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Charcoal drawing & the value of values

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Charcoal portrait of Frank Bingley

I was fortunate starting out in that I was afraid of color. My palette was limited by fear and of course the usual financial constraints of being a student. Because of that fear I became a valuist (you won’t find this word in your art appreciation books) instead of a colorist. I studied paintings to see how the artists used lights and darks (values) to both model form and to direct the viewer’s eyes around the format.

This drawing illustrates both, but first I’ll discuss the process for those who have not used charcoal in this manner. It’s fun and easy.

1. I lightly coated the entire sheet with strokes using the long edge of a stick of compressed charcoal.

2. Using a chamois I lightly rubbed the charcoal until I had smeared all the strokes into an even gray.

3. With a 4B charcoal pencil I blocked in the forms.

4. Then with the charcoal stick I put in the big black shape on the left, leaving the thin line for the rim of the glasses.

5. Then with the 4B charcoal pencil again I drew in the eye and mouth areas. And using a blending stump I dipped into the dark shape and drew with the stump the darker grays under he eye and along the nose. with the same charcoal-charged stump I laid in the values in the beard.

6. the crisp lines of light in the beard were done using a plastic eraser which I had cut with a knife to give me a very sharp edge. A kneaded eraser was used to lift out other highlights.

The real trick, if there is one, is to see the value relationships. Our sensible logical brain limits all values to dark and light. As artists we have to ask “How dark?” and “Compared with what?” “What is the lightest light and what is the darkest dark?” That was why I began with the darkest shape. Then I knew how dark everything else would be. The paper was already middle light gray, so everything else was either lighter or darker than that gray. Squinting is the only way to see that relationship. It causes crow’s feet wrinkles at the corners of your eyes, but so does smiling. Both are good-real good.

Painting Tip #6

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Never blame lack of talent if your painting doesn’t “look” right. That will get you nowhere. Analyze the problem. Is the problem with the color, the drawing, the value or the edges. When you know that, then decide what to do to fix it. But never, never, never keep painting while you are thinking about it. Wait until you have the solution.

Painting Tip #5

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Criticism is part of the art game. When it comes, lay it on the table and examine it. If there is something to be learned by it, embrace the learning and move on. If the criticism is not valid, throw it out and move on.

Painting Tip #4

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Try to look past the things you can identify, and find the underlying patterns of color and value. Paint those and then add pertinent details on top.If an idea presents itself during the painting, do it. It might end up being a terrible mistake, but you have practiced listening to the inner voice, and that is valuable practice.

Painting Tip #3

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Never assume anything. The most important question I can ask myself is: “Carl, What do you REALLY see?”  If you can ask yourself that, and honestly answer it then you will know what to paint.

Painting Tip #2

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The only thing we can paint on a flat surface is a shape. If our painting doesn’t look right, then we have either painted the shapes wrong (configuration), or we have made them the wrong value, or the wrong color. The organization of the values is what gives the painting structure. The colors add the emotional element.

Painting Tip #1

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Before painting, ask yourself this: “What made me want to paint this?” Make yourself answer without naming anything. for example, “I like the light shape against the dark shape”, or , “I like the way the darker values combine into a large intricate shape”, or, “I like the area with all the little shapes set against the big simple shapes.” If you can state it in visual terms like this you have the biggest problem solved.

Drawing Tip #2

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Practice contour line drawing. The best way to develop confidence is to practice right. Contour drawing requires you to place the pencil tip at some point, look at the subject and determine where you can comfortably pull a single line to without stopping. Then look at your paper and locate that point. Pull the line, then without lifting the pencil, look at the subject and pick the next point where the contour changes direction. Look at your drawing and pull that line. At first you will make mistakes, but the line will look as if drawn with confidence.

Drawing Tip #1

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Set yourself a goal to draw something every day. Don’t waste time looking for a great subject. An egg beater, a mug, a toaster, or a dried leaf are fine. Don’t think” what would make a good drawing”, think, “I need to practice seeing and recording something.”