Monthly Archives: February 2014

Finding the Middle Ground

“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.”  -Paul Cezanne

When we think of paper we usually think of a clean white page, but working on white paper is a relatively recent convention in drawing. Throughout the centuries drawings have mostly been executed on toned papers of various sorts. A toned paper has one advantage over white in that its darker tone immediately addresses nature’s preponderance of middle values, allowing the artist to move off in both directions from the middle-ground, toward the upper reaches of the value scale by adding white, or toward the darker end by using a dark medium.

In the hands of the masters of any time period two compelling qualities stand out in works on toned grounds. The first is unity. The pervasiveness of the toned ground in all parts of the drawing generates a virtual atmosphere in which all parts “live, move, and have their being.” The color of the page is like family blood, so to speak, tying the whole together in ways that are much more challenging to do when working on a white drawing page. On white, the entire value scale must be added and calibrated without the reference of the middle ground. The dominant lightness of a white drawing page can deceive the eye in the initial stages of the drawing, making even relatively light marks appear much darker at first.

The second quality is economy. Economy of means is almost always a quality of great drawings, of any sort, but drawing on toned paper makes it easier to do more with less. In toned-ground drawings whole parts of the drawing are effectively untouched, yet they participate fully in the expression of form and space. The added darks and lights activate the recessive nature of the ground, shaping it, giving it form and inviting it to participate in the whole.  Like the silent intervals between musical notes, the ground becomes an active player in the structure of the drawing by the action of the dark and light notes.

And finally, with a nod to Cezanne, a toned paper is somehow just not as blank at the beginning as a white one!

A selection of drawings, past and present, that demonstrate the unique potentialities of drawing from the middle ground.

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New Tumblr for Drawing OWU

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 12.52.20 PMCheck out the new Tumblr companion to Drawing OWU. You can find the link in the right column under Blogs.  The Tumblr Archive feature allows you to easily see pages of thumbnails of every image ever posted on this blog, while the Home page  and search option allows grouping of images that are related by one or more characteristics. You can look at drawings organized chronologically, stylistically, thematically, or by technique or  nationality. Enjoy!

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Graphite Drawings

Ubiquitous in every art school and artist’s tool box, the humble graphite drawing pencil has an interesting history. In the 16th century graphite came into use as a marking medium in England where large deposits were discovered and first put to use by farmers to mark sheep. The slippery properties of the mysterious dark substance also made it an ideal lubricant for releasing cannonballs from their molds. Hardware stores today still sell powdered graphite as a dry lubricant for locks and other machinery. Because of its crumbly, friable texture, the first graphite “pencils” were made by encasing the soft material in sheep skin. Germany developed the graphite stick in the 1600s. Originally graphite was thought to be some form of lead, which it is not, but the reference to pencil “lead” lives on. The modern wooden pencil dates to the 19th century when graphite began to be mixed with clay as a binder, a discovery that some attribute to Henry David Thoreau whose father was a pencil manufacturer. The hardness or softness of the composite graphite-clay mixture could be moderated by baking which led to the development of the familiar grading system we use today for drawing pencils. The tonal range of graphite makes it a uniquely beautiful drawing medium, distinguishable from chalks and charcoals by its characteristically silvery color. The variety of its effects can be seen in this selection of drawings from different artists and periods.

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Drawing Into Painting: John Virtue

John Virtue is a British artist known for his massive black and white paintings that he executes from a unique medium of ink mixed with shellac. His initial research involves making hundreds of on-site drawings. From this material he builds his evocative paintings in the studio. Virtue’s most celebrated series, 13 large-scale paintings of the London skyline, was carried out over two years from a studio in the National Gallery in London.

“The thing about London is that everybody knows, or thinks they know, these buildings. But the more you look at them, the more mysterious they become, so the more fascinating they become.

I would draw there, and then I would draw there. That would be one morning, and then I would do one part another morning… and so on, and I’d build them up sequentially; and then I’d mix them all up and I’d bring them all in here, and they inform the way you work and it helps you to be very free. It was phenomenally exciting, and stimulating, and refreshing, every day to get up and go and draw what you say are very, very famous and iconic buildings, and bring all that material in here and go to work.

I’ve never felt any need to put in cranes, and buses, and cars, and airplanes – the noise, if you like, of London. I like using it for my own ends which is to make abstract compositions, but from the way I perceive the world. The monochromatic way of working tallies exactly with the way I look at… the world. It’s a way of seeing that resonates, rather than a way of seeing that is comfortable or is referential to other things.  

The basic materials, and they have been for the last twenty-six years, is a black ink mixed with shellac. I use titanium acrylic and I like working onto the raw canvas because I can bleed the image in; I like the idea of the image impressing itself into the canvas, and then I use rags, and my hands, all kinds of brushes, quite indiscriminately, quite promiscuously, in what I’ll use to try and get an effect.”

John Virtue from The Bespoke Film Company on Vimeo.

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