Guest Artist: Russell Black on Drawing vs. Painting – A Considered Approach

Guest Artist: Russell Black on Drawing vs. Painting – A Considered Approach

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When we, as artists, come to the easel and begin the work of creating a painting, we have a number of methods and approaches at our disposal. How we proceed from our initial idea and concept through to the finished painting is our choice, but the working methods can either help us, or hinder our efforts. I’ve always been of the belief that the working methods we choose should fit together as seamlessly as possible and that there should be no disruption, or disparity with how we transition from the sketch or drawing over into the painting other than a simple change in materials. To this end, I offer my opinion as to what works for me, and why. Your method, if it works for you, is perfectly valid as long as it continues to serve you in the creation of your work.

Methods of Drawing

There are two basic methods of drawing, both of which produce excellent results. The first, and probably most often used is the broad stroke method. In this approach, the medium (pencil, crayon, charcoal, etc.), is used to make broad, definitive marks on the paper. The basic tool for this is generally the pencil, or graphite stick, as it is the easiest to obtain. The variety of marks that can be made using the thick and thin approach varies with the width of the tool, and below is an example of the basic concept.

Traditionally, this method was taught to all beginning art students. It produces a very tactile and textured drawing or sketch. It works well for those subjects with a variety of physical textures – stone, brick, wood, foliage, etc. It’s bold, and a bit blocky in appearance, but that is its appeal. The broad stroke method is primarily used for landscape work, but that is not to say that it couldn’t be used for portrait work. If you’re after a “rough” appearance in a portrait, then this method would suit the subject well. However, it wouldn’t be my first choice. For portrait and figure work, I prefer the second drawing method – the “smooth” or blended approach.

The blended approach takes a different tack in that the end result should show no marks or strokes. Every mark is blended or smoothed out so that no strokes show up at all. This makes it an excellent approach for portrait or figure work, but as you might imagine, takes considerably longer to produce.

For example, the torso study of the statue of David took nearly eighty hours to complete.

There is a flip side to this method if you use the blending technique within a “quick” sketch format, then a tonal value sketch can be done in minutes. As compared to the standard broad stroke approach, the quick blended method takes only a fraction of the time.

The Quick Sketch Blended Method

The materials for this method are easy to acquire and easy to use. A soft graphite pencil (6B to 9B), either held in a mechanical holder (as shown above), or the more traditional wood pencil. I favor the mechanical option as they are easier to sharpen and the graphite dust can also be used without the wood shavings getting in the way.

The technique is also easy to learn. There are three steps…

  1. Sketch in the basic shapes using line.
  2. Using the side of the graphite, scribble in a tone.
  3. Using the stomp, smear the graphite to blend the tones.

A quick sketch, like the building above, can take mere minutes to accomplish. The other advantage is that the textural qualities of the subject can be dealt with during the painting rather than in the sketch.

Choosing the Method

If we compare and contrast each method, we get the following…

  1. The broad stroke method: takes time to complete a sketch, but conveys textural qualities.
  2. The blended method: takes much longer to complete, but shows no visible textures.
  3. The “quick” sketch blended method: takes just a few minutes, with minimal blending only.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to forgo (for now), the other drawing options such as pastel or pen & ink, etc. With few exceptions, they fall within the parameters that I’ve already mentioned so far.

Since my main painting method is in watercolor, what I need is a drawing or sketching method that will not only support my idea, but translate directly into the watercolor style of painting. Do I have reasons for this requirement? I think I do. Let me show you several examples.

Above are two examples from Ted Kautzky. He was one of our greatest exponents of both drawing and watercolor, but can you see the problem? The broad stroke drawing style doesn’t translate directly over into watercolor. Ted drew one way and then painted another. You might ask, “…so what?” That’s fair. There is no requirement that your drawings and paintings should be coordinated in this manner, but think about this for a minute. If I draw in a manner that emphasizes texture (broad stroke), but paint using a medium (watercolor), that is flowing rather than textured, does that pose any problems during execution?

When using two different approaches, one textured and one not, does that make the entire process easier or harder for you to deal with? In this case, the drawings and paintings don’t match. Again, so what?

One issue I have with this concept, of using opposing techniques, is that if I plan out my painting using a method that I can’t duplicate when I pick up a brush, then how do I propose to execute my design? If I’m trying to show off the textural components of a subject, then isn’t it more reasonable to use a drawing method and a painting approach that matches this goal? I think so. Subsequently, if I’m painting in watercolor, then wouldn’t it be more to my advantage to draw and sketch using a “soft” or blended method?

The problem with the traditional blended method is the time that it takes, so I would have to opt for the quick sketch blended method. This offers me a fast solution to “on site” sketching and also doesn’t require me to deal with the variety of textures until I pick up a brush. For me, this works incredibly well.

Here are a few examples of my own sketches and the final watercolor paintings.

Other Options

There are other options if you would like to change the sketching materials. For example, Daniel Novotny uses ink and a fountain pen to sketch with. The ink line can clearly define the shapes of the design, which is beneficial in that we are painters of shape first and foremost. The solid black areas of value are also easy to define and then convert into paint.

Since Daniel typically works in two values with his sketch, he then has to make certain midtone decisions during the painting process, but the advantage in working in only two values is that the “pattern” of the design is clearly defined. With ink, you could chose to use a crosshatch pattern to define a middle tone, but that can also complicate the sketch to the point of confusion.

Ink sketches also have one interesting problem, you cannot erase a “bad” line or alter a shape easily. The solution is to redraw the sketch from scratch each time you make a mistake, or decide to make a change of any kind. It’s a matter of personal choice. I also sketch using ink, though my tool of choice is not as elegant as a traditional fountain pen. I prefer to use the new Sharpie Fine Line markers which are now archival (the old Sharpies were not permanent). They are easy to find and should I need one when I am out on location, the nearest drug store can supply them.

This brings us to the subject of markers as sketching tools, and I find them both convenient and problematic at the same time. Since I can get markers in a range of values from 10% to 90% gray (both cool and warm), they offer me a range of values, though I only use three at most (30%, 50%, & 80%). By having a set value at my fingertips, it is easy to make a value sketch in a matter of minutes. The problem with markers is that they tend to dry out rather quickly when you are in the field, and you should plan on carrying at least two or three of each value in your kit.

The last sketching solution is rather obvious, use watercolor. Sketching in watercolor is a direct one-to-one relationship with your painting. You do not need a full palette of colors, and I would suggest that you just bring a tube of black (or Payne’s Gray), with you and two brushes (a 1″ flat and a #12 round). Quick wash sketches can be very instructional as they give you a preview of how you will need to approach the actual painting.

A watercolor sketch by Robert E. Wood.

In the final analysis, the method that you choose to use for sketching should fit not only the watercolor process, but your personality as well. Though I tend to use tools and equipment that are easily replaceable should I lose them accidentally in the field, that doesn’t have to be the qualifying factor for you. Use what you feel comfortable with and that give you the best results overall. Most importantly, have fun.

-Russell Black

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3 Comments

  1. Jerry Keslensky

    Clearly presented, with plenty of background reasoning as usual. Having followed your demos and articles on your painting process, connecting the steps of drawing and painting makes total sense. It makes the workflow into a logical and almost self-directed process. As always thanks.

  2. Angel Villarreal

    I usuallt crete a very light sketch and the use Payne’s gray to do a watercolor study. Just usuing 3 values. Daniel’s use of two values and coming up with midvalues on while painting is for experienced painters only I believe. Thanks for posting this article.

    1. Hi Angel,
      I definitely used to do a very clear value study using 4 values. But after a couple of years I just couldn’t do it. The painting process was so predictable and I just didn’t enjoy making what felt like the same value study again only on large scale and in color. This approach works for me now but I agree, you need to have some experience. I like surprises, so it suits my personality.

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