meantime, you haven’t polluted the virgin white of that belly area with trials and test of possible tones. In my opinion the freshest, sharpest and most effective drawing is created with the first attempt. If instead you try out ideas within that area, perhaps by adding layers of tone in an attempt to understand the shaping, you will simply muddy the final result. Consider that a soft grade of graphite often will not layer to its full potential on top of a harder grade, because there is insufficient tooth to hold it, and you’ll see that your initial trials have greatly reduced the options open to you.

Keeping control of the drawing of the rope
Keeping control of the drawing of the rope by establishing the background first

Drawing HAIR the Negative Drawing way

I’m involved in a series of discussions concerning the relative merits of the different techniques used for drawing hair – dog hair in particular – and I’m arguing for the use of Negative Drawing against the use of applying tone that is then cut through with a sharpened eraser. So, having set the scene, here is my initial argument, followed soon by a more in-depth look at the Negative Drawing method.

First, erasing hairs is a technique worth exploring and it may work well for you. However, in my opinion, it will rarely achieve a sense of true reality… and here’s why:

  • Layering tone onto an area before establishing the position and tonal values of the hairs that will exist in that area may result in the loss of the purity of the white of your paper – you may never be able to remove all of the graphite.
  • This immediately limits the range of tones available to you for those hairs and, more crucially, controls the brightness of your highlights.
  • Erasing will produce a soft-edged line. Intrinsically, hairs possess sharp edges. However, erasing may be beneficial if the hair is of a soft nature, and with fly-away ends that tend to soften the edges of bunches of hair. But in most cases, as I said, hair and locks of hairs do have sharp edges.
  • But, of far more importance than all of the above, erasing does not permit a full understanding of the hair you are working on. It is, in truth, the exact reverse of the technique required to render believable hair.
Drawing showing the erasing of hair within applied tone
Exercise showing the eraser method of establishing hair.

Let’s, for example, take a lock of white hair of an Old English Sheepdog, or similar smaller breed as shown above. That lock of hair springs from the top of muzzle, above the nose, to fall down the side of the face. Beneath the lower end of that lock, another lock curves down towards the mouth. A casual glance will lead you to believe that the two are one long single lock, as they appear to flow into each other.

Erasing is that “casual glance”. You see a white or light shape in your reference photo that begins on top of the muzzle and falls down the face towards the mouth. You erase that shape and establish the position of the lock. Now you look a little closer, identify stray hairs emerging from the lock and attempt to erase those also. That’s when you discover that an eraser, however sharp, cannot produce a sharp pointed end to a hair. You can of course draw around the erased shape to sharpen it’s edges but, as the original edge was soft and blurred by the eraser, you cannot be certain that you’ve drawn into it sufficiently to overlay the non-white content.

Now let’s assume you have a similar lock close to the original one and, to suggest depth, you decide to cut an angled hair in between them – one that emerges from under one of the locks then disappears under the other. Not difficult, but you will have to start erasing within the white of one lock, cut through it’s outline, through the previously applied tone, and then through into the white body of the other lock. The eraser will drag graphite into the second lock, which now needs to cleaned up. Then the edges need repairing. And finally you can tone down the new oblique hair and add the necessary cast shadows and shading.

Now we’ll work the reverse way – the way I work. First you lightly outline the position of the white lock. This forces your concentration away from the lock as one single entity and onto its edge, section by section. As you search for understanding of that edge and look ever closer you discover that it is not one long lock of hair from muzzle-top to mouth but two. The upper one extending down the side of the face where it overlays the root of the second that curves down towards the mouth. You find all those stray hair ends too as you work your way around the extremity of those locks. As you’re just outlining, you can establish those stray hairs so they possess truly sharp ends.

Once you have the lock of hair outlined, and the adjacent one, you ignore them and begin to work on the hair between them. That crossover hair you attempted to erase earlier is now simple to establish. You draw it between and up to the outlines of the two locks to either side. Your full concentration is on that tiny area so your understanding is greatly increased. Now you also have the facility to draw an even deeper layer behind that crossover hair, which you progressively darken to almost push it right into the shade. That makes the crossover hair stand out, so you can now tone that down too, to push it back into the midground, and add the shadows cast by the two main locks.

Those two main locks are as yet undrawn. They remain as pure white “silhouettes”. But now you can finally begin to work within them, working your way slowly down their lengths, one at a time. As each is surrounded by the previous drawing of the midground crossover hair and background hairs, you have perfect control over its tonal values. You could, for example, create a three-dimensional edge that curves down to meet that crossover hair beneath it, and you can control the tonal values of that edge so it as lost in the shadows or as plainly visible as you wish. You are thinking three-dimensionally, taking the lighting direction into account, and not just erasing a two-dimensional shape through previously applied tone – tone with values that you could only guess at.

Showing the use of negative drawing techniques
Drawings showing the use of negative drawing techniques

All those hairs – the two locks, the crossover hair beneath them, and the background hairs – are living forms. You are not trying (or tempted) to draw a large area at one time with minimal understanding, but slowly recreating those hairs so they grow out of the paper. As they grow, your own mind will spot inconsistencies with Nature and correct them; it may experience an imbalance caused by a too-clean edge and force you to break it up by adding protruding, wispy hair-ends; it will see the lock as a three-dimensional form and suggest the application of tone to the side receiving less light; and be your guide as to where to leave bright highlights. And, as you are working on pristine paper and not an erased surface, you will still have your brightest white available for your highlights.

In brief, and assuming you’re working from a reference photo, I believe that the erasing technique may cause you to look in too shallow a manner. To see “blocks” and “shapes” that you can create with your eraser in the previously applied tone. But to achieve a sense of reality, you need to study each tiny area until you fully understand the qualities (texture, three-dimensional form, edge features, etc) of the element you are about to draw.

Instead of erasing a long lock of hair and then, in my view, attempting to “repair” it and turn it into a semblance of hair, consider the Negative Drawing alternative. I recommend that you use Negative Drawing to isolate that lock of hair (you’ll learn much about it as you decipher it’s true outline), then establish the background hairs around it that will add depth to your drawing. Finally draw the lock itself, beginning at one end. Work your way slowly down as you experience it in your mind as a three-dimensional object. Make changes if you feel the need; perhaps introduce a narrow parting that exposes the background drawing beneath, if you feel the lock is looking too regular and uninteresting; but above all imagine it as being a real-life lock of hair. And don’t feel the need to complete it quickly and move on…… remember:
Any drawing is only as good as its weakest part.

Showing the use of negative drawing techniques
Drawings showing the use of negative drawing techniques