Struggling With Pencil And Other Laments

Pat Roberson wrote to me asking if she was somehow missing my posts.  I was glad she was missing my posts, but had to confess that they were being missed because I wasn’t writing them.  If I could write about CT scans, doctor visits, constant blood and urine testing, and a bit of depression, I’d have lots to write about.  As it is, however, writing about urban sketching would leave me empty-handed right now.

So, I’m going to talk about the little bit of sketching I’ve been trying to do, even though it’s sketching I’m unfamiliar with and even more problematic it’s being done with a tool I don’t understand at all … a pencil.

As the weather turned cold and my leg didn’t get any better I realized that this winter I was not going to be able to be an urban sketcher.  I decided to view this as an opportunity (I brainwash myself regularly).  I told myself that this would be a great time to set my pens aside and pick up a pencil in an attempt to master the tool.  Everyone else starts with pencil but I was a pen-driver when I came to sketching and so all of my art baby steps were done with pen.

Further I decided that I would learn my pencil skills by drawing portraits, either from photos or from plaster casts.  This was (is?) probably foolhardy because my least favorite sketching subject is people, but I need practice in this area too, so while the wind, rain and snow keeps me indoors, I might as well “get out of my comfort zone” and learn something new.

I started by drawing a bust of Mozart, a cast I picked up at a flea market in a small town east of Quebec City.  Only an artist drives along a road to a sketching location and has to turn around to visit the flea market because they saw a white head sticking up from one of the tables.

Anyway, it seems I got off to a bad start.  I made a rank beginner mistake.  “I was just learning so I don’t need good materials” was my thought and so I grabbed a pad of cheap watercolor paper that I’d rejected for use long ago and started drawing.  It was too grainy for a pencil drawing but it didn’t matter; I was “just learning” after all.  I struggled to get an even tone, partly because of my lack of skill but also because of that paper.  And then I realized that I’d drawn Mozart’s eye too large so I tried to erase it.  The paper immediately pilled and I had a REALLY rough spot where the eye used to be.  I tried to fix it but was a fool’s errand.

This frustrated me to the point of giving up, realizing that I was fighting the paper more than the pencil.  So, here is my partially drawn Mozart, shown here with a black eye caused when he told Haydn that major-minor theme variations were silly.  I’ll have to draw him again.


How Do You Use A Pencil?

Long before I decided to learn to draw I was a fountain pen guy.  I’ve always loved the feel of a nib running across paper.  So when I started trying to learn to draw, I used a fountain pen.  It’s still my tool of choice some two years later.

Some would argue this is a good thing as it forced me to look a lot and draw a little as erasers weren’t part of the process.  I think this is true and that it has helped me acquire a rudimentary ‘artist’s eye’, though that eye is still ill-developed.

But at the same time, I missed out on the more typical starting point for someone learning to draw – graphite or charcoal.  The pencil remains a very popular drawing tool and I’m completely ignorant of its uses.  I do carry a mechanical pencil but it’s full of 3H or 4H lead and I use it just to draw a few guidelines to block in a drawing and I quickly switch to pen for the rest.  So I’ve decided that I need to learn a bit about 2B, HB, and 4H pencils and how to rub them around to create value.  I also need to learn what you do with a kneaded eraser.  It’s a very clumsy process.  But I’m trying, mostly with little scribbles and doodles.

Monday I went with Yvan to the nearly hidden ‘museum’ at the university.  It holds the contents of the long defunct natural history museum, the university insect collection, and roughly 300 plaster casts.  These were given to the university sometime in the 19th Century, when art departments thought it wise for their students to learn to draw.  When they decided that you didn’t need to draw to be an artist if you were going to paint with a roller, spatula or by throwing paint at the canvas, all the casts were, well, cast off.  Only the insight and diligence of Madame Wagner, the curator of the ‘museum’, saved them from becoming so much broken plaster.

And so little old me has access to some 300 plaster casts of hands, feet, ears, noses, busts of famous people, and many, many full-size statues.  It makes even this street sketcher say KEWL!  I chose a poet named Benivieni as my first subject.  It wasn’t due to any affinity for him as I have no idea who he is but I liked his hat (grin).

Here’s my first attempt at doing a bust with a pencil.  It’s not perfect but it does, sorta-kinda, look like him so I was both surprised and happy.  I do have to work more on that ‘artist’s eye’ as seeing the half-tones is a challenge, but I think I’ll go back next week.  Those art students don’t know what they’re missing.

Stillman & Birn Alpha (9x12) with pencil.

Stillman & Birn Alpha (9×12) with pencil.