Once upon a time, there was a girl who wore denim jeans that were so much a part of her identity, they eventually frayed with wear. One day, as she was sitting with crossed legs, she noticed the frayed ends, strands of white stretching away from the seams and onto her feet. She stared, and saw not old jeans, but rather walks that went for miles along the river bank, concerts on lawns and in stadiums, bicycle rides, and drives so long that the strands themselves would have slept against her ankles, lullabied by the hum of the car’s tires on the highway, if they could.
You could probably guess that I’m telling you about a moment from my own experience; I even tried to write a poem about these frayed jeans, but words (believe it or not) wouldn’t come. So I stared, thought, breathed, and moved on.
Art, such as Resting (above) by Mary Ann Pals, speaks to this type of poetic pause in time, when we stop what we’re doing, lost in our own moment and consider past, present, and future instead of continuing on with our foot on the gas pedal as we round the bend.
Mary Ann tells us more about Resting in Strokes of Genius 5: “This composition was a happy accident after my daughter had pulled off her shoes. The way the shoes and laces interacted with each other caught my attention: The curve of the right shoe’s toe returned me to the center where one lace perfectly filled the shadowed gap between the shoes. I grabbed my camera and shot some reference photos at shoe level. I started with charcoal, rendering the drawing almost to completion, then I applied the buttery pastels on top. I kept my color palette simple, only using enough color to help tell the story.”
In addition to the drawing itself, I love that instead of picking up the shoes that were left on the floor (as the mother in me wants to do at my own house), Mary Ann saw the possibility of art. I see love in this drawing.
Each of the works in Strokes of Genius 5, The Best of Drawing: Design and Composition speak volumes of stories; but in addition to providing inspiration, the artists offer their advice and share tips, describing how they conceived of and created their art. One of my favorite lines is from Susan Edison: “When my students are stuck I say, ‘Take the first step, there will be something better on the other side.’” (Tweet this quote)
Until next time,
Marriage of Two Mediums—Using Charcoal and Pastels in a Single Artwork
By Mary Ann Pals
For many years I worked with both charcoal and pastels separately, but never together on one piece of work because it just “wasn’t done.” In the classical school of learning, once one learns to draw with charcoal, one’s drawing tools are then set aside, and they may enter the world of color using pastels. Yes, pastels are a drawing medium, but many artists, myself included, use pastels in such a way that the finished piece almost looks like a painting with no drawing strokes evident. I love both worlds—the richly detailed and deep shadowy darks of charcoal, and the brilliant, exciting color of pastels. Why not have the best of both worlds? I figured there had to be a way, and so my quest was on.
My drawings with charcoal and pastel tend to fall into three basic styles: Greeting Card, Old World, and Purposeful. I’d like to share with you the techniques for these, so you can experiment with them for yourself as well.
Greeting Card Style
The first type is similar to a greeting card with a black and white photograph on the front, with only the focal area in color. I decided to try that with charcoal and pastels, resulting in what I refer to as the Greeting Card Style.
Choose the subject: Images that work best for this type of style have a background that have detailed and textured backgrounds, but lack interesting colors. In this reference photo, the surrounding floor, carpet, wall, and door were all a drab gray. Sometimes I use Photoshop to tweak my reference photo if the background and foreground are not black, white, and/or gray enough. I usually do this by using the Lasso tool to outline my colored center of interest, then click Select, Inverse, then Enhance and Adjust Color, and finally Remove Color. That removes all color from everything other than my center of interest.
Next, I evaluate whether the resulting image is indeed what I’m looking for. In this case, I wanted the green in the shoes to really stand out. Once I was satisfied with the image, I printed the reference photo and took out my drawing supplies.
Paper Choice: For most of my combination drawings, I use Rives BFK Printmaking paper in either white or cream. I can get the fine details I’m after with my charcoal pencil on this surface, but it also has just enough tooth to grab pastel marks. For Resting, I chose the white paper.
Starting the Drawing: I used a variety of charcoal and graphite pencils ranging from HB to 6B, a kneaded eraser, and a stiff white school-type eraser. I started by rendering just the outer contours of the shoes and all the laces. Then I brought the entire background and foreground, not the shoes, to a state of finish using only charcoal and graphite.
**Special Word of Caution: With this Greeting Card Style, pastel needs to be applied after the whole charcoal drawing is in place. Trying to draw charcoal around the pastel doesn’t work because you could easily make your edges muddy. Also, it’s best not to put any charcoal or graphite shading under where the pastel will go. Many pastel colors are translucent and charcoal can show through and darken the resulting color. For example, in Resting, I wanted the green pastel color to be pristine and pure to give its full impact in contrast to the black and white areas.
Adding Color: I use a wide variety of pastel brands, but for the detailed work of this piece, I prefer the harder brands such as Conté, Polychromos, or NuPastels. I chose five pastel colors—lime green for the sunlit areas, medium green, dark green for the shadowed areas, and light gray and white for the rim of the shoes. I colored these in and was careful to stay inside the lines. Stray color marks can be easily erased. For white areas, like the laces, I was careful to just leave the white of the paper show through.
Finishing Touches: For places where I wanted a muddied, off-white look as with the front rim of the shoes, I first put down a layer of light gray pastel and then very sparingly crosshatched fine charcoal, graphite, and white pastel lines on top. I also drew over the top of some charcoal edge lines with dark green pastel. I stroked in the shadowed areas on the laces with graphite and charcoal. Next I applied some light gray pastel to the carpeting in the foreground in a circular motion to soften its textured look. Lastly, I redefined the edges of some of the laces with a charcoal pencil, and my piece was done.
Old World Style
The second way that I combine the two media is to make a more monochromatic-looking piece, layering both charcoal and a small analogous set of pastels. The pieces I do in this style are usually in sepia tones and have an old world look to them.
Reworking the reference photo: For this style, I tweak the reference photo using Photoshop. I first use the Lasso tool to choose elements in the photo that have intense color, and then choose Enhance, Adjust Color, and Color Variations and tweak their color until it’s a closer approximation in intensity and hue to the colors in the rest of the photo. Then I undo the Lasso component and continue to use the Color Variations tool until I get my desired sepia-toned effect. With green, that usually involves increasing the red and decreasing the green and blue. (I don’t doubt that there’s software that renders a sepia toned image much more easily than this, but I don’t own it, so I do the best I can with Adobe Photoshop Elements 4. Some digital cameras even have a sepia setting on them, which I’m sure makes life easier).
Drawing Tools and Surface: I used cream-colored Rives BFK Printmaking paper and, for this entire piece, I used a six-pack set of Koh-i-noor Gioconda pencils. The set includes a sepia light, sepia dark, red chalk, white chalk, charcoal, and graphite. It’s a great set of pencils and has all that’s needed to create a limited palette old-world look.
The Drawing: I first render the large, general shapes with charcoal. Then I create layers, especially in the shadowed areas, first with charcoal, and then using either the darker sepia pencil or the lighter one on top of the charcoal. In many places, I put down a layer of charcoal, then color, then evaluate, then add more charcoal, then add more color on top until I’m satisfied with an area’s values. For the sunlit tops of the trees and for the center of the pool below, I used only red chalk in this example. For the waterfall, sunlight, and the foreground sand, I used only white chalk. For the lighter tan areas, I let the paper do much of the work for me by simply letting the paper color show through.
The third style that I use for combining the two media is a cross between the first two styles. Both charcoal and pastel are used in the piece, but with forethought as to which medium to use and where based on each medium’s unique attributes.
Evaluating the Reference Photo: This reference photo was a perfect candidate for using the Purposeful Style. The rich, dark detailed feathers on the bird are perfectly suited for using charcoal, while the surrounding swamp colors needed a looser, brighter colored medium such as pastel. I decided to leave out all the distracting foreground brush in my piece.
Beginning the Drawing: I used white Rives BFK paper and started by rendering a detailed charcoal drawing of just the bird and the tree stump. Then I loosely rendered the rest of the drawing, including the bird’s beak, using only pastels. Next I layered muted colors on the tree stump, darkening shadowed passages with both pastel and charcoal.
Finishing touches: Lastly, I used a variety of colors of pastel pencils to add the soft bright color notes on the Anhinga’s feathers. I also deepened the darks of a few places on the bird with black pastel, and added red-orange to the underside of its neck. The sunlit white on either side of its neck is just the white of the paper showing through.
A Word of Caution: Compared to charcoal, black pastel tends to stand out and can ‘take over,’ so it needs to be used sparingly. Charcoal is more subtle. Next to black pastel, charcoal looks like dark gray. Use this knowledge to your advantage and choose wisely where you might want to use black pastel, and where you’ll want to use charcoal.
I’ll admit it, I love the detail I can render with charcoal and graphite. But I love the brilliant, glistening color of pastel too. So finding a way to effectively use both mediums was doubly satisfying for me. Now I can enjoy the best of both worlds, and I hope you can as well.