Rock Stars

Rocks are so abundant in our landscapes that they?re often overlooked, both as a design element and as a fascinating drawing subject. But in addition to often playing the dominant role in a painting, they?re complex and diverse objects that can be a real challenge to draw accurately. They shouldn?t be neglected, and the best realist artists know how much fun they can be to add to your landscape.

A rock?s shape is determined by many millions of years of history. It may have been extruded, ground down, worn by sand or water, reheated and recooled, cracked by ice, combined slowly or violently with other molten or solid rocks, or carried away by a glacier. As a result, instead of the simple planes artists typically find in a building or a still life object, rocks present us with a wide variety of planes facing many different directions. Sharp edges blend into rounded edges. Combinations of textures and color create surfaces that mask basic shapes. With a little patience and practice, however, you can draw convincing rocks and they can become the most interesting objects in your composition.

Start Simple
For good training, start by finding and drawing a single rock, one you can fit in the palm of your hand. To concentrate on shapes and avoid getting distracted by texture and details at this stage, paint the rock white with any oil or house paint you have available. Then, beneath a single, bright source of light, find the position for the rock that best shows off the light and dark planes that define it. The ability to choose the best point of view for a particular rock is one of the biggest advantages of this exercise.

Make a simple drawing of the major planes that create the basic shape of the rock, and try to ignore the in-between planes to avoid complication. Then roughly shade or tone the drawing to give the structure volume. Next make a second drawing, this time adding the secondary planes that provide more character, and when you shade this one be careful not to lose the underlying structure established by your simpler sketch.

Explore Variety
Once you?ve done this, try the same technique?first with paint, then without?on a variety of other rocks with different shapes, and be sure to follow normal drawing conventions. Dark planes will appear a little darker where they meet a light one, and light planes will appear lighter where they meet a dark one. Reflected light helps define the lower edges of dark planes, as do the shadows cast by the rock. For smoothly rounded rocks, begin shading the side closest to the light, moving across and lightening through the highlight and then gradually darkening into the side facing away from the light.

With drawing of a variety of rocks in their natural state comes the complicating factors of texture and color. Although drawn in black and white, the banded limestone drawn here is a coal-black rock, and my challenge was to differentiate among the tones used for its three sides while still indicating its dark color. The well-worn chunk of pegmatite next to it is a dramatic mixture of light and dark minerals, and the resulting texture dominates the drawing.

Different types of rock tend to crack or break up in different ways. Sedimentary rocks, like the banded limestone, come apart like layer cakes, and sometimes their layers are soft enough to crumble. Most igneous rocks fracture into boxy, sharp-edged shapes that are somewhat easier to draw. Capturing these structural differences in your drawings can do a lot to enliven the composition. Boulders exhibit essentially the same shapes as small rocks, so the transition to a larger scale shouldn?t be too difficult.

The Natural State
The fields of rocks that are so often found in natural settings introduce another challenge. With considerable patience you could observe and draw the shape of each individual rock in the field, but I don?t recommend it. Instead, identify the major rocks and draw them carefully. Then fill in the spaces between them with shorthand marks that indicate a coarsely textured ground without being too detailed. Three tones?light, medium and dark?are usually sufficient for this effect, regardless of how many rocks are present or how varied they are.

With this experience, you?ll be ready to approach bedrock. Still in the location where it was formed and often more nearly in its original shape and condition, cliffs and ledges present a different problem from loose rocks. You?ll rarely be able to see more than one side of a mass of bedrock, so instead of defining it as three-dimensional by drawing the other sides you?ll have to rely on texture. But this task is similar to drawing a single plane of any other textured rocks you?ve drawn. Start by defining the shape of the cliff, then the basic tones, and then the secondary planes and details that break up the surface and make it more interesting.

Flow lines are particularly useful in such cases. Cracks and breaks in rocks often run in the same general direction, so the shapes of the broken pieces are repeated. Erosion and wear create grooves and valleys that run downhill. All this creates flow lines, which organize our view and help us to describe the objects, even if the pattern is interrupted by lesser planes or cracks.

The more you take on rocks as an artistic subject, the more you?ll realize what an endless variety there is and how they?re taken for granted in most landscapes. Don?t make the same mistake in your paintings. Make the effort to draw the best rocks you can, and you?ll be giving the viewer a glimpse at some of nature?s finest creations.

Catherine Anderson is a Signature Member of the American Watercolor Society and the author of Basic Watercolor Answer Book. Her DVD, Creating Multiple Glazes in Your Watercolors, is available now on her web site

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