Project Friday: Working on Pencil Technique by Sketching from the Masters

July 6, 2012

Above: This is a journal spread from a recent 8 inch (approx.) square journal I made with TH Saunders Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper. The tab at the center of the spread is the remains of a page I cut out when I first started working in the book (to allow room for later collage material). The recto page was completed first. I just grabbed some analogous colored pencils (Prismacolor) and started sketching one of my mugshot studies. The images on the verso page were done at a later time. These are copies made from drawings by John Singer Sargent.

You can learn a lot by looking at artwork created by "the masters." I believe this is particularly true when it comes to drawing. The artist has either got the line right (with all the length, breadth, weight, sensitivity, surety, and style) or he hasn't. It is informative to work from master drawings to see too how these decisions are made. Why this line and not that one, why this pressure and not that…

There are many ways you can practice this. I think the simplest is to find a book with drawings by your favorite artist. If you're working on pencil technique I suggest Ingres or Sargent.

I have a small Dover book of Sargent drawings. Dover prints a whole series of such books. They are economical and very useful. They probably have published one containing your favorite artist's drawings. As to Ingres, well I must have a shelf of books containing his works.

You can find sketches on line too, like this Ingres drawing of Mme Victor Baltard. Just be prepared to lie down for a moment and get your breath back, when looking at Ingres' work. And if you can get a good printed reproduction I think you'll see more than an image on your screen will tell you.

Find a sketch that you really like. Look for something that has a range of line techniques. Then with your pencil of choice (sharpened or not as the artist's pencil obviously was—and you can tell that from looking at the image) start copying the drawing, line by line. 

I tend to start with the eyes (as per usual) and work my way out. You want to constantly judge the angle, size, and length of any line you're putting down, against the original line in your print and against all the lines you've already put in your copy. As I work I find it interesting and helpful to ask myself questions about the decisions the artist made. What types of "shorthand" or "cheating" was he using to give a sense of dimensionality? When was he working with a fluid line? When did he find short jabs useful.

I'm suggesting a very slow and deliberate building of your copy drawing. Look closely at each line and try to replicate that line, asking questions as you go, judging relationships.  

You can of course work with an eraser in your hand and rub out your errors as you go, but I prefer to work very slowly and note my errors to myself, and leave them, comparing the copy and original at the end. I just don't like erasing.

Also if you are going to erase, work in graphite instead of colored pencil. You can't really erase colored pencil without distressing your paper.

When I do this there are always times when I'm really focused and things work out in a small area, and then in other places I'm totally off because I lost focus. I find that this teaches me a lot about where my attention lags, and also where I have difficult with my visual measuring—going too wide for instance, or too long for a nose, and so on.

If I were interested in a totally accurate copy erasing and taking breaks and coming back fresh would all be a good thing. For me I just want to have the dialog, notice where I went off and move on. I'm looking at the other artist's vocabulary of line.

So, for this Project Friday I suggest that you get a book of drawings by your favorite artist and start learning his or her vocabulary of lines. You can do this with pen and ink sketches as well, but you have to match pen types so it is often just easier to jump in with graphite.

Work at the same size or as close to the same size as the print/plate as you can, so that the character of your line matches the line in the "original." (If you blow up the size of your working copy you will constantly be making space adjustments based on what you see, with an extra amount added in and that can instantly lead to some wonkiness if your internal measuring device is at all week at the enlarging process. Also you would have to work with a fatter pencil lead to match the strokes of the original sketch. These sketches aren't going to be taken for forgeries they are just studies. And the print/plate you are working from probably isn't going to be the same size as the original artwork either.

Take your time. Really look. Ask questions of yourself. You'll find things that will make you appreciate your favorite artist all the more!

A Note on TH Saunders Waterford 90 lb. Hot Press Watercolor Paper

I was delightfully surprised at how enjoyable it was to sketch with colored pencils on this hot press watercolor paper. There is just enough tooth to give your line a bit of character. While the paper has been sized for watercolor the sizing doesn't repel the pencil pigment in the way some watercolor papers do. It's a great paper for doing this particular exercise. Bristol with a vellum finish would be another excellent choice. I do not find the paper in the Fabriano Venezia journal fun to sketch on in pencil so I wouldn't recommend it for this project. Plain copier bond is actually often suitable for this type of practice if you are using softer pencils and using a non-inkjet paper.

An Additional Suggestion

If you are interested in working more on training your eye and hand for coordination and seeing and rendering values you could also invest in Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gérôme: Drawing Course, edited by Gerald M. Ackerman. It's chock full of plates of exquisite drawings and of construction plates (where the beginnings of a cast drawing are shown as well as the developed drawing so you can work up the entire drawing).

If you do decide to go this route you can see a short video of someone working from a Bargue plate here. From time to time they teach a class in this at The Atelier in Minneapolis. I took two sessions of it several years ago and really enjoyed it. There were some differences in how we were taught (harder pencils for one thing—sharpened to a needle point) but you get the idea from this video. 

  1. Reply

    Roz: Great post!Art schools ( college )do not really do this anymore—but I think I learned more this way as a student than any other! Practicing trees is something I like to do with reference from Casper Friedrich, Van Gogh,Winslow Homer, and some of those Baroque painters.

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