One artist experiments with drafting film and mixed drawing media for a contemporary twist on traditional techniques.
By Julio Reyes
We live in a time of great technological innovation. I feel fortunate to be making art when so many new means and materials are at our fingertips. The trick is to understand what you want out of your materials and what it is you’d like to achieve by using them. Learning how to use traditional materials (paper made of cellulose, wood panels, real gesso, etc.) and traditional approaches makes a good foundation for understanding how to experiment in the studio and how to incorporate innovative new materials into your body of work.
Learning to make things well is paramount. Many of history’s masterpieces are the result of innovations in thought and execution. They’re also made so exquisitely and with such expertise that they’ve survived the centuries. Hence, in order to know how to break the rules, it’s good to know what the rules are. Once those are established, it’s time to incorporate new techniques!
Water-Based Media in Drawings
In my recent work, I’ve experimented with introducing water-based media into my drawing process. I’ve always loved the draftsmanship and calligraphy of pencil, charcoal, and other dry media. I thought it would be interesting to combine those with expressive and atmospheric washes of media like ink, gouache, and acrylic.
Some of my favorite drawings by Käthe Kollwitz and Vincent van Gogh combine various media such as charcoal, pastel, ink, and lithographic crayon. There are also exquisite examples in history of watercolor and/or gouache being used in concert with graphite and other dry media by masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. Many of these works, however, were done on what we would now consider traditional materials, such as vellum, paper, and prepared wood panels, all of which have certain strengths (which I love). But they also have limitations that don’t always align with my own propensities, work habits, or degree of patience.
I’ve done drawings that combined the use of different media — even wet media. But I haven’t done so without incredible restraint and careful planning. This time, I wanted to see if there were materials that might allow me to be more spontaneous and aggressive in the way I constructed a drawing. I wanted materials that wouldn’t warp with time and/or moisture; that would hold up against repeat washes; that wouldn’t crumble or dissolve under a stiff brush or tear when I scrubbed or sanded the surface.
I wanted materials that would allow me to interchange, at will, the hard dry point of a carbon pencil, the sooty black powder of charcoal, and the deep saturating veils of black ink, without having to be so restrained by the intrinsic limitations of paper. I needed to experiment with new materials in search of a solution that better suited my needs. But I didn’t want to compromise the “soundness” of my drawings in terms of conservation.
Dura-Lar and Mylar
Drafting film has been around for some time; years ago, I’d heard of some contemporary painters like Alex Kanevsky using drafting film as a paint surface for oils; it wasn’t until recently that I decided to give it a try. Drafting film is a nonabsorbent polyester film that can be purchased in either a transparent or matte (“frosted”) finish. The kind I use is frosted on both sides. It’s semitransparent and is called Dura-Lar.
Traditional paper is essentially a thin layer of intermingled cellulose fiber. Depending on what kind of paper you’re using, it’s susceptible to moisture; it will tear when saturated with enough water or when erased too vigorously. This is not the case with drafting film. The surface is smooth, consistent and translucent.
Essentially, it’s plastic: tough, non-yellowing, and waterproof, so it will last forever. The frosted Dura-Lar is what you want; the matte surface is created by very fine irregularities in the surface that reflect light by scattering it in all directions and allowing for a mechanical bond to occur between the film and your media. Graphite, carbon pencil, and charcoal will adhere to it. And ink, acrylic gesso and gouache can be used generously and without excessive beading.
This surface is a unique option but with special attributes that you really have to want in order to use it in place of paper. The look, feel, and texture of a drawing on drafting film are different than those of a drawing on paper. Marks made on drafting film are smoother and more uniform; they will lack the character of marks made on quality paper. As with every choice in materials, there are pros and cons you must weigh for yourself.
Mixed Drawing Media on Drafting Film
I wanted to take advantage of drafting film’s semi-opaque qualities in Moonlight Moth (above) and Deliverance (top of article). Before gluing the film to a panel, I used thin veils of ink to paint very careful, intentional abstract forms onto the reverse side of the drafting film (i.e., the side that would be glued to the panel). I knew these shapes would be visible on the front once the film was mounted. This acts as a kind of tone on which I could begin my drawing and out of which I could pull and define my initial forms. The ghostly and layered quality achieved by this technique lends an added dimension to the finished drawing.
Drafting film, like paper, requires no special prep in order for you to get started. Once I had it mounted to a panel, I proceeded as I would with any other drawing. First, I used a combination of charcoal, paper stubs, charcoal powder, and Colorfin PanPastel in order to loosely define my forms and edges. However, because drafting film makes blending, erasing, and making corrections so easy, I moved more freely and with greater ease when blocking in.
Then, with the rough structure in place, I further defined my darks with washes and light veils of black gesso. Depending on the piece, I’m either trying to be careful at this stage or expressive and gestural with my mark-making. I use everything from sponges, fingers, toothbrushes, sumi brushes, bristle brushes, sandpaper, etc., in order to achieve the textures and tones I want. Black gesso is great because it’s matte and has a little tooth. This works well with charcoal and carbon pencil, making it easier to build on for further interest or value.
At the next stage, I began to use more refined drawing and crosshatching techniques with charcoal and carbon pencil. This helps refine gradations, resolve structural issues, and give added dimensionality to my forms. I tried to bring each stage up evenly, never obsessing on any one passage over another. For me, approaching the last stage of finishing a drawing is entirely intuitive. I try everything until the piece feels finished.
Mixing It Up
Once the entire surface of my drawing had at least some level of attention and coverage, I felt the qualities of drafting film shone. It handled the rough treatments like heavy mark-making, blending, and even light sanding with sandpaper. It stood up superbly to heavy washes with black gesso and vigorous applications in which I used coarse brushes (i.e. bristle brushes and house-painting brushes). I found I could switch between media, layering one on top of the other almost immediately. The effect was organic and cohesive.
At times, I would take a heavily loaded wet sponge and pull every layer off, down to the raw film, or push it around, creating a soup of washed-out charcoal, graphite, and pastel. The drafting film didn’t ripple or buckle. I sprayed patterns by dipping a toothbrush in black gesso and running my finger over the bristles, or by dripping a sponge loaded with black ink over the drawing. Then I dusted the surface with charcoal powder and sprayed it with isopropyl alcohol or acetone. I mixed charcoal powder with acetone and painted with it, which I could then blend and erase once the acetone evaporated out of the charcoal. I tried everything. It was a big experiment, and it was a success.
Julio Reyes is a highly awarded artist whose work has appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions nationwide. Find more of his work at julioreyes.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in Artists Magazine.