How I approach drawing - and I would like to read how others approach it

I was going to post on the pencil sharpening discussion, but then realized I drifted too far apart from it.

The sharpening methods in that discussion are really great! I wish I would have heard of some of them a few decades ago.

So, how I approach drawing: I love pencils and drawing. I decided years ago to focus on control and strokes, and the craftsmanship aspects. So, everything had to get simplified so I could play to my strengths.  

Mechanical pencils: I switched completely to mechanical pencils, .05 mm lead thickness, and work with only HB and 2B. Mainly 2B. With attention to pressure control, I can make dark enough and different enough marks to make me happy. Since I have used mechanical pencils my whole life, this was an easy decision. My goal was a particular outcome of drawing – a better product, and not the process or learning. Of course, I hoped to improve both my processes and learning along the way :smile:  I very rarely do use other pencils, usually to make a very dark line, but never charcoal. 

(I use this same mechanical pencil to draw out my paintings on the substrate and then just paint right on top of them. Clear, small lines, easy to see and easy to erase. If you keep your pressure light, you will not carve a groove in the primer.)

Padded drawing board: I also use a padded drawing board I made for just this purpose; use exclusively Rives BFK heavy printmaking paper, 100% cotton; and tape down the paper to the board around all the edges with blue painter’s low tack tape; and cover up with more paper the parts of the drawing I am not working on, to keep the surface clean. If I need to work on a different part of the paper, I just uncover a different part, or swivel the whole drawing board around. I have had the same cotton handkerchief for 40 years which is never washed. Different parts of it have different amounts of graphite embedded in it from years of smoothing drawings. Depending on how dark or light the mark I want to make, I will use a different part of the cloth.

Why padded drawing board: Rives BFK is a heavy but very soft surface. With a hard, unpadded board, it was a little too easy to inadvertently put too much pressure on the paper. I do not enjoy exploring different types of paper or different types of pencils. I take 3 sheets of cheaper drawing paper, not as soft as the Rives BFK, and tape them to the edges of the drawing board. I change the papers every few years when they get too dirty or get a compression line which will change the way the Rives paper on top of it will take pressure.  I never use this board for anything but drawing. I designed it in the 1980s from hardboard with a cut out handle. It is simple and versatile. I have bigger boards arranged the same way for bigger stuff. It is sturdy enough to put on an easel without deforming.  

Rives BFK 100% cotton paper: 270gsm, 29x41 inches, white. One may also buy a roll 300 gsm for really big drawings. Currently $155US. I have sheets purchased in the 1980s, stored in the dark, and they have not changed color or darkened. If you accidentally crease them, I think there is no way to uncrease that groove. It will permanently affect your mark-making. The cost of this type of mistake has inspired a zen-like concentration in me.

BTW, I also have cheap sketchbooks to work out values and compositions for both drawings and paintings, but don’t take exceptional care of these in terms of not smearing and so on. They are just workbooks.

I stop every 30 minutes or so to clean up the surface of the drawing, the padded board, my hands and arms and anything else likely to get smeared. I use brushes, kneaded erasers, and stiffer white erasers with a metal cut out guard. I really hate to accidentally smear something. I am a pigpen, but fortunately am also OCD.

Once I made the decision to simplify, my drawing skills really got better because no distractions or temptations to try different materials or products. I love my OCD.

Put your OCD to work for you!

I would love to read of how others approach drawing. 


  • Desertsky

    Wow, that is some detail.

    My graphite collection is shown in the pencil sharpening thread along with my pastel pencil collection.
    The basis is the five pencil method selection of grades 4H, 2H, HB, 2B and 4B. Added to over the years by the softer grades. Early on it was exclusively 0.5 mm mech pencils but after I perfected my sandpaper routine I am just as happy with quality wood pencils.

    Almost all of my drawing these days is chalk on newsprint as A2 size shows little graphic impact from pencils. Additionally the chalk allows for drawing from the shoulder when standing at the easel in a life drawing session. If I was to start an A3 or A4 pencil portrait my paper choice is Bristol Vellum.

    Drawing surface is a 36x40 inch piece of painted insulating foam. Pictured here on the reverse side of my paint station.

    I now have LED lamps on the top corners and an iPad cradle top right. Note the gutter for rubber crumbs and chalk dust. Metal strips top and bottom for magnetic attachment or spring clamps. Board adjusts upward to draw from standing position.

    Using multiple newsprint sheets or heavyweight paper renders the drawing surface character immaterial.


  • @Dencal: you organize your work space like a mechanical engineer. I am studying your photos and thinking of incorporating some of your ideas (if you don’t mind).  For the big gesture drawings you do, I think your choice of paper and chalk is really good. What kind of paper do you use for a finished drawing which will be sold? Cotton rag? Do you spray fix your finished drawing? If so, with what product?

     @Suez – I love your first fire analogy! That is exactly what I experienced when I had my epiphany about simplifying.

    I can’t think of any paper which will allow much or any erasing of a wet charcoal mark. I’m afraid I can’t help you regarding the tooth of Rives BFK vs Stonehenge. In my limited experience, all printmaking paper has little or no tooth; the focus is on an even consistency of absorbtion/resistance to ink.  BTW, the Rives BFK paper’s back is very similar to the front, giving options.

    If you are a gazillionaire, you could ask Twinrocker Paper in the US to make paper to your specifications. Note that they stock paper made specifically for charcoal.  Their in-stock paper is about the same price as Rives BKF in the US.

    Twinrocker Handmade Paper

    I oil paint on paper a lot - 99% of the time. I use Rives oil paper, 100% cotton, and then put on a size of thin, watered down acrylic medium, front and back, followed by a primer on the front. This gives me an incredibly stable surface.  I noticed that, when I use a mechanical pencil to lay in the painting, the acrylic primer tooth gives a nice, gritty feel for the pencil.

    On a paper you like, you could do the same with an acrylic primer containing tooth. I think you could experiment and create exactly the surface you want. If you do, I hope you come back and tell us how it worked out.  

  • This is an interesting topic. Drawing is the foundation of painting, graphic design, architecture and a lot more. I grew up with the plan of becoming a draftsman and became very proficient on the drawing table. The advent of computer drafting killed that plan in the mid 60s.
    I started to draw a lot. Casually in manner. A lot different than drawing projections. Then painting - again casual in manner.
    I spent a lot of my live working on the board advertising, magazine design and illustration. So I understand the confined world of board drawing. In art school drawing was taught as a physical thing. Body, shoulder arm and hand. A process of evolving the figure. When I entered my second retirement I sought out figure drawing classes. I returned to drawing with body, shoulder arm and hand. I started oil painting full time again body, shoulder arm and hand. Now that the body is breaking down I'm back at the board more ofter. A little tighter mostly arm and hand. I find drawing to be part of the painting process right to the end of the painting. On the board it's watercolor or gouache. Whether at the board or the easel. I find great satisfaction in either.
    When doing finish figure work I like to work on Canson Mi-Tientes. Standing up at the easel. Starting with soft charcoal to capture the proportion and gesture. Soft vein charcoal sharpened to a long sharp point. It is easily dusted away in favor of medium and finally harder charcoals to finish.  
    I used to draw a lot it the wheel of my car waiting for the street cleaner to pass so I could park another day in NYC. A small black sketch book and a rapid-iograph ink pen in hand. 
    Drawing is a wonderful thing.
  • Suez

    Oil painting has the potential to create a chaotic hovel very quickly.

    So I have learned to set up well and apply a regular maintenance routine. The alternative is to allow the chaos to slow the productivity and cramp the creativity.


  • dencaldencal -
    edited June 19

    What kind of paper do you use for a finished drawing which will be sold? Cotton rag? Do you spray fix your finished drawing? If so, with what product?

    I don’t sell any drawings or paintings. My art is about casual enjoyment and building skills.
    Finished drawings are on Strathmore Bristol Vellum as pictured above. My newsprint is purchased from a hardware store (Bunnings) as wrapping/packing paper and works out at about 10c an A2 sheet.
    Life drawing is done with cheap ($2.50 p/pak) Art Studio soft pastels. In this way I can do dozens of drawings in a life drawing session without worrying about materials cost.
    Pastel work is fixed with non fat skim milk. Chalk/pastel work on newsprint is fixed with Jackson’s West Art Crystal Clear (note: this is a local (Perth) product, though similar products should be available near you) I tested about half a dozen fixatives and these two products have the least impact turning whites transparent and darkening the earth tones.


  • dencaldencal -
    edited June 19
    Suez and Desertsky

    An excellent low priced, stable, tough, wet tolerant media is a polypropylene product called YUPO.
    There are other ‘Smart Papers’ on the market. Just apply a coat of clear gesso to give some tooth or some Art Spectrum Clear ColourFix and you have an indestructible support. Good for pastel or charcoal.

  • Francis Bacon must have been a hoarder.  I have to clear up my little 10x10’ space every so often or it gets cramped and messy.  
    I have not done much serious drawing for a while but when I did I used conte crayon.  I could keep a sharp edge when needed or fade the values easily when needed.  
    I also tried my hand at mono prints.  I would apply an umber oil paint evenly on paper.  Then flip that over onto another primed paper and draw on the reverse side.  
  • Suez

    Needs to be clear gesso to get the tooth.


  • edited June 19
    Bacon's studio was ... well, obviously a work space. I'm amazed at the squalor some painters are able to function in. Lucien Freud was the same. Despite the chaos they worked in they were, for me, great painters. Their works now sell for tens of millions. 

    These days, I paint landscapes almost exclusively. My approach to drawing is that I do it with a brush as I paint. However, I sometimes do a few thumb nail sketches in pencil to help work out  landscape compositions.   I did a few still lifes in my first year or so of painting and, with those, I would do a rudimentary but accurate line drawing so that I got things the right size/shape and in the right place. For those I used Mark's proportional dividers and magic line.  I've never done a drawing in pencil or charcoal as a complete work in itself. Maybe I should. If I did, I would probably take a careful, systematic approach something like @Desrtsky outlined. I like mechanical pencils. 
  • @Suez. I’ve never used a mono print to lay a drawing in on a painting.  I did the mono prints when checking out Gaugin’s mono prints years ago.
  • Suez

    Not used it. But the website says Liquitex Clear Ground is a surface preparation used to seal, prime and add tooth (for colour adhesion) to all surfaces such as canvas, wood, paper and metal. This same preparation is used for both acrylic and oil paint.

    Sounds good to me.

    Doubt if the watercolour ground will have any tooth or priming qualities. All it has to do is adhere and be absorbent.


  • @Suez and @Dencal: when you write "gesso" do you mean ground or primer? (as opposed to the traditional rabbit skin glue + calcium gesso)? I find calling grounds "gesso" really confusing. 
  • Desertsky

    Yep, confusion abounds —
    - gesso for me is a ground, an acrylic dispersion medium rendering the surface receptive to oil paint. Contains a binder, chalk, pigment and gypsum.
    - primer for me is a sealer and weave filler to separate oils, pigments and solvents in the gesso from the support Contains pigment, latex and resin.

    this link contains more than anyone wants to know about grounds and primers

  • edited June 19
    As I understand it, it goes like this:

    1. size
    2. prime
    3. paint

    So called universal primer (acrylic gesso) purports to incorporate 1 and 2. Whether it does so satisfactorily is still in question. 

    The ground (primer) is what you put oil paint on. However, you should be able to  paint on properly sized canvas without a gesso primer. The size isolates the canvas from what you put on top of it. Acrylic gesso (universal primer) alone, without prior sizing, may not effectively isolate the canvas from oil paint. This is still in contention.  If you use aluminium this is not a problem. If you use canvas and just  don't care about all this arcane stuff, and if your paint doesn't bleed through to the back of the canvas (or if you just don't care whether it does or not) then don't worry about it. The art police won't come and raid your studio and cart you off to the artists' gulag. And if your work is worth preserving, you'll be providing jobs for future conservators. Which is kind of nice.

     And if a worthless painting of someone's granny ends up cracking and falling off its rotten canvas because its sentimental owners can't afford conservation then that is very sad, but not a great financial loss for them, and not the end of the world for art. After a generation or two, no one will even remember the person whose depiction fell off the canvas. Dust to dust ...  And these days there are countless photos of everyone everywhere in endless proliferation on the web. They can pull up Facebook pics. 

    If we don't care about sizing and priming canvas, and are content to just slap the paint on and let posterity look after itself, the best we can  hope for is that our work will be deemed worthy of  conservation.

    Or perhaps just draw instead of having to worry about all the difficulties involved with making durable painting.
  • Here is how I think of the painting sandwich:

    1 Substrate (canvas, ACM, paper)

    2 Seal or barrier between the substrate and the oil: size. I have painted many oil paintings right on the size, as a prepared surface (ground) was needed only for special circumstances. They have all held up well.

    3 Purposeful surface to paint on: the ground or prime.

    4 Paint

    5 (Varnish for those who want)

    I was trained with this vocabulary many years ago; and I would give it up for different terms if only there was some uniformity in the usage.  Now that I know different people here all call the layers different names, I will, I suspect, be annoying sometimes when I ask for clarification. Similar to my confusion when people use the term tone or key  to mean very different things: high tone/key, low tone/key, warm tone/key, cool tone/key, bright tone/key ….  

    If a field of activity does not have a standard vocabulary, discussion will be difficult.

    It unfortunately will be the case that different people will take constructing a robust painting seriously, and reach very different opinions on how that will be achieved.

    Back to drawing and skill development:

    A long time ago, I arranged for my students to privately examine dozens of original sketches and drawings by Renaissance and Baroque big name artists (Rubens, Titian, and the like). Vincent Price (!!!) donated hundreds of these to the Indiana University Art Museum, and this is where I took the students to the back rooms where the conservators had brought them out for us to examine in detail. We all wore gloves, and picked up the actual, unprotected drawings. The students then instantly believed me and accepted what I had been telling them about skill development, and that few are born with talent. They went back to their own work fired up to develop their own skills. Seeing the mistakes and the incremental changes of the Great Ones in the drawings was convincing, when all my impassioned beseeching them accomplished nothing smile:

  • edited June 20
     Suez said:
    @tassieguy, These are not small matters. 

    Many contemporary artists have had expensive “important” paintings prematurely become conservation nightmares within not too many years. Look into it. If that isn’t enough to make you consider taking the subject seriously how about all the disastrous clean up jobs being done by contemporary conservators, to this day, in museum settings, on the top masterpieces of all times? It’s happening. It should be stopped. 

     Good lord look what they did to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Cleaned” away all the subtle halftones back to it’s cartoon. 

    @Suez, I don't know why you think I don't, but I personally take the issue of achivality very seriously. And that is why I no longer use pre-primed canvas and why, instead, I size and prime my own canvas. After some discussion here, and a bit of research of my own, I no longer trust so called "universal primer", and canvas manufactures are quite reluctant to say whether they first size their canvas before applying the primer. So, the only way to be sure is to do it myself.

    The fact is, however, that some painters just can't be bothered to properly prepare canvas or just don't care what happens to their work in the long term. There's not much that an be done about that. Apart from some general consumer protection legislation that may arguably be construed to apply, there is little common or codified law governing this area and no art police to enforce any such law. So, we each have to take personal responsibility for the durability of our work. If some just don't care, then I doubt that there's much anyone can do about it without accusations flying around about eroding individual freedoms, shifting personal responsibility,  and implementing a "nanny state".

    I personally take the issue very seriously and do all I can to enhance the durability of my work and there is nothing in my previous post that suggested otherwise.

  • @Suez wrote: 

    @Desertsky, You were trained in a time when the system was broken and best practices were almost lost. Varnishing is not optional in best practices. Varnishing is a necessity to protect the work.”

    @suez: Respectfully, you know nothing of how I was trained. To make such an uninformed judgment on my training is disconcerting to me. 

    I do not subscribe to the current belief that a coherent and apparently unchanging set of best practices were ever part of European art.

    Michelangelo, van der Weyden, Titian, Rubens, Goya, Reynolds, Turner, …: all used evolving materials and processes. At what point, or with whom, do you think best practices were set? I am not asking a rhetorical question – I would actually like to know.

     I disagree with you about varnishing. If the goal is to protect the paint surface from atmospheric contaminants, options exist besides varnishing.

  • Suez said:
    @tassieguy, Taking the issue seriously goes beyond what individuals do to protect their own brand from shoddy practices is the point I’m trying to make. 

    I'm not sure what you mean, @Suez. How does "taking the issue seriously" go beyond making sure that I do my best to ensure the archivality of my own work? I am in no position to dictate to others and I have no control over how they choose to prepare their canvases. I'm a painter, not an enforcer. Beyond doing one's best with one's own work and, when the occasion arises,  advising/encouraging others to do likewise, I don't see what else we are supposed to do. In the end, it's up to educators to instill best practice in their students based on the latest materials science and conservation science. And if that doesn't work then I guess you'll need art police. 
  • @Desertsky, I don't always varnish because I don't  like a  glossy surface. However, I'm interested in what you said about there being alternatives to varnishing when it comes to providing protection to the paint surface. Could you tell us about these alternatives? Is it something that is applied to the surface but which is not varnish? Or do you mean that works can be protected behind glass? 
  • Behind glass is one option, as is using wax as a removable varnish substitute.
  • @tassieguy – Yes, I was thinking of glass, as @Richard_P suggested. One may buy non-reflective, UV-blocking glass or plexiglass. Even ordinary glass will do a better job of protecting the surface than varnish will.

    Natural resin varnish, such as damar, is very difficult to remove after 20 years or so. The replacements, synthetic resins such as Regalrez, are easy to remove without damaging the painting as much as removing the natural resins does. However, these synthetic resin varnishes are made to be removed and reapplied every 30 years or so. I can’t possibly know if an owner of my painting will do this.

    Also, my inner sceptic whispers that continually removing and then reapplying varnish is not good for an oil painting surface. The longer a synthetic varnish stays on a painting, the more intensive the removal process and materials. Even odorless mineral spirits, a relatively innocuous solvent, can have an effect on an oil painting, especially with repeated applications. 

    Every choice (varnish, wax, glass, nothing), will have both good and bad effects, depending on the circumstances of the painting long after we, the painters, have parted with it.  

    I suggest the MITRA resources section on varnishes.

  • Yes, I think that's right, @Desertsky. There are pros and cons with all materials. All we can do is go with our preference for support, and do our best to make it durable, based on the latest available science. 

    As for protection of the paint surface, I know varnishes can be problematic, but I've always thought glass looks odd in front of an oil painting. I like to get up close and explore the tactile brushwork and texture, but glass, especially if there is glare, seems to spoil the experience.

    I don't always varnish (if I do it's a very light spray) and I worry about how my unvarnished surfaces are going to look some decades hence. Fortunately, since the advent of air-conditioning and the banning of smoking indoors, there is less gunk in the air to accumulate on the surface of paintings.  But, still,  I wonder how conservators go about cleaning a painting that has not been varnished. Q-tips and water with a very mild detergent, I guess. 

    There's so much crap out there on the web that it's hard to know what is reliable. So I'm thankful you alerted us to MITRA. It is now my go-to place for information on archivality. 
  • @tassieguy - you are welcome. Yes, the reflection of regular glass is annoying. The non-reflective is invisible to the point I have been surprised it was there! One can easily get close and see the brushstrokes and texture. I agree that a lot of the conservation approach to varnishing is a reaction to obsolete indoor air pollution. 

    BTW, you may ask the MITRA team specific questions and they will answer. This is in the forum section. 
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