Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Scientific illustration part 2: introduction to drawing supplies and basic techniques & practice

Alright, the first post in this series with real content! This one will focus on the beginnings of drawing - both from a materials standpoint - but also basic introductory techniques. Not everyone learns art the same way, but this worked for me - I did not start formal training until late middle school, after drawing (very poorly) for nearly a decade. My artwork was still not great until after a year or two in to High School, and all the improvement since then has been entirely self-taught - all practice, practice, practice, self-criticism, a little bit of beer, and a lot of experimenting with technique.

My graphite drawing kit - drawing board, paper, pencils, pencil sharpener, a series of erasers, drafting brush, and blenders.

Where to begin?

I encourage everyone to dabble in artwork – I would like to think that most folks have some sort of creative hobby, whether it’s 2d art, model making, sewing, knitting/crocheting, cabinetmaking/carpentry, gardening, etc. – all of these involve some degree of imagination – conjuring a mental image and making it a reality out of raw materials and a little blood, sweat, and tears – and the drive to complete it. When I find that my ‘drive’ is sagging, I wander around downtown Charleston and go into art galleries – not the snobby type where cookie cutter oil paintings of sailboats are sold for 25,000$ a piece – but art made by real people like myself who can’t afford their own gallery. These are the places where I find inspiration because the veil of unattainability is gone. Looking at wonderful artwork never fails to inspire me to go and make my own. So, if you have the drive, find out and discover what helps you keep the train running at full steam – or how to start the locomotive back up!

If you’re starting from zero, congratulations! You’re starting a journey. First, you’ll need some of the raw materials. We’re starting with just graphite drawing, which at its core, just requires a pencil and paper. Definitely an eraser. Nice drawing pencils are not terribly expensive, but if you feel intimidated or want to start out super inexpensive, pick up a drawing pad with reasonably thick paper and Ticonderoga #2 pencils; these are made with real wood, not the powdery crap fake wood pencils which do not hold up to pressure and break all the time when drawing. Through grade school I tended to always push hard on the paper both with writing and drawing and as a result have always hated those pencils. But Ticonderogas have never failed me; all through grade school I would pick them up when I found them and save them for drawing - they were my favorite 'standard' pencil, long before they ever put the "world's best pencil" statement on their packaging.

20 minute self portrait sketch I did in fall 2001 using a classmate's compact mirror - there doesn't seem to be much evidence of erasing, and it more or less looks like 16 year old me complete with sideburns and punk spikes. I think this is my only self portrait! Getting to this stage is going to require a couple hundred hours of sketching practice.

Sketching: mastering proportion.

Sketching is a good way to start practice. Just sketch line drawings of everyday objects. You’re going to do a lot of this. This is how you get an eye for proportion. Proportion I find is the hardest thing to pick up during the early stages of your artistic journey. Also, start simple: don’t try sketching someone’s portrait yet, because it will probably look terrible, or hilarious, depending upon your sense of humor (and confidence). Start with unfamiliar objects – objects you don’t care about. If you care about something, like I really love my pair of converse sneakers – you probably have an ingrained image of that object in your head. On one hand, you’ll be good at finding out where you screwed up – probably too good, however, so it is easier to begin with something less familiar. Go grab some fruit or vegetables from the fridge. Every one is different. Sketch it, and when you’re done, turn it around and sketch the opposite side. Compare them: which is better? Why is it better? When you’ve done this enough times with unfamiliar object, sketch your shoes (if you’re a young man, make sure to spray them with odor eaters or Febreze first). Will you produce artwork that you’re too embarrassed to show others? YES! I have at least 20 pounds of finished and abandoned work I haven’t shown anyone in over a decade because I think it’s bad, but it’s a part of me so I will never get rid of. Maybe I should share some of (spoiler: I shared some in the prior post). Don't try copying something - start by sketching physical objects in a "still life" setting.

Some tips for line sketching: the hold-up pencil method? It works. This is commonly referred to as “eyeballing it”. You hold up your pencil at arm’s length, and use it to estimate the relative proportion of two measures of the same object. This is a great way to estimate if an object is 2/3 as wide as it is long, ½, or somewhere between ¾ and 1/1. I tend to start with big flowy sketchy lines and then sort of zero in on where I think the line should be and make darker lines – I still do this, and it’s all a matter of practice. The lighter lines can be cleaned up with an eraser.

Here are some tutorials for sketching practice:

A shaded gradient, unblended, with a 2B pencil.

 Monotone patch blended, and a gradient on the left using 2B and 4B, shown blended below and unblended above. Blending fills in all the crevices in the paper and keeps it from looking like "static".

Chiaroscuro: light and dark shading

Once you’ve gotten proficient at sketching, the next one is shading and tone. This is fortunately a little easier to discuss as it is a bit more concrete. The best way to practice shading is to sketch and shade in simple nonreflective objects with a single light source: spheres, cones, cubes, etc. Understanding how light interacts with an object is just as fundamental as proportion. Begin with a cube, then a cone, and finally a sphere. If at all possible, put a sheet of white paper on a table near a window and find something approaching a white sphere – maybe a baseball (but ignore the stitches) – onto it. In art classes in middle and high school you start with a light bulb, white-painted wooden blocks, cones, spheres, and a white background. Most students instinctively think that because a cube has flat sides, that same light value will be continuous on each side, and each side will simply have its own single value and you’re done – voila! Actually, every side is going to have its own gradient based upon how close the surface is to the light source. I do not have a white cube on hand, but here is a photograph I just took of the ceiling in my bathroom:

You’ll notice that the vertical wall the lights are on gets increasingly darker further to the right, and there is a sharp edge: this is because more light is being reflected by the far wall that is perpendicular to the light source. Even on flat surfaces, you will still have a gradient! Things get more complicated when you try cones and cylinders. Out of these types, spheres are the most difficult, but for some reason a bit easier for me to explain. The chiaroscuro sphere can be broken into several parts, in order from proximity to the light source: a highlight; the middle tones, transitioning from lighter to darker; the core shadow (the darkest part) and a “skirt” of reflected light. Reflected light, you say! It’s not sitting on mirror?! Indeed, nearly all surfaces, shiny or not, reflect light – mirrors tend to be the most reflective, but white reflects a LOT of light, to the point where sheets of Styrofoam can be used in fossil photography to add a bit of scattered light into dark areas of the specimen.

The chiaroscuro shaded sphere - one of the early lessons in pencil drawing. Note the light source from the upper right, highlight, middle tones increasing in darkness to the lower left with the deepest part of the shadow and a reflected highlight, and the cast shadow. This isn't the best example as I did the whole thing in about 10 minutes.

As for technique – hold the pencil at a low angle, make sure that the graphite is reasonably sharp so you have a wide edge to use, and hold the pencil at a low angle to the paper – the goal is to rub in a little graphite at a time without indenting the paper. For practice, make a long rectangle with a series of boxes – say, 10 – starting from white to the darkest you can achieve with your pencil, making each one successively darker as you approach the darkest side. Then, practice making more even, continuous gradients with the pencil – slowly applying more pressure to achieve a darker tone. Note that as you wear down the pencil, the facet that is rubbing away will become larger and larger resulting in gradually thicker lines. Practice rotating the pencil around as you use it. Additionally, if you need a sharp edge, you can just hold the pencil differently.

There are all sorts of helpful online tutorials on how to do this – here are a couple of examples:

Comparison of erasing (above) and blending (below) of different softness/hardness graphite. Note that the soft lead (right) is more easily blended but difficult to erase properly, and the hard lead (left) is more difficult to blend but easier to erase.

Blending: making smooth transitions in shading

When you start shading, you will see lots and lots of lines, and they need to go away if you are seeking a smooth gradient. Most artists start by using their finger – a perfectly acceptable way of doing things! I have always avoided this, because I have always been super duper anal retentive about smudges (where not intended). If you really get into it and forget that there is graphite on your finger, you will forget and accidentally leave fingerprints on the white space around it! Instead, I use blending stomps, tortillons, and even cotton swabs (some use Q-tips - note that you will scratch the paper if you push hard since the stick is hard plastic, so best kept to softer dark lead). A bit of paper towel wrapped tightly and wrapped with some tape can even work. Blenders can also be used for shading themselves: whenever you use one, graphite is pulled off the drawing, so you can use it to shade lightly toned areas without using a pencil at all. On that note, if you’ve just used a blender to blend a very dark area, and you need to blend a lighter area next, make doubly sure to rub the blender off on a separate piece of paper until it is as light or lighter than the desired tone, otherwise you’ll end up over-darkening it when you blend. The goal of blending is to remove pencil lines and make it look continuously shaded like a black and white photograph. I have two basic rules: 1) the larger the area where a single tone is, the larger the blender; and 2) ALWAYS make sure your blending direction is perpendicular to the direction of the graphite lines. If you blend in the same direction, you end up reinforcing that pattern and the lines will never go away. Also - unless you're extremely careful, a circular motion will make the shading uneven and spotty, resembling a very muted leopard print.

If you need to shade in a gradient, note that a blender is always going to make the light parts slightly darker (if you’re lazy and do not file the blender down – a little sandpaper stick will do the trick) and lift enough off the darkest part so that it will effectively ‘neutralize’ whatever gradient you had initially drawn. Fear not! Just shade more, or if you have them, shade with a darker pencil. For most of my drawings I have needed to do numerous - occasionally dozens - of blending + shading + blending cycles, each time using a softer lead pencil into a smaller and smaller part of the shadow. More on this in the next post.

Some tutorials on blending here:

Don't break the bank

There are a LOT of art supply snobs out there, and truth be told, if you're interested in scientific illustration you're probably a scientist or a science student, in which case you're probably poor like me. Drawing supplies don't cost much; the most expensive items are going to be nice pencils and a drawing board. I have been criticized before for using 'cheap' paint, for example; I politely explained once to the critic that most people who are snobs about art supplies aren't usually very good artists. They were not very happy with my response.Work within your means and remember, it's about what you can do - not about what you're using. (definitely avoid any paper that's not acid-free though, because it will turn yellow over time).

Drawing boards and blue artist's tape

Depending upon the size of the illustration, you'll need some sort of drawing board. Inexpensive ones run from large clipboards to huge A0 sized boards that go inside a cloth portfolio. This is often the most expensive thing to purchase; I'd start out with something small. Make sure the clipboard isn't a type that clamps down and chews through paper; blue masking tape can be used to secure the other corners. Most people think of that stuff as "painter's tape" but I've always called it artist's tape, perhaps incorrectly, but if you get the right kind that is not super sticky it can be peeled off of good drawing paper without tearing it.

Cleanliness: avoiding smudges

Use a sheet of paper to rest your hand on, and make sure it does not slide! This prevents smudging from your palm. Sliding the paper around will make graphite smudge as well on a much broader scale. Graphite sticks to skin well and does not wash off easily!

Erasers here are mostly for fine edges, sharp highlights, and detailing; I cannot seem to find my larger magic rub eraser, so it's not in the picture. It might be at the office. I should find it...

Erasers are your best friend

Erasers are important because you’re going to go through a lot of rubber when you start out. Not all erasers are created equally: some really suck. Make sure you have a high quality eraser that has not gone stale. I’ll briefly comment on some commonly available erasers.

1) Pink rubber erasers – fine, often come with a sharp edge. A decent middle ground.
2) Art gum erasers – good for a few months but rapidly harden, and can crumble. I don’t really like them, but they are quite soft and (if fresh) won’t damage most papers. Not good at erasing detail.
3) Kneadable erasers – can make all sorts of shapes! Supposedly good at erasing detail if you make it into a cone or point, but since it is malleable when I apply sufficient pressure it just kind of deforms. They’re also sticky and leave my hands without oil, making it very easy to lift graphite off.
4) Triangle erasers – look for the ones with sharp edges, and you can erase nice lines into your graphite. I love these.
5) Mechanical erasers – I have two different ones of different diameter – one is about 3mm and the other is about 6mm. I use scissors or an exacto knife to cut these on occasion if I need a super sharp edge. You can also rotate the eraser as you use it to rub the tip into a cone, intermittently using that sharp cone to erase fine lines.
6) My personal favorite is the Prismacolor magic rub. This is technically a vinyl eraser but MUCH softer than one you would use to erase pen. These tend to have a much longer shelf life than art gum erasers.

Several more things:

1) First, erasers are at first usually used for removing or correcting mistakes, but after some practice you will find that you are mostly using the eraser to cut into the work and add texture, erasing highlights, or actually using a graphite-covered edge to blend or shade parts of the drawing itself!

2) The paper will NEVER get as light as it was before you put any graphite down. NO amount of erasing will ever return it to its virginal condition. So tread carefully! Larger erasers tend to be useful at erasing larger parts of lightly applied pencil (e.g. sketching phase); smaller erasers are better at correcting minor mistakes or for detailing.

3) Eraser crumbs and shavings will get everywhere – don’t wipe them off with your hand! You’ll smudge everything. You can try blowing, but you run the risk of getting tiny little spit drops on your drawing, which is not a problem IF you let it dry before proceeding. If you do not, you’ll get a permanent little screwed up spot. Invest a few bucks in a decent brush that can carry off eraser shavings without lifting any graphite off the sheet.

4)  Note that erasers can get quite stale and hard, and if you use one on accident, the smudge on the paper is now permanent and cannot be erased. If you're used to erasers on pencils, you will go through a weird phase with new drawing pencils because they have a wooden end and if you accidentally rub that in you'll get a nice streak of paint on the paper - so resist the muscle memory! It took me hundreds of hours of drawing to remember to put down the pencil and grab a separate eraser.

The blenders I use - the big fat one and the others that are looking kind of yellowed are from a set I purchased in 2006 and have served me well; I've maybe only filed away a centimeter or two (using the sandpaper block on the bottom). The lighter ones were purchased during my first year at University of Otago in NZ; the smaller ones I use sparingly for detailing, and the bigger ones are used for blending larger areas. Most of these are blending stomps (double ended); the third one from the top with the flat edge on one side is a tortillion, and if made well are quite good for detailing.


Blenders are just made of rolled or compressed paper and I've been using the same set since 2011, so I would not be the best person to ask for questions about brands/quality - I imagine there are not different brands or much of a difference since they are all paper. There are two types - blending stomps, which are pointed on both ends and typically extremely tightly rolled up paper, and a tortillion - which is basically like a cone. The stomps can take a lot more punishment. I end up using a blender just as much, perhaps even more, than I am actually using a pencil to lay down more graphite. Blenders can also be used to do small-scale shading without a pencil - little soft edged dimple patterns are easily done with a fine-pointed blender. The bigger the blender, the more that gets blended! The softer the graphite, the easier you can move it around.


Some papers are worse than others. For practice, even something as flimsy as printer paper is fine, or newspring “sketch” paper. But when you get to a point where you want to keep paper, make sure it is acid free so it will not change color over time, and make sure it is thick enough to take a bit of ‘damage’ during the drawing process. I am an unashamed paper queen, and always use Strathmore brand Bristol board: 100lb paper that is very, very thick (so you can really apply a lot of pressure) and resistant to bending and forming creases. There is a variety of surface textures available; the smoother the paper, the more detail you can achieve. It all depends upon if you want something to be flowy and expressive or intricately detailed and illustrative. I tend to be the latter when I draw (but NOT when I paint) and thus tend to prefer the smoothest, thickest paper possible.

My pencils! Two different sets - the green ones I purchased from an art store in NZ during my Ph.D., when I decided to finally start playing around with different hardness pencils. I have no idea where the silver ones came from, I think a gift from early college that I never used until about six years ago.


Comparison of pencil hardness with average pressure applied onto the paper.


I recommended starting out with a Ticonderoga #2. Eventually, you’ll find that a #2 can’t get quite so dark as you would like, or that it smudges enough when doing detail that you’re getting frustrated. High quality drawing pencils are fortunately inexpensive, and I would recommend getting a 2H, 4H, 2B, 4B, 6B, and maybe an 8B; I find that anything harder than 4H is sort of useless on any paper. Note that HB is right in the middle – and the equivalent hardness of a #2 pencil. It’s basically on a scale – the higher the number, the harder or softer the lead is. Soft lead can go super dark, but smudges very easily and should be used sparingly if attempting detailed work. Likewise, hard lead wears down slowly and thus maintains a sharp point for longer, allowing unparalleled detail. However, it is very light which means that only a certain amount of fine-scale contrast is possible, and additionally it may be hard enough that if you try to really grind it in, you will indent the surface of the paper and no additional graphite will stick, regardless of softness. So, experiment with hard graphite, because it is essentially irreversible if you put it on too hard. On that note, that could potentially be used to your advantage!

Pencil Sharpeners

I am really picky with pencil sharpeners. Most don't sharpen the pencil enough and leave a little 'nub' of graphite  - essentially forming a 3d road cone with a hole in the end since the blade doesn't go down far enough. Staedtler makes a nice one with a little bin for the shavings, but often the sharpeners that come with nice pencil sets that do not have a little shavings bin are some of the best you can find. A freshly sharpened pencil will break a bit at the tip so I tend to always rub the tip down on a sheet of scratch paper to 'prime' it for working on the work itself.

A drawing place & beverages

I tend to watch TV while I work on artwork and drink ice cold beer - so I have a preferred seat on the couch. Find a spot that has either the right amount of distractions, or is distraction-free if you need it. I find that a glass of beer or wine helps me subdue my anal retentive tendencies and work faster without second-guessing every thing I am doing, which mostly tends to speed the process up a LOT. I've heard other scientific illustrators who were taught to have a glass of wine and relax as a little bit of alcohol helps steady your hand. Do NOT try drawing if you've drank a bunch of coffee! You will make mistakes if your hands are a little shaky from needing a snack. I drink a LOT of coffee, so my art time is usually no earlier than mid-late afternoon.