Jul 28, 2010

Drawing Basics: Value Scale

"Think of Light as giving form, not as spots of light and dark"
Robert Henri

Seeing in Values 

Earlier we looked at how we see form using the knowledge of how light works. Today I thought we could look at a way to use that information we gather and apply it in a systematic way as we to draw or paint what we see.

We see dark to light and all the gradations in between, and the gradations or shades are what we call values. The artist finds the value, the darkness or lightness of a surface, and takes that information to render the form. This is what gives size, shape, and depth to the form of the subject. We are all familiar with shadow and light, but it is the gradations of different value levels that gives us a sense of form.

Local Value or Light Effects

The value can be determined either by the local value of the area or by light effecting the surface.The darkness or lightness of the material of the surface may establish the value, such as a black shirt creates a dark value. How the light impacts the object will determine the value as well, such as the highlight from a bright light source will appear white on a dark surface. In a painting or drawing, usually the value is a result of the combination the two factors.

Value Scale Systems

Though you don't have to break down the value gradations systematically doing so will help guide you in finding the right value relationships you are looking to create.

Three step value scale
What you see displayed to the right and below are different versions of the value scale systems.

The first is the most basic of scales, a three step value scale. This shows only white, black, and middle tone. Here, the middle tone, or mid-tone, is just the value that is half way between the white and black. That is to say, using this scale, if we mixed white and black together in equal amounts we would see a value that's visual level is half as bright as the white and half as dark as the black.

Drawing just using three values, as in this scale, has its advantages and limitations. It is great for setting up compositions but is limiting when attempting to render realistic form.

Five step value scale
The values can be split into as many gradations or steps as possible, but it is not necessary to do so. The eye will see millions gradations of value, however you do not need to draw that many to convey the form of your subject. To the left, you will see an example of common value scale, a five step value scale. The value information in this scale will give you enough to work with to illustrate the form. It has the darks for shadows, the lights for highlight, and the halftones for the variations of the form in between.

Cup drawn using five values.
To the left, I have drawn a small cup using only five values. As you can see there is enough information for the eye to see the form of the cup.

As mentioned earlier, you can separate the value gradations into as many steps as you want. Many artists use the next one I will show you. It is the commonly used nine value scale.  Here I want to remind you that these scales are only used as guides to find the pertinent information to guide us in our work and really we see the value shifts not in clear steps but in fuzzy transitions.

Nine step vale scale.

Cup draw with full value scale.
This nine step value scale is a full range value scale that you can you use to believably render the form of the subject. A full range value scale is one with the lightest value being white and the darkest value being black. Not all drawings need to use the full value range but the use this range will give more control over creating depth and space.

Here, I have draw the same cup using the full value scale.

Value Relationships

Middle tone running across a nine step value scale.
This  is a value chart where I ran the middle tone value (or mid-tone) across a nine step value chart to show you that it there is a relational nature to the values we see. Notice how the middle tone seems to change in relationship to the  value next to  it as it moves up the scale.  In the white area and the values near it the mid-tone appears darker. Conversely it appears lighter in the black area and the values near it.

Two more charts to have fun with. Here I present a question.Using the nine scale system, what is value of the circle in the middle for the first field? and the second field? The answer is to the right, they are both the same value.  They just appear different based on the value field the circle is in.


Value is a great descriptive tool, it will give shape, mass, and weight to the subject.  Again, it is all based on the effects of light on an object. Studying the value interrelationship within the form will provide a great likeness when drawing or painting the subject.

Jul 23, 2010

Drawing Basics: Structure


One of the key elements of drawing from life is finding the underling structure of the subject your are drawing. This means looking for the basic shapes first, then finding the surface planes and changes. Then refine those shapes to match what you see.

Reference for drawing.
Today, I thought I'd use a pear as an example to use to look for an object's structure, because it simple enough yet has enough complexity to require us to look.  Though, for this exercise any fruit will do.  I simply like the pear because it is not just a round object, like an orange or even an apple.  The shape gives us more to search for and analyse. Though you are more then welcome to use any object you like.

Here I set up a pear against a dark background with a single light source, just to make things easy.  The more light sources you have the harder it is to determine the plane changes and the surface direction. (It also make it easier to figure out the value pattern, but that is for another time)

Find the Simple Shapes

The first thing to look for is the simplest shapes  you can see in the subject. In this case a pear can be seen as a couple of circles or ellipses. You don't need to draw the ellipses just look for the shapes to guide you.  

Capture the Outlining Edges

Once you have found the simple shapes draw the outlining edges of shape of the subject.  Use straight lines to keep shape clearly defined. We can always refine the rounded edges later.

Find the Planes and Plane Changes 

Once have the general shape. You want to start looking at the volume of the subject. The volume is just the form in three dimensions. To find the volume there are several approaches. The method we will use today will be looking for the surface planes of the form and where these planes change direction.  This will guide us in developing the form. 

The planes can be thought of the flat surfaces of the object that gives shape to the particular area of the subject. Where two or more planes meet, the form is taking shape. The planes meet each other at various angles. This is what is referred to as the the plane change. The shift in surface direction can be thought of as a new surface plane. This helps us find the form by telling us what direction the surface is headed in relation to our view point.

Mark the Shadows

Next, mark out where the shadows on the form will fall. This way you will have the light side and dark side of the subject delineated prior to rendering the shadows and form, making it easier to distinguish the area you are working on later. (This is not a necessary step of finding the structure. Is a technique I prefer to use for the way I begin shading the form.)


Finding the underling structure can be applied to any subject. It is an important  part of drawing as it provides a framework to build on that will provide a consistent drawing.  Later we look at how to use this type of structure drawing to inform how we render form (shade) the object.

The rest is not part of the lesson but I thought you might like to see the process through to the end.

Jul 18, 2010

Some Ideas on Charcoal Drawing Materials

My charcoal drawing supplies box.
I often get a lot of questions as to what the best choices are when buying drawing or painting supplies. My personal opinion is to try out different tools and use what works for you.  However, I do understand that if you are new to drawing or painting you may find the endless amount of choices to be overwhelming and a bit confusing. Many times we end up purchasing the wrong materials for our projects. So I thought I would show you some of the materials I use to help you make some decisions.  Today, I will start with charcoal drawing materials.

I enjoy drawing with charcoal because the medium is ideal for soft and mysterious imagery.  I also enjoy it just because it can be messy and fun to play with.  Below you will see the tools I use, notice it isn't just a bunch of pencils

The tools and materials used for charcoal drawing
The set of materials I use in charcoal drawing.    Included in this picture are compressed charcoal sticks, vine charcoal, charcoal pencils, pencil extenders, kneaded erasure, sanding block, chamois, foam brush.  This is not a complete list of what is available and there are other tools one can use as well, but this is a good starting set.

Before I go into the details of what to look for in the materials I want to say something about starter kits.  I think these kits make great gifts or are for someone who just wants to experiment. But if you have a sense of what you want to create I would recommend avoiding the kits and purchasing the materials individually. It may seem more expensive that way, but you won't end up with a bunch of stuff you don't need, nor will you need to go back to the store to buy something you needed that the kit did not have. In the long run, you will save money and have exactly what you need.

Compressed, Uncompressed Charcoal, Powdered Charcoal

Though you may not recognize it most of us are familiar with compressed charcoal.  Charcoal pencils are made up of the stuff.  All compressed charcoal is charcoal ground into a powder then a binding agent is added to it to harden it. The advantage to compressed charcoal is in using different amounts of binder we can create harder and softer charcoal sticks, allowing for flexibility with the material.

Though you won't hear of it referred to as uncompressed charcoal, that is the other type of charcoal drawing material. This type of charcoal is not ground down after the wood has been burned into charcoal.  Think of a burnt stick from a campfire.

Lastly, there is powdered charcoal. It is ground charcoal with no binder added.


Charcoal pencils are compressed charcoal. They come in different hardnesses.  That is to say, some pencils make lighter marks than others when applying similar pressure to the paper. You may be familiar with 2B pencils from your test-taking days.  The same applies idea here.  Charcoal pencils range from HB, 2B, 4B,  and 6B. HB being the hardest charcoal and 6B being the softest.

To the right, you will see examples of new pencils as you find them in the store. To the left, you will see a comparison between a new pencil and one sharpened for use. Notice that a pencil ready for use has much more of the charcoal exposed. (more on that later)

There are many brands of charcoal pencils and everybody has their preferences. I prefer Generals Charcoal pencils because they are of good quality and at a reasonable price. Though I do suggest trying out different kinds of charcoal pencils and see which one you may like. 

Not a must, but it is a good idea to get pencil extenders. Gives more life to the pencil. 

One last thing about buying charcoal pencils, read the label make and sure that is what you are buying. Just because they look like charcoal pencils doesn't necessarily mean they are. Even helpful art store clerks have been known to make that mistake.

Vine and Willow Charcoal

I like willow charcoal, I use it for so many things.  Though you don't need it, I find vine charcoal to be a great way to blend, soften and mix with the pencil.  

Vine charcoal is not compressed charcoal. It is actually what its name suggests it is, a vine.  All it is a vine or a willow branch burned or charred into the charcoal form. 
These sticks come with different hardnesses, from extra soft to hard.  I prefer willow because it is the softest of the vines and tends to be darker than the others. It also comes in different thicknesses, from thin to jumbo sizes.  I generally use thin and medium thicknesses.

Charcoal Sticks

Charcoal sticks, like pencils, are compressed charcoal. They come in many shapes and sizes; cylindrical, rectangular, thin, thick. Like the pencils, the charcoal sticks also range from hard to soft.

Charcoal sticks are good for covering large areas, but can also be sharpened and used as a pencil. I mostly use these for massing in large areas on the page. Compressed charcoal sticks can create a deep dark rich field.


The only erasure you need for charcoal drawing is Kneaded erasure. It comes in little square packages but will end up looking like the one in the photograph. These are flexible erasures that clean easily by folding the erasure in on itself.
Blending Stumps

The blending stump is a paper stump designed to move the charcoal around on the paper.  Personally, I like to use my fingers or a chamois. But they are made for a reason as many people use them and it would be worth trying one out. I don't use them much, but you may find them useful.


A chamois is just a piece of leather used to add, move, or remove charcoal from a drawing.  When new and clean they are yellow or beige, when well used they turn to black. So when you go buy one it will look different than then the one in the photo.

Chamois can be cleaned, but they work best once they are covered in charcoal dust.

Sanding Block

A sanding block is used for sharpening the pencil or compressed charcoal stick.  If you don't want to buy a sanding block, sandpaper will work just as well. Just use a smoother grit. You will also want a knife or blade to cut the wood off of the pencil. I like using a box cutter to whittle away the wood. In another post, I will show you how to properly sharpen a pencil


The paper I recommend for charcoal drawing is a medium to smooth surface drawing paper. A heavyweight (70lb) drawing paper is best. I do not recommend buying the charcoal paper as that is too rough of a surface to get the soft effects one can get with charcoal.  For practice newsprint is fine but it doesn't hold the charcoal well.

Just remember these are just recommendations for getting started and there are all sorts of choices out there.  The information above is offered as a starting point.  You may decide to try other tools and materials that I haven't mentioned. I think that this is great. Experimentation and exploration is an important part of art and the creative process.

Jul 16, 2010

Quick Study

This is a quick head study I did today, focusing on have the face in shadow. The light is striking the side of the head from a source just slightly behind the model. The nose protrudes out into the path of the light to reflect some of it back to the viewer. Giving the face more interest than if it was all in shadow.

The study was done in charcoal on paper. 

Jul 3, 2010

Basics of Drawing Form - Elements of Light and Form

There are a few things to consider as you set out to draw realistically. Drawing realistic form begins with the understanding of how we visually perceive light and shadow and how these two relate together to  give us the sense of  three dimensional form. There are some basic principles you can use as a guide finding form using the information from the way light interacts with the objects it comes in contact with.

Light and Shadow
It is through light and shadow that we see form. We visually use the information created from the interplay of light and shadow to understand the shape, size, and mass of an object. This is because light behaves consistently and this consistency is what gives us a frame work to to interpret three dimensional form. If you understand how the light behaves then drawing a realistic object becomes easier.

Light Follows a Path
Light is directional and it moves in a straight path emanating away from a point of origin.  The light will follow this path until something blocks it form continuing on its course. The objects that block the light will absorb  and reflect it, changing the direction of the path the light is traveling. This is what creates shadow. The space behind the object falls into shadow as the light is no longer able to continue beyond the surface in blacking the light path. That is the basis of the elements I describe below. Complexity of what is happening can scale up depending on the variables of lighting and surfaces involved but the basic principles will always apply.

When the surface of an object blocks light from going any further it creates two types of shadows, form shadow and cast shadow.

The parts of the object that are behind that obstructing surface are now in shadow. This is what we call the form shadow. Looking at the example of the sphere below you can see that as the surface of the edge bends away from the light it is now in an area where the light can not reach it.

The other shadow type with is one that is created when the surface of the object blocking the light creates a shadow on the surface area behind it. This is the cast shadow. In the example below the sphere casts a shadow onto the area of ground behind where the sphere rests.

Light Side
Looking at the light side of the form, we can see that the light is strongest or brightest on the area of the surface that is closest to the light source and gradually weakens in strength as the surface moves away from that source. The brightest part of the surface is called the highlight.  The darkest part of the surface is called the middle tone area. This is the area of the surface that is furthest from the light source while remaining in the light side of the object.

Looking at the shadows, we see that the two kinds of shadows behave differently. The edge of a form shadow gradually transitions from the light side of the surface to the shadow side. This transition is makes the edge of the form shadow appear softer, creating a soft edge. The softness of the edge depends on the pace of the transition from light to shadow depending of the curve of the surface, a sharper edge, such as an edge of a box, will appear harder than a rounded surface such as a ball.

The cast shadow is created by the outer edges of the object. As a result, the shadow does not have the gradual transition of a form shadow.  The edges of the cast shadow have a hard abrupt end, creating a hard edge.

Inside the shadows you will see the effects of reflected light. As mentioned earlier when the path of the light is interrupted it is reflected. When  reflected, the light bounces of the surface in many directions, back towards the light source, towards the viewer, and towards other surfaces to be reflected again. One of the directions the light is reflected towards is into the shadows.

Using the example above, the light from the ground behind the sphere and wall hits the surfaces and bounces around in different directions the shadow areas.  The shadow then isn't a single shade, it is actually made up of different shades. In the form shadow the edge closest to the the light side is furthest away from the source of the reflected light and least affected by it. This area appears darker than the rest of the shadow. This darker area becomes the core of the form shadow (The core shadow is the dark band on the sphere). The rest of the shadow gradually lightens as we move away from the core shadow into the area closer to the source of the reflected reflected light.

The same applies to the cast shadow. The area of the cast shadow closest to the object blocking the light is least affected by the reflected light.  It will appear darkest near the object casting the shadow and will be lighter the further the shadow is from the object.

Remember light behaves consistently and we can use this knowledge to guide us when rendering three dimensional form. Remember to look for the light and shadow relationships created by the directional nature of light. Keep in mind the differences in the ways form shadows and cast shadows behave, and how reflected light will impact both. Looking for this information as you draw will help you construct a believable sense of form.