Erasing More Than Mistakes

Most people begin drawing using erasers only as a correctional tool. But if you limit erasers to that role, you’re overlooking their use as a powerful drawing tool. An eraser can help you add light, atmosphere and movement to your drawings. By layering or cross-hatching, you’ll normally build up darks gradually while retaining the light. But it’s possible to work the other way, beginning with the dark tones and subtracting the light with an eraser. I’ve found that working with the eraser in this way has helped me add drama to my paintings.

Choosing Your Weapon
To begin, you’ll need to choose an eraser you can work with comfortably. Most erasers, made from petroleum by-products, are categorized into three types. The gum eraser is firm but soft. It crumbles as it’s used and won’t damage paper, but will smear such soft media as charcoal or pastel. Rubber erasers, like the white plastic and pink erasers, are best used with graphite. These erasers tend to damage the surface of your paper, but can be cut with a razor blade to create thin, white accent lines.

Finally, the gentle, easy-to-use kneaded eraser is pliable enough to be molded any way you want–from a point to a ball. This long-lasting, non-abrasive eraser works best with soft carbon, charcoal, graphite or pastel drawings. It self-cleanses when you knead it with your fingers and leaves your work space free of eraser dust.

Using the Eraser
With your tool of choice in hand, you’re now ready to discover what the eraser can do for you. In a nutshell, you can use it to subtract darker areas and refine them as light. Shaping the edge of the eraser to a point will give you a drawing pencil for creating precise edges.

The most dramatic use of the eraser, however, is allowing it to interact with the drawing itself. This technique can be done by using the eraser to make drawing strokes–scribbling, hatching and smudging.

You can also make eraser marks across your drawing to create movement or break down defined edges to create atmosphere. For example, in Still Life With Fruit, I used the eraser to rub out marks suggesting light flooding through the window. The eraser thus helped me energize the drawing.

Drawing Dark to Light
Now let’s try a few specific exercises with the eraser. Begin by covering an entire sheet of paper with charcoal. It’s helpful to use the side of the stick for faster coverage and a soft paper towel to even out the application. Rub the charcoal into the paper so it becomes a rich gray. Be careful it doesn’t get too dark.

Now you’re ready to begin your composition. Draw in your subject with charcoal or pencil. Avoid drawing details, but block in large shapes to define objects. If you make a mistake, rub it into the background and begin again.

Next study your subject carefully to determine the lightest shapes. Squinting your eyes will eliminate the middle tone so you see only the darkest and lightest values. Now use your eraser to create these light parts, lifting out the charcoal by shaping the kneaded eraser to a point or a flat edge so you virtually draw with it as you’re erasing the charcoal.

Putting less pressure on the eraser, define your midtones by lifting out still more charcoal in the appropriate places. Rough paper can be helpful here for texture and surface variety.

Finally, restate the darkest blacks and refine the dark edges to maximize impact. Remember, making use of the full value scale—from the lightest to the darkest tones—will give your subject depth and objects volume, and imbue the entire drawing with atmosphere and light.

Seeing the Big Picture
Creating a good drawing requires thinking about every aspect of the picture. Approaching a drawing from dark to light and from large shapes to more detailed shapes will help you think of your drawing as a whole. Isolated objects often “look good,” but the trouble is integrating them into a coherent space with background.

For example, negative space, the area around an object, should be considered an element in the drawing as much as the positive shape of the objects. With the dark-to-light approach, you’re addressing the background and the negative space from the start. With the background on the paper first, you must look at the value instead of the outline when deciding what shape to pull out. This strategy will help you to better conceptualize your work.

Achieving an Expressive Drawing
Labored details and repetition of lines and outlines in a drawing are sometimes interesting, but often don’t yield bold, dynamic drawings. Using the eraser as a drawing tool can help you approach a drawing in a different way. Begin by choosing any subject with strong value contrasts, such as a portrait of someone in strong sunlight or an interior lit from the window. Mood and drama can be readily included as you manipulate the bold contrast of lights and darks. In addition, this exercise will train your eye to see the essence of a scene first. So take the eraser challenge and try using it to breathe atmosphere and light into space to yield bolder, more expressive drawings.

Martha Newfield is a Cincinnati-based artist and instructor.

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