Towards a Flawless Finish

Published in DRAWING Magazine, Fall 2010


The ability to achieve a highly pristine or ‘rendered’ finish with a charcoal drawing may simply be a matter of anticipation. The manner in which line and value are applied in the earliest stages of the drawing process can truly govern the success of the finish.

Here are 5 important steps to consider at the start when striving for a ‘polished result’.

1. Choose the tools that will deliver your desired finish.

The majority of our charcoal drawings are done with compressed charcoal and white chalk (General’s Charcoal Pencils and General’s Charcoal White Pencil) on Canson Mi-Tiente’s Sky Blue paper. The compressed charcoal can produce rich, deep darks as the chalk allows for the addition of bright lights. Our drawing surface is determined by compatibility with the medium via tooth (surface texture) and color. Canson’s Mi-Tiente’s paper has a nice smoother surface on one side that is rough enough to receive several layers of charcoal, but not ‘toothy’ enough to have a surface that is distracting. The Sky Blue color is very comparable to the blue-based grays created from the mixture of the black charcoal and white chalk.

2. Start with the softest grade and the lightest touch.

We begin each charcoal work with a light angular drawing that maps out the dominant shapes of the subject’s light patterns. This stage is approached with the softest grade of charcoal pencil held very lightly. One common pitfall here is to begin a drawing with a hard charcoal that may incise the paper under the weight of a heavy hand. Incision or indentation marks of any kind can be difficult to hide when your goal is a pristine finish. Hard charcoal will serve a purpose in our procedure, but it is not here. Corrections to the early drawing should also not be made by placing consecutively darker lines over lighter ones. This may leave you again with lines that are difficult to hide or meld into the drawing in later stages. Remove any unwanted lines or marks by dabbing with a kneaded eraser. Remember, keep your line drawing as light as possible. We try and keep our drawing ‘invisible’ from about 4 to 6 feet away.

3. Anticipate light by preparing dark. Clean Gradations right from the start!

As in most approaches to drawing, our shadow values are usually added first, but in a manner so as to not leave any hard edges. It is much easier to sharpen soft edges than it is to soften sharp ones. It is here that anticipation and planning prove key. Our shadow pattern edges are usually carried past their pattern boundaries (FIG. A). This allows for white to be added OVER the receptive black, and halftone gradations will develop instantly. The soft transitions that will result from this type of application will be much easier to blend as opposed to values placed abruptly flush.

4. Change your stroke direction frequently.

Varied direction of the pencil strokes (both black and white) tends to reduce the prominence of strokes in any one direction. Building up values with a light touch and varied direction can produce surprisingly clean gradations. This simple practice when applying the charcoal will make any type of blending much more effective in the latter stages.

5. Experiment with various blending tools (Several choices and some consequences to think about!)

Surprising to some, our preferred blending tool is charcoal itself. As we mentioned before, the harder charcoal grades do have a place in our process and it is here–blending. We use this harder grade pencil with light pressure to pull values together while pushing some surface charcoal down into the deep troughs of the paper’s tooth. This can make any exposed surface of the paper less distracting while giving the charcoal a more even and opaque finish.

From time to time we do employ other blending tools. Here are two additional materials and some consequences to consider.

Tortillions and Stumps – These are small paper felt blending tools. They can be employed early on to even out flat values and can quickly fill in the tooth of the paper if desired. However, you need to be careful as heavy pressure or friction from overuse can burnish down paper’s tooth which in turn will stop the paper from accepting additional layers of charcoal. Another aspect to consider is that the tips of the stumps and tortillions will collect a charcoal residue that can contaminate other values. Clean these tools regularly by rubbing the tip on a separate sheet of paper.

Brushes – We use brushes probably more often than tortillions or stumps. Brushes can even out values by pushing charcoal into the paper’s tooth as well, but to a much less aggressive degree. The issue to consider with the brush is that it has a tendency to lift charcoal from the surface. When working with several layers, you will need to be extra careful as some softer brushes (sable/synthetic) will lift a good deal of the charcoal away. I recommend experimenting with the effects of bristle, sable, and synthetic brushes before employing these tools on a finished piece.

Consider each of these points when striving for a polished result to maximize your efforts. Anticipate the steps ahead and you can anticipate a strong finish.

We wish you every success!

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