Form and volume

BM lilies Graphite on paper approx 5 inches by 5 inches. Student work.

It’s been two weeks since I last saw Elizabeth for a drawing lesson. We had discussed tone. As in the musical arts, drawing and painting have scales that need to be practiced. Tone is sometimes referred to as shading, since it is often used to produce the effects of light and shadow.

For the lesson, I had Elizabeth make seven small squares (like music has seven notes going up a scale). There is no point in trying to do this on a large scale since the purpose is simply to be aware that one can produce distinct grades of light to dark by varying the amount of drawing material on the paper and by applying more or less pressure. There will be plenty of opportunity later in your drawing life to tackle larger areas.

To refine the task, I asked her to fill in each square evenly (no variations in tone within the square) and to be precise, going right up but not over the edges. This exercise was done in vine charcoal which is a relatively forgiving.

If a person wants to draw representationally, then they need to be able to control their materials. A technical understanding of drawing methods and concepts is essential if we are going to be able to discuss drawing (and by extension, painting and all two dimensional artwork).

As homework, I set her the task of drawing some flowers from the garden. I asked her to remember all the other things we had learned while she was deciding on her imagery. I wanted her to be aware of the placement of objects in her drawing so that there was an interesting composition. I asked her to be mindful of specific shapes; to obtain a balance of light and dark; and then to apply and develop her skills of translating the light and shadow throughout the picture by shading.

“This time I was smart, ” Elizabeth e-mailed me mid-week. “I was drawing in the garden and I knew the light situation would change so I took a photo to remind me.” A few days later, she sent me this photo of her drawing, above.

Elizabeth has only been drawing with me for about three months, so I think her progress is phenomenal. She did a great job of the composition. The tonal balance is excellent. The pattern of the petals provides good textural interest and the details of the stamens and pistils is sharp and contrasting to the smoothness of the petals. She has been quite specific about each flower’s shape. I think she has done a wonderful job and I wouldn’t ask her to change the tiniest bit of this drawing.

For her next drawing, though, the best step forward would be to practice tonal differences – to catch nuances, to look more closely at how light and shadow work together. Note on the drawing above that the glass container appears to be flat when I suspect that it must have been round. Note too that there is an outline around each of the flowers.

To deal with these minor problems, I set Elizabeth the task of drawing an egg. It’s not an easy task. I challenge you to try it! First of all, I set out a plain surface that would show the shadows well. Then I shifted the desk lamp to ensure that there was strong light coming from one side. For this exercise, a strong light source is essential.

Then I set out three eggs. One was in an egg cup, to demonstrate that the lighting affects the egg differently when it is standing on end. One was on a black surface and the other on a white table napkin. The one on the black doesn’t reflect light back up from underneath; while the one on the white cloth has reflected light coming back up from underneath.

I asked Elizabeth to show me the whitest, lightest spot on the egg (the highlight) and then asked her to note that the shadows were actually coming from two light sources – the window and then from the lamp. Where the two shadows meet, there is a darker overlap

So here’s the set up:

BM Egg still life set up small

Elizabeth started with a simple oval which she refined as she sketched around a the same shape a few times.

BM Egg 2 small

I asked her if she thought she was finished, and she thought she was. But I wanted her to push the frontiers and to see that there was no line around the egg – it has no edges; and to my mind, whether she could see the darkish shadow on the lower part of the egg or not, it didn’t aid the observer to identify this object as an egg. It made it looked rather more like a plum!

I asked her to observe whether the material she could see behind the egg was lighter or darker than the egg. I asked her to observe where the linen napkin met the egg, and she adjusted her drawing accordingly. With the shadows that she had determined, she had the possibility of a good compositions.

BM Egg small 4

For the hour that she had to do this in, she learned quite a lot about drawing.

  • Shading provides the means to indicate form. Learning to make transitions in shading can help give volume to a flat shape.
  • Some objects do not have lines that contain them; they are continuous. Eggs are a great example, but faces and body parts have those subtle transitions as well. When a drawing looks flat, think about what you know and help make the object three dimensional by graduating the shadow and highlights.
  • A dark shape behind a light one increases the intensity of light on the forwards shape and removes the need for a line to define its shape.

As a final consideration of her work, I asked her to take another look at the composition. The parallel and diagonal light-coloured shape underneath the egg tends to bring you into the image on the left hand side and drive you out the right hand side just like an arrow.

If you go back to the photograph of the egg, above, you will see that the napkin edges play a significant role in the composition. They provide a vertical influence on the picture.

I asked her to think about cropping the image she finished with (the last illustration, above) and perhaps to find a way to use the vertical edges of the napkin to improve it.

I sent her home with a challenge. Try the same thing over again, but use pen and ink for one drawing and graphite for another. It sounds simple. But just try it!

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3 Responses to “Form and volume”

  1. forestrat Says:

    I was doing some research on half tone versus contiuous tone images the other day and when I saw the egg drawings I thought about how difficult it is to draw the shadow along the side of the egg using long continuous lines without making it look like an indentation. I looked back at the egg photo and thought about the half tone appearence of the shadow and that started me thinking that maybe a pointalist approach might be good here.

    Just a thought.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Forest Rat,
    Thanks for your comment. When Elizabeth drew that shadow onto her drawing, I was surprised by it and asked to sit where she was so that I could see it. It was a shadow that I had missed entirely.

    It really is quite an interesting exercise to draw eggs. I hadn’t thought about asking her to do a pointillist drawing, but funnily enough, when I was showing her examples of drawings done with continuous shading, I showed her some of Seurat’s drawings. He took up the shading business of art with great seriousness!
    The other example I showed her was done by Prudh’on – a nude, done charcoal on a grey or blue paper with highlights added in white chalk.
    I’ll pass the idea along to her. She is quite keen as students go. She might just like to try it.

  3. forestrat Says:

    I was just reading a comment by fencer that he left on my blog. He mentioned the sfumato technique of shading. I had never heard of it. Pretty cool.


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