How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°1 : By understanding why drawing lightly is useful.

It is my experience that learning to draw lightly is one of the major skills to acquire by the student in drawing and painting. This is important because in nature, forms, edges and contrasts are much softer than we perceive them. More precisely, there is an infinite variety between the two extremes of nature’s relative softness and hardness. To represent this reality, it is therefore essential to open one’s touch and learn the whole palette of gradations from extremely soft values to very dark ones.

Yet, by our education, we have become experts at making hard and distinct marks that are essential to writing words. We have ingrained in our body and in our muscles this memory of pressing the pencil deep into the fabric of the paper. But there is a another reason for the predominance of hard lines in the beginner’s drawings. It is the belief in a world full of rigid architectures like buildings, houses, cars, tables, chairs and so on which makes it tempting to think that hard lines form the bulk of what reality is.

However beautiful such hard lines might be in man-made constructions, they are only a very limited part of the equation. As such, we should use them carefully and draw them only when necessary. Quoting Roger Penrose, a renowned mathematician and physicist : “relating the Platonic mathematical world to the physical world – that I am allowing only a small part of the world of mathematics need have relevance to the workings of the physical world.” We should therefore approach drawing with an “open mind” : in reality, everything is related to everything, there are no clear and hard boundaries between objects.

“When it comes to edges actually found on surfaces, rather than at their boundaries, one very important characteristic is that very few objects have perfectly sharp edges. This is a crucial detail when reproducing man-made objects, since their slightly rounded edges will often catch a highlight. Including this detail can add a valuable level of realism to an image […] It’s worth noting that in real-world objects almost any edge is rounded to some extent”. There are some very interesting examples in the book that show the difference between simple shapes drawn respectively with hard and soft contrasts and edges.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°2 : By using medium graphite pencils or hard charcoal sticks.

Whereas hard lines are final and difficult to erase, soft lines are non-committal, erasable and the basis for future lines.

In the graphite world, it is preferable to use soft pencils at the beginning of the drawing where everything is still unsure. But be careful not to choose the softest pencils as too much softness might be an inconvenience too for its lack of precision. Therefore a B or 2B is perfect for the job. If you have access to very smooth paper then you can use something slightly lighter : an HB or H.

In the charcoal world, due to the coarse nature of the material, it is harder to find something adapted to light drawing that has the same level of control than graphite. Vine charcoal is not suited because it is too dusty and messy. Also the absence of binder makes it very hard to control and it doesn’t stick into the paper. On the other side of the spectrum, compressed charcoal has the opposite problem : containing too much binder, it sticks too much and is hard to erase.

Some artists use Nitram charcoal as a comprmise to these problems (see extract here below). If Nitram charcoal is not available to you, a General’s Hard or 2B is a possible alternative but you’ll have to learn to draw with the lightest touch possible.

This video shows how Nitram charcoal has properties that are somewhat in-between those of usual vine charcoal on one hand and those of compressed charcoal on the other. For drawing light lines, I would recommend the B grade (green box) or the HB (red box). The H (blue box) is usually too hard.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°3 : By realizing how tense you are.

It is curious that the shivering sensation of drawing a hard line is not acknowledged by beginners. Once they are told how light they should be, some students will even retaliate with anger. If your lines are so harsh, imagine how crude your other perceptions might be!

Therefore it is my belief that the biggest mistake beginners make is not concerned with choosing the right material or judging the proportions as is commonly thought. It is their refusal to acknowledge how much stress they have accumulated in their bodies throughout their lives. This is especially true of people spending their days behind computers : their bodies are tense, their eyes tired, their hands ruined.

That’s why, before committing to drawing, they must go through a psychological revolution in order to free their bodies from unwanted pressure. In the video here below, Fernando Freitas from Realist Art Academy explains the basics of drawing lightly.

In Part 2 of Bargue Drawing Companion, Fernando Freitas describes some useful skills for drawing lightly. He calls this “ghostiness” of lines. His advice is to rest your hand on the paper for careful movements that need support. By “joints acting as pendulum”, he means you need to lock some joints for straighter lines and may have to move the whole hand-arm/shoulder in space accordingly.

Unfortunately, the video is only available for purchase. Follow the link included and watch out for sales to get it for a low price.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°4 : By freeing your hands from tension.

Light drawing experiment : to put into practice what was said before, try filling an empty square with a very light gradation. Hold the pencil at the tip. Make the gradation as light as you can. Repeat the exercise many times.

While drawing with very low pressure, you will experience a strange feeling. Your heart will beat suddenly much faster, you will hold your breath and you will experience an unbearable dizziness of the senses as if you were standing on the edge of a cliff. Your pencil might even fall down on the ground. This is not a problem : some very light adjustments to drawings demand that you be at the edge of pressure.

In drawing as in any other art, the enemy of light pressure is tension. Musicians overcome this sensation by continually reducing pressure in their fingers and wrists. Since I am a musician too, to relax my hands for both drawing and music, I practice a set of musician’s hand gymnastics. Any other method of relaxing fingers, hands, wrists and elbows as well as breathing exercises can be used to improve your drawing skills.

Since I am musician too, I use piano-style hand gymnastics from Alfred Cortot’s Relational Principles for relaxing for my fingers before drawing. Of course, you don’t have to use piano exercises for drawing. Any method that relieves tension from your hands in a painless fashion will do the job.

Yoga works very well for artists that work all day. There are a lot of videos of yoga hand exercises on the net. Here’s one I like. Be sure to be very gentle while doing these exercises. Your hands shouldn’t hurt at any time.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°5 : By using light marks in the early stages of the drawing.

As expected, you will need to draw lightly in what some regard as the most important stage of drawing, that is the block-in stage. The block-in is the “simplified 2D shape of the model”. In such a phase, your lines should stay light to avoid committing to anything until you are sure that your lines and values are correct. This allows you to make changes without damaging the paper.

Drawing lightly allows you to play with the proportions until you reach a satisfying likeness. With such an infrastructure laid out in light lines, the succeeding stages of the drawing will go more smoothly and efficiently.

“The envelope doesn’t have to fit like a glove. In fact, its points are almost inevitably out of place. It’s an estimate. It conveys important information about the proportion, orientation, and location of the drawing on the page.” Anthony Ryders uses the block-in as a construction device to guide the location of the drawing. As such, its lines are not meant to be final. Therefore they should stay light and be erased in later stages.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°6 : By learning to recognize light values in nature.

The other area of drawing that makes drawing lightly a necessity is the representation of lights present in reality. Objects that are lit with daylight must be represented with surprisingly light veils of value. But it is more complex than just representing these natural lights with a one-to-one matching technique, that is matching exactly the values seen. You have to understand that your drawing materials and setups don’t allow you to do that.

In fact, bright values in nature are much lighter than you think. They are usually lighter than the value of the brightest white paper available. Therefore, if you want to represent what’s happening in the lights, you have to compress values and make very subtle distinctions with a very narrow range of values.

The trick here is not getting overwhelmed by what you perceive! Because your eyes (and brain), especially at close range, see all the subtle details and distinctions. If you were to follow blindly what they tell you, given the limited palette of values at your disposition, you would press harder than you should and “over-model” the subject. To avoid that, you will have to learn to make compromises.

Here are a few ways to handle this (not an exhaustive account) :

  • representing less and letting the light pop in the lighter areas. This has the drawback of flattening the drawing.
  • over-modelling parts of the subject to emphasize the form. This can be unpleasant if not handled very lightly.
  • learning to control pressure to produce more values out of your pencil. This is not always possible with some media and takes years of practice.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°7 : By practising the skill in isolation.

Maybe putting down hard lines is a necessary step for beginners. You need to put as much pressure as you can into the pencil until it hurts you and the drawing. At that point, I hope you will realize you are the one behind the pencil. This process takes a lot of time as it does in any other art.

In learning to master the pressure and drawing softly, practice is key : you have to go slowly and break the movement into “chewable” units. You can refer to my articles on efficiency and practice if you want more information on principles that will get you on the right track to a heavenly touch.

An example of a video where I make very refined and light modifications to a work in progress

In drawing the light gradations on this foot, I’m barely touching the paper with the tip of my pencil. The pressure is almost at its lowest because I don’t want to destroy the base I have already drawn.

How can I draw lightly with the pencil n°8 : By avoiding damage to the paper.

In graphite, building a dark value takes a lot of material. Proceeding lightly in layers prevents you from damaging the paper, that is you won’t burnish the crests of the paper. To know more about how graphite can damage the paper, you can consult this article.

In charcoal, drawing with a lot pressure is less damaging than in graphite. That is only true if you use soft charcoal. In fact, hard charcoal (General’s Charcoal Hard pencil or Nitram red or blue sticks) or white pastel (General White Charcoal or other brands) will damage the paper just as badly as graphite. In that case, you also need to control the pressure in the same manner.

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