Saturday, March 15, 2008

Teaching Myself to Draw 3

I was up at a lakeside retreat center on Green Lake, in Wisconsin, a couple of weekends ago, for two nights and days of music rehearsals and activities. In between the rehearsal duties and the social activities surrounding them, I had opportunity to make two or three more colored pencil drawings in my little sketchbook. The most successful, complete drawing, to my mind, was this one I made that was inspired by the recent lunar eclipse:

This was made from memory and observations I made while watching and photographing the eclipse itself, several days prior to making the drawing. (I'm interested in working now with images from memory and observation as well as from imagination and exploration.) I worked a lot with layers of color, in subtle shadings with thin layers of burnish, to get the tones in the moon itself. There's purple and green in the darker areas, although you might not realize it at first glance.

The night sky (the drawing's field, or background) was done with a technique I've been using since I began teaching myself to draw. It's a technique I feel a real affinity for, and I sense that it could carry my interest a long way before it loses its excitement. This technique uses a ruler-edge to constrain the pencil strokes to being all-parallel, all-linear, and/or to run up against a hard edge and no further. I have been experimenting with saturated graphic images in solid shapes, too, and filling them in with parallel strokes. Sometimes you use different pressure to get different thickness or saturation. Softer edges are really made with different pressures but the same stroke. Here's another drawing I made that same weekend that explores this:

My favorite part of this drawing (a brown saguaro skeleton at sunset, a more realistic image than you might think, if you've ever been to the Sonoran Desert) is that I made the cactus overlap the sun, and that I used two different angles for the strokes. This appeals to my sense of graphic design and strong composition.

These experiments with strict line-direction in pencil drawing, often using a ruler to constrain the straightness of the stroke, lead me back to the Graphic Pen filter tool in Adobe Photoshop. It's a filter that allows you to determine stroke length, darkness vs. lightness density, and stroke direction. By changing the filter's parameters you can get several different kinds of sketch effects. This can be useful for doing a pre-sketch as well as for making a final piece. You can see what an image might look like when using constrained uni-directional strokes.

For example, I made a photo of sunrise over the frozen white tundra of Green Lake itself, with the long shadows of trees in the foreground. The heavy winter snows this year have frequently presented landscapes that were purely black-and-white, all natural color desaturated and subdued; I have made several photos this winter that might as well be calligraphy or drawings. The sunrise through the trees was an image I wanted to draw as soon as I saw it: the stark black lines and angles, the white snow field, sun-flare beyond the trees all had me visualizing a completed drawing. I made some photos, therefore, that were meant to be references for drawing and sketching. Here's one, with the graphic pen filter tool used to sketch out the basic idea:

One of the advantages of Photoshop is its flexibility: there are usually several paths towards any given artistic goal. There are several paths for converting photos into drawings, for example. Often, this allows the artist to emerge, because your way of achieving a result might be unique. Photoshop is a flexible enough tool that many worlds of results are possible, and that means there's room for individual artistic exploration. Photoshop, therefore, is a drawing and painting tool like my colored pencils. It just operates entirely in the digital realm. (Until you print your result, that is.) I taught myself to make several kinds of drawing looks in Photoshop long before I began this colored pencil experiment.

For example, here's a sepia pen-and-ink look that I wrote a custom Photoshop filter to create. It's an effect that works particularly well with skin-tones and water and stone textures. This is one of my own favorite images using this technique:

After the retreat weekend, on the drive home from Green Lake, I took some time to stop and make photographs at Devil's Lake State Park, one of my favorite and most-often-visited places in Wisconsin. The air was thick with winter fog and the sky was as white as the snow.

I trudged through the heavy snow up to the base of East Bluff, where I have often climbed both trails and off-trail boulder-fields. The trails were too icy to climb very far, the rocks slick and snow-covered, so I mostly wandered at the edge of the bluff, and into the trees there. I made a photo of a lone pine tree against the white sky above a field of boulders the size of houses. Here's that image with the graphic pen effect in use—another image I want to sketch later on with pencils:

Now that I have begun learning to actually physically draw with colored pencils, rather than create a drawing from a photo in Photoshop using effects, I find that I appreciate all the more the time it takes to make a drawing; the tactile nature of the process, the touch-contact with the paper, the pencil, the ink-filled brush; the slower process that allows one time to sit back and look it over, to think about what to do next, to notice that this corner needs something more. I like how the drawing process slows you down and brings an image in the mind's eye into gradual focus. I also still like the speed of photography, and I have always practiced a slower-moving style of photography than many, in which I look at what I want to photograph for a long time before I make the image. Anything that slows you down makes the artistic process more contemplative. You might be looking at the outside world, but you are also looking within, and listening to both those silences and the inner voices that whisper inside them.

Photoshop has served me very well artistically and professionally for many years. It initially freed me up to be able to make some kinds of images I saw in my mind's eye that I had not the skills to paint or draw. Now that I'm learning to draw, I realize again that the tools you acquire do not supplant each other, they complement each other. They fill in the gaps. There are things I am learning to do with pencils that create satisfying textures that the digital domain cannot. Perhaps these tools of different realms will merge into a piece made in Photoshop that I then draw over with colored pencils. I am interested in, but not yet ready to attempt, a merging of these tools, to see how they can work together in collaboration and mutual support.

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Blogger bridget said...

nice drawing of lunar eclipse, very eyecatching.

6:39 AM  

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