(Above) Photograph of drawing table with Landscape in Graphite II (work in progress) 5 x 12', graphite on Fabriano paper. This drawing has been executed in pencil and powdered graphite applied with brushes and water. On the table can be seen a dish of powdered graphite (top center), various weight pencils, a bit of cut plastic eraser and graphite stick (far right), and a dish of water with index card (upper right) on which to mix and test the graphite solution before applying it to the drawing.
Drawing into Painting / Painting into Drawing
Over the winter I've engaged graphite as a drawing medium, building tone with pencils of various weights from 9H to 9B. I usually start the compositions with very hard lead pencils and then move to darker, softer lead. Sometimes I move back and refine the areas of softer graphite using the harder leads, pressing the material into the surface of the paper. As I develop my image, I tend to smooth out tone with a bit of plastic eraser which evens the surface and cultivates an atmosphere that unifies the composition (Window with Dark Drawing and Open Journal was created in this method). In more recent experiments, I've set the eraser aside, and in doing so I've sensed a different kind of sparkle emerge from the drawing surface. Perhaps more of the white paper shines through on a microscopic level when I refrain from smearing the graphite. And certainly crisper edges and details are possible without smearing. In the end it's probably learning when to smear and when not to smear with the eraser that is the real lesson from employing such a technique. One key element I recognize is that graphite has provided me a springboard for returning to the study of value. In my early drawings black watercolor was my essential medium for investigating light and dark relationships. But in recent years I have employed alternate color-based ways of painting darks that have come to be more satisfying (see online journal entry, Colors of Black). Of course graphite is not black, but gray, and it is reflective, thus bringing me to another set of problems and possibilities in the study of value. An advantage to utilizing pencil is that I can build and refine tone precisely. With watercolor, I'm not as fully in control of the medium.
In addition to working in pencil, I've resurrected a procedure for using graphite powder that I used with some frequency years ago. Finely and evenly ground powder can be applied effectively with brush and water. Some experimenting with mixture is needed to make the pigment stick to the paper. Mixing too much graphite into the water can leave excessive residue and when dry, the friable powder will dust off the paper without sticking. I've found that using a hard, finely sharpened pencil can press the dry graphite powder into the paper as I mentioned above. The advantage to applying the graphite powder with brush and water is that the result has a washy, aleatory look which serves as and a nice counterbalance to the precise, highly-controlled, fine point pencil lines. Brush application can also apply tone over large areas quickly. One other experiment that I just beginning to explore is adding a bit of binder to the water and graphite. Gum arabic, the standard binder for watercolor can do this, but it only takes a little bit. The problem with gum arabic is that it will give the surface a glossy finish that I find distracting if used in any significant amount. This can be avoided by restricting the gum arabic to the tiniest amounts; not inherently a problem as very little is needed to make the graphite adhere. It is just difficult to know how much gum arabic is being used as the fluid is transparent and very hard to see. If there is too much, one generally feels a drag on the brush to some degree. Note also that too much gum arabic will make it harder to scrub back into the dry surface. The painted mixture essentially becomes graphite watercolor with its more strongly adherent qualities (see Study for Landscape in Graphite II which was executed in this technique).
The point of all of this technical discussion is that the drawn line and the painted tone can be used in concert effectively; the two approaches can have a nice flux. I find that brushed fields of wash can cover and fill tone quickly, lending atmosphere in the way pigments settle and investing the surface with a fresh look. But such bravura can be superficial; a facade without depth. Drawing and erasing back into areas such as this can return a structural base and essential details. It is a delicate dance, drawing into the painted areas and then painting back into the drawn areas. I don't hesitate to scrub out or erase as I find that trying to preserve one area of a work due to liking it too much can become an enemy. And that is another advantage of using graphite; it's meant to be subtracted.
While I love to investigate such technical issues, I keep in mind that these tools are in the service of expression; a means of digging deeper into the heart of a subject.
(Above) Landscape in Graphite II (work in progress) as of 12 April 2010. The drawing will be set aside in this state. I will return to it next fall when I can work in front of the subject under similar conditions.