Sunday, July 15, 2012

Experimenting with carbon dust drawing

I've been trying my hand at scientific illustration now for the last five years or so and have practiced and learned quite a bit in the process. Most of my work involves standard graphite - and up until a few months ago, I generally only used #2 pencils; only recently have I finally branched out and started drawing with different hardness leads. I've spent some time working with other media - pen, namely. A 'lost' method of illustration I've been itching to try for a while, however, is carbon dust. I call it a 'lost' method simply because it is not widely used for illustration - however, it is a method that is barely a century old. It was invented by Max Brodel around World War 1, and was widely used among medical illustrators during the early parts of the 20th century. The carbon dust method, when executed properly, can show gradients beautifully, and highlights can be scraped into the surface of the drawing with a blade. I have been interested in carbon dust for several years, but have never gotten around to trying my hand at it because I was never quite sure how, as I could never even find carbon dust for sale. What's worse, going to art supply stores was fruitless as I never found someone even familiar with the method, much less familiar with the actual product.

The subject of my first experiment with carbon dust illustration: OU 22222, a tooth of the basilosaurid whale Zygorhiza from the Eocene Waihao Greensand of New Zealand.
A couple weeks ago I checked out the Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration at the recommendation of my adviser, which had a chapter all about carbon dust illustration. As it turned out, you can (rarely) find carbon dust for sale, but most illustrators just grind their own dust from a carbon pencil (note: carbon, not a graphite pencil) using either a small file, a nail file, or a sandpaper block (a more typical item in the artist's toolbox). So, this realization rekindled my interest in the method. In fact, a carbon pencil can be ground on a sandpaper block, and dust can be picked up with the brush directly from the pile on the sandpaper. Carbon dust can be fairly messy, so a transparent mask must first be cut and lain over the drawing; dust can then be dry brushed on from the margins (which are usually going to be darkest), and applied in darker increments.
The result of my experiment. While stylistically identical to my other work thanks to blending, it only took 1.5 hours to draw - one half to one third the time normally spent.

I first tried drawing a sphere, which was slightly frustrating - but I found that drawing an irregular object (such as a fossil) was actually quite a bit easier, as slight imperfections in gradient are not obvious in an object that the mind knows is not a 'perfect' object like a sphere. I tried my hand at drawing an archaeocete tooth from the Eocene of New Zealand. I tried this drawing on regular drawing paper - because there was just a slight texture, it didn't paint completely evenly and there were little white spots on the 'down stroke' side of bumps on the page. This required the use of a blender to fix it, which sort of ruined the nice gradient and made the drawing stylistically identical to my other work. Still, I am pretty happy with the result, and an unexpected finding was how damn quick the process is- this drawing only took an hour and a half to do; it's about 4" x 3", and would normally have taken about four hours to finish. I was shocked when I realized I had finished a drawing so quickly. Next time I'll use a sheet of vellum, which will have the benefit of 1) not having to use a blender and 2) being able to scratch in highlights.


Bruce Mohn said...

Never tried carbon dust. I do like the very soft 9B pencils that are basically an entire stick of graphite with a thin plastic wrapper. I save the dust after sharpening, mix that with rubbing alcohol and then paint that onto the drawing, which provides a range of tones.

Anonymous said...

Nice Work! I love carbon dust and am impressed and really happy that you've applied such a beautiful, organic technique to help us understand something so beautiful and organic. Keep up the good work and enjoy your time. "The reward of patience is patience."