The nuance of line

pōhutukawa in Devonport

This week I shall show you why it is best to use a knife, not a sharpener for your drawing pencils. I shall use our native pōhutukawa tree for my first example, as they grow in abundance here in Devonport. They love living by the coast (who doesn’t?). But seeing it is too early for their famed scarlet flowers, I’ll show you the branches and bark instead. I went walking yesterday, and took close-up images of some lengthy limbs, as thought these would be great for me to sketch, and show you what I mean by the nuance of line created by one pencil.

photo of tree limbs

When beginning to draw, most of us use an HB lead, the ubiquitous school kids’ pencil. And although I still often use the HB, it is more as a drafting tool, because it has a lighter lead. For the tree branch sketch, I have used a B pencil, one-step softer and darker than an HB. I have bought, and tried so many Bs over the years trying to find the smoothest leads I can, and the one I’ve used, branded highest quality Tombow MONO, is proving my favourite right now. So, I took out the B and sharpened it with my scalpel.

For this sketch, I kept my wrist off the paper, and used my arm extended and flexible from the elbow. I lightly sketched in the branches using the tip of the pencil, before pressing on the side of the lead and using more pressure to produce a wider, and heavier line. I stood, and worked quickly, using the point again to define edges of the bark, then again turned the lead on its side to add heavier marks for the shade where needed. I wasn’t too worried about the exact proportions here, as I wished the drawing to have movement; be gestural.

Here, I have sketched the base of a Moreton Bay Fig tree using a General’s Sketch & Wash pencil, which has the density of a 6B. Sketch first, thinking of the nuance of line, and wash water through sparingly with a watercolour brush later. The same principals apply for this sketch as the above; of observing, then sketching quickly with the arm extended, and repeat.

Before you start any drawing, you need to look hard at your subject, and this is the case with drawing trees too, when we’re aiming to show the texture of its make-up. Pay attention to the direction of lines, movement etc., and have your pencil follow the same lines. Trial the pencil, whatever weight the lead, lighten your touch, using the tip, apply more pressure, then try the side. Keep going. You’ll get the idea. And, happy sketching.

And now, you may wish to know my reasons for not using a pencil sharpener: 1) it is almost impossible to produce a long lead with a pencil sharpener, as it sharpens to a short point. 2) it is more difficult to use the shorter lead to achieve the effects I have demonstrated above, because a longer lead is necessary to use the side effectively. And a general rule – try not to drop your pencils, as often the lead breaks inside, and you won’t discover this until you go to sharpen them.

You may get to love using pencils sharpened with a knife.

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