The act of drawing is basically just making marks on a surface. Any marks, any surface. Make the marks that express who you are the story you want to tell and on the surface that inspires you. I’ve experimented with lots of marks and lots of surfaces in the past and still do. I’ve drawn on paper with a sewing machine, I’ve drawn on fabric with stitch and with paint. I’ve collaged the little round dots that a hole-punch ejects. Once, at college when I was 16, I dyed cigarette butts and sewed them together to give the impression of the wall of a house. I hope to make many more marks on many more surfaces. This blog post is about the way I make pencil marks to create my finished pencil drawings – the medium I couldn’t help falling obsessively in love with. I’ll talk about how I go about putting together one of my bigger pencil drawings. I’ll cover composition and techniques. My work is detailed, quite controlled, and very slow. There are lots of wilder more expressive ways to use a pencil and I would definitely encourage you to do that, too!
The Lay Out
One of the most common questions that I get asked is: How long does it take to do a drawing?
The answer, of course, depends on the scale and complexity of the drawing. It can range from a couple of hours to many, many, many hours. An example would be this piece which is called The Little Turbine House [Rewilding] which I worked on when I was on maternity leave last year waiting for the piglet to make his entry into the world. I wasn’t doing any other work so it was easier to count the hours spent and the final tally came to approximately 30 hours. It is 43cm x 28cm.
Those thirty hours are the reason it is important to take the time to lay out the drawing properly to begin with. Taking the time to properly lay out a drawing when all you really want to do is get going with making lovely pencil marks is very boring and frustrating. If I’m working on a larger more complex piece that combines different pieces of reference material then it can often take me over an hour to lay out a drawing. I’m bubbling over with excitement about the subject and I think it’ll take five mins to make a rough plan and then I’ll be off. An hour later I’m knee-deep in failed paper templates and still trying to place that rogue blue tit in the composition. It is a very important part of the process, though. I don’t want to get eleven hours in to a drawing and discover that I’ve not left enough room for the fox’s nose to fit, or that I’ve gone a bit squint along the way. I completely plan the drawing before I begin. If it is a particularly complicated drawing I make a paper template of all the elements and lay them out on the surface to check that the composition is going to work and everything looks well together. I mark out on my board where the main shapes will sit in pencil. These marks can be rubbed out as you progress through the drawing.
Having the full drawing marked out before you begin allows you to get a sense of how the piece will work as a whole. You can identify where the lightest and darkest areas are. I make mental notes to be careful to keep a certain negative space nice and clean. I can also see which shapes or textures will be the focus of the piece.
You can see in this work-in-progress picture of my big mushrooms drawing that the rest of the drawing is clearly mapped out with basic guiding lines:
You can also see in the above drawing that I work across the page from left to right. I’ll cover that next…
It is often said that there is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. Well, if you’ve already done the lay out for your drawing then there’s nothing to be intimidated by. You can just delve in! I choose to work in a systematic way from the top left corner across the page to the bottom right. That is largely because pencil tends to smudge really easily if you brush your hand across an area which you’ve already worked on (I am right-handed). Other people deal with this problem by masking areas off to protect them but I prefer to work left to right and let the drawing slowly emerge. I build my drawings with thousands of little pencil marks laid down in layers. I love watching areas of the paper come to life as I make little marks. It is a bit like doing a jigsaw or embroidery. Each piece or stitch is meaningless on its own but place them together and an image emerges. Of course I will go back to an area of the drawing if it needs to be darker or be worked into more.
I basically build my drawings through the very simple technique of hatching and cross-hatching. It’s a technique as old as time originally used by sculptors in their planning drawings in order to get a quick sense of the 3D and widely used by print-makers in etchings in particular. Hatching is the use of parallel lines, laid alongside each other, to describe light and dark. Cross-hatching lays lines back across the hatching to create a denser area. The denser the area (i.e. the more lines you place) the darker the area will be.
The way in which the lines are placed can describe the qualities of a subject. What I do with my pencil is to describe what I see – light and darkness, planes of form, texture. I think of it as 2D construction work. With hatching techniques you can vary the qualities of the lines that you make – the length of the lines, their closeness to each other, the quantity, the spacing, whether they cross over each other and if so at which angle, the direction of the lines, whether the lines are rigid or flowing – to describe something in detail.
I love thinking about how I can express different textures with my pencil – whether something is soft, hard, clear, solid, shiny, bristly. I have to chose the correct lines to make in order to express those qualities. The lines I choose are from the tool kit of lines that I’ve built up through hours of practice. It’s the choice of marks that tell the story and gives life to a drawing. By choosing to make certain marks I can express how I feel about the subject, where I see beauty, and the essence of the thing.
Here’s some examples of marks used to draw an otter, reflections on water and some vegetation from my drawing ‘Texture of the River’ from a few years back:
I combine lines travelling in different directions – some looser and some more organised – to explain that there are a variety of reflections on the surface of the water. I also have to show that the otter is above the surface, as are some of the sticks and the vegetation. There’s movement in the water, the otter is still but a living creature. The overall scene is peaceful. These things are all expressed through layering tiny little pencil marks and leaving other areas blank.
Here’s the finished piece:
I’ll let you be the judges of how successful I was!
[you can find a limited edition print of The Texture of the River in the shop]
I add colour to my drawings with a basic watercolour wash. As I mentioned in my post about materials, I work on a firm mount-board which can handle some watercolour without warping. I do the wash at the very end once the pencil work is finished. It is the structure of the pencil work that does the work rather than the watercolour. I am definitely not a painter! The wash on top lifts things, and can separate out elements, but it should be the pencil marks that do the storytelling. I mostly try to add a minimal amount of colour. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I add too much or too little.
After you’ve spent many hours on the pencil work of a drawing it is pretty terrifying to put paint on it. Pencil can be rubbed out. Paint cannot. I’ve definitely ruined things by adding watercolour. But you just have to go for it and hope for the best!
I hope my little guide to how to put together a drawing has been helpful. I find that time passes totally differently when I am drawing. Hours seep away. It is a lovely dazed place that I don’t get to go to as often now that I have a one-year old to entertain!
Happy drawing! Please do send me any questions you have or suggestions on other things I could try.