The Studio Art School: Dorset

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Art tips. Masterclasses. Painting classes and Workshops.


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By Justin Cooke, Feb 25 2015 12:03PM

There are various types of charcoal used for drawing. You will commonly find willow and vine charcoal as well as compressed charcoal. Willow and vine charcoal is nice to use, it gives a good even line, does not splinter or break up too easily when used. The fact that they both grow as slender stems also means that you can get pieces that you can hold like a pencil. It is also available in larger more randomly shaped blocks.Compressed charcoal is formed out of charcoal dust; it is compressed to various degrees and is available buttery soft to hard.

Why use compressed charcoal?

Firstly, it gives a darker and denser black.

Secondly, it can be found in pencil form, some artists prefer to use it this way.

Thirdly, sticks of compressed charcoal can be shaped or sharpened with a blade to make specific marks, much like the different nibs of a pen.

Any problems with compressed charcoal?

It does not smudge or blend as freely as charcoal does, neither is it easily removed with an eraser. The benefits of it adhering to the paper better, have to be balanced with the fact that it is not easy to work with once it is on the paper.

Why use charcoal? (such as willow charcoal)

The first thing many artists say is “it’s quick” and “direct”. With one piece of charcoal you can achieve all sorts of effects that would otherwise require a whole range of materials. Here is a summary.

You have a box of charcoal….

• If you snap a stick, you will get a sharp edge for detailed drawing.

• You can use it on its side for broader marks as you would a large brush for painting.

• By using your fingers you can soften marks much like you could if you use water to soften a watercolour painting.

• Just by pressing harder or softer, you can grade your tones from the lightest shade to rich dark tones.

• You can “draw” light areas back into your charcoal drawing by simply using an eraser.

Then there are some more innovative ways too; for example, that charcoal dust at the bottom of your charcoal box…it is very useful. You can use it with your fingers to shade tones. The very finest dust can be used with a brush. Just pick it up with the brush and paint with it!

(This is a good way of working out a drawing prior to drawing with finer –maybe splinters – of charcoal on top.) As well as your fingers, try using pieces of cloth or tissue folded into a pad.

Here is a tip for using charcoal that many artists have found useful.

To show you I will use cartridge paper and willow charcoal.

Firstly; cover your paper with a layer of charcoal using the stick on its side. Roughly smooth out with your fingers to spread it evenly. What we now have is a very thin charcoal layer to draw on and this can be very useful. It particularly helps with life drawing if you are a little apprehensive about drawing. I will show you why.

Let’s have a go at drawing on top.

I will do the same thing on a bare white paper.

Supposing I have drawn some lines that I do not like; if I try to smudge them away with my fingers on the bare white paper they still show. I would then have to stop, find an eraser, rub it out and start again. Even with an eraser, there is a very good chance my old drawing will still be visible.

On the prepared paper; a quick swipe with my fingers and it has disappeared.

You can also draw in highlights with an eraser. Below is an image showing a charcoal line removed and a line drawn with and eraser.

You can see there is an obvious danger to this. The drawing on the prepared paper, until fixed, is vulnerable.

The advantages though, you may consider worth it; because in just a few minutes you can draw hundreds of lines, any of which you can easily loose if you want to. The pressure is off… You have the freedom to try things over and over. You can experiment wildly, knowing anything can be put back to how it was. It is very liberating and helps to develop the sort of freedom in drawing that only comes with practice.

You can then also use an eraser to remove excess background tint and few people will know how you did it!

As your confidence and technique grows, you will find yourself making fewer changes to your drawing. You could then reach for the unprepared clean paper and just go for it! You are well practiced now, more confident and it will show.

By Justin Cooke, Jan 27 2015 07:15PM

Chiaroscuro : Light and Dark

Chiaroscuro is a term we use for the use of light and dark to show the form of things and to create a mood.

For now, let’s consider using it to make things look solid and fully three dimensional.

There are traditionally five elements to chiaroscuro.

Half tone. (Sometimes known simply as “light”, as it represents the lighter tones).

Core shadow.

Cast shadow.


Reflected light.

Let’s see how it works. I will draw a solid shape using chiaroscuro using the five elements above and we’ll see if it looks fully three dimensional. I’ll try a sphere, so there are no straight edges.

Here I have circle shape. It doesn’t look like a sphere it looks flat.

If I imagine a main light source, say top left, I can put half my circle in shadow. That should help. We will be using a couple of different types of shadow, so this one we will call “core shadow”. Core shadows on rounded forms like this (and the human figure incidentally) always have soft edges.
If I imagine a main light source, say top left, I can put half my circle in shadow. That should help. We will be using a couple of different types of shadow, so this one we will call “core shadow”. Core shadows on rounded forms like this (and the human figure incidentally) always have soft edges.

So now I have two halves of my sphere. The shaded side is the core shadow; the side nearest the light is the half tone. You could think of it as a lighter side and a darker side. If I make my background darker behind the light side that should help the light side show up a bit better.

I can now add my cast shadow, which should help. This is the second type of shadow we will use. Cast shadows are darker than core shadows and have sharp edges.

It’s getting there but we can do better. Let’s add the highlight. Highlights move as you move around your subject; shadows stay put which seems a little odd at first. The only way to move the shadow is to move the light source (be warned this could happen without your knowledge if you are using sunlight and are taking a few hours to make a drawing).

Now, it’s beginning to look three dimensional but there is still something not quite right. There is something missing…and it is the reflected light. I’ll put that in.

The reflected light helps separate the core shadow from the cast shadow but it is also a key part of any chiaroscuro painting or drawing.

I am often asked; “Where does the reflected light come from?” The answer is that not all the light illuminating the subject comes directly from the main light source; there are other light sources too. Every surface reflects some light and some of this finds its way onto our subject, it may be very faint but it will still show up in the dark shadows where the direct light from the main source cannot reach.

A particularly noticeable example of this can be seen in many portraits where reflected light illuminates the skin under the jaw. Here you can see it on a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. This painting is known as Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). It is in the collection of the Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland.

Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The five elements of chiaroscuro

Once you start to look for them you can pretty much see them everywhere.

If you are doing a painting of some subject, say a still life, portrait, even a landscape; you will need to look for each of these five elements not just in the subject in front of you, but in your painting too. And this is probably the best way to use a list like this; that is as a checking device. I will explain below.

If you look at your painting or drawing and something doesn’t seem quite right about it. There are several things you can check. You could check to see if your drawing is accurate– are things placed where they should be in relation to each other and are they the right proportion, (is one eye higher than the other…that sort of thing). But you could also check the chiaroscuro.

It is one of those things about painting and drawing; that it is perhaps best not to think too deeply about rules while you are working. It slows you down and can make you hesitate. With practice you will work instinctively, without constantly being aware of all those things you have learned.

Having said that, imagine you are looking at a troublesome drawing. Just count through the five elements of chiaroscuro listed above. Take them one at a time and check all the parts of the painting where you would expect them to be. Do you have all the core shadows, highlights and cast shadows. What about the reflected light? (There is often some where the core shadow meets the cast shadow). The chances are that one of these is missing and putting it in will correct the picture. It is quite often the reflected light by the way.

Look hard to find these things in your subject, (it is not always easy to spot them all) then look hard to find them in your drawing; if it’s not in the drawing but it is in the subject, put it in.

So you can see; it’s a checking device as much as anything. That list of five…it’s a safety net.

By Justin Cooke, Jan 14 2015 07:18PM

Not a muddy puddle in sight!

We all know what it’s like. You’re in full flow on your painting…full steam ahead…you are making great progress… you look up, and spy your water jar looking decidedly murky – your mixing palette has turned into a muddy puddle…”Aargh! I can’t stop now to change it…”yet five minutes later…”Oh no! It’s gone all muddy…!” The painting has taken a downward turn and at this point, it is sadly sometimes irretrievable.

It may sound like such an obvious and simple thing, and yet it is amazing how many people end up with murky colours from either having a dirty water jar or a muddy puddle of colour on their palette.

There is an easy way to get round this ever happening, and that is to have several water pots so that you don’t have to keep leaving your painting to go and get fresh water.

I always have at least two or three water jars, and sometimes more, depending on the size of the painting, brushes, and how many colours I am using. If I am using a large amount of white on my painting, I keep a separate water jar just for washing out brushes with white. When a jar of water gets over saturated with white, it is likely that using this to mix any translucent colours would turn them opaque. Likewise, if I am using a lot of very dark colours, I also have a separate water pot so as not to taint any pale delicate colours I am mixing.

Having several mixing palettes to hand is also helpful for allowing plenty of room for lots of colour mixing experimentation, keeping the colours separate from each other. If there is even a hint of a ‘muddy puddle’ forming on your palette, it’s time to go, go ,go and hot foot it off to clean up your palette and get a change of water!

After you have swished on beautiful washes of colour across your paper and you stand back to admire your glowing, crisp, clear colours – you’ll be so glad you changed your water…and not a muddy puddle in sight!

by Nikki

By Justin Cooke, Jan 1 2015 11:18PM

Soft brushes are essential too; but need some care.

Here is Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. We saw another of her self portraits in Brushes 2. for oil (and acrylic); where we could see her at her easel with a whole handful of brushes

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Once again she has a selection of brushes

Now I want to look at the variety of brushes artists useand in particular soft brushes. It is true that for many artists a bristle brush is the most typical choice for applying oil paint; particularly thick oil paint. But soft brushes should not be neglected. They are essential to achieve delicate fine lines and fluid brush marks. These brushes may also need a little extra care.

Here are some of my soft brushes that I use for oil painting. Nice sharp point and long handle.

(I also use square soft brushes which I trim to shape)

Let us consider the pointed brush.

Often, when oil painting, it is inevitable that you may just have to throw those brushes into a jar of turps so that they can be used some time later, or even the next day, without drying out. You may have the time and inclination to clean thoroughly the dozen or so brushes that you have been using, but it is tempting, isn’t it, to just plonk them in a jar.

I am now going to save your brushes.

If you have a few, use an elastic band to hold them together and place a pencil across the top of the jar in such a way as to hold those brush tips away from the base of the jar.

You should have something that looks like the image below.

For single brushes…just use a clothes peg

Remember though, this is only a temporary measure and brushes should not be left in this way for too long.

With water based paints like acrylic and watercolour do not do this, they will rinse out easily with water and can be left to dry flat

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