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Linear Experimentation and Line Variation

As instructors, we talk with our students about drawing materials and tools and their individual characteristics. In terms of drawing pencils, whether graphite or charcoal or conte, we explain the various designations indicating degrees of hardness or softness (S, M, H, or the more precise system combining numbers and letters) and discuss the scale that takes us from 8H to H, F, B, and up to 8B. Cognitively, students will understand the distinctions, but are often much less aware experientially of the significance of these distinctions. We have all seen the drawings that nearly puncture the paper in the futile attempt to employ a harder pencil to yield a darker line or mark (the back of the drawing is as telling as the front as we run our fingers over the tactile impressions). We observe the glare that results from increasing the pressure of a relatively hard pencil in an effort to create rich, dark tone and the student’s frustration. We observe the collection of pencils, most never used, and those that have been used have likely not been sharpened since their first use.

Creating a full range of value variation and linear variety is a lot to ask of a single pencil! Yet students often lack the tactile experience of exploring the tremendous range of marks that can be made based on the variables of a hard, soft, or medium lead; a finely sharpened point or a dulled point; a pencil held very firmly and close to the tip (as if signing one’s name) or held loosely along its length; the application of a lot of pressure on the tool or minimal pressure; and hand movements originating at the wrist or broad, sweeping movements originating with the entire arm and shoulder. All of these approaches to holding and using a drawing tool are valid, with each variable yielding very different results that must be experienced to fully understand and appreciate.

I encourage initial experimentation that is independent of subject matter. Nothing in particular is being drawn. Rather, the range of possible lines and marks are explored with guidance and encouragement from you. The goal of this experimentation is to initially provide the students with an opportunity to fully investigate all the variables without the “pressure” of accurately representing an object or a thing or a figure.

Ask your students to choose five different graphite pencils and five different charcoal pencils that represent the range of hard to medium to soft. If a student is equipped with pencils that utilize the simpler designations of S (soft), M (medium), and H (hard), then three pencils are sufficient. Discuss and show them the differences in the sharpness or dullness of a lead and the different kinds of line that result. Discuss and show them the different ways to hold the drawing utensil and the impact this has on the resulting line. Discuss and show them the difference between drawing lines using your wrist only and drawing lines using your entire arm and shoulder. Discuss and show them how their proximity to their drawing surface affects the marks and lines made when positioned very near the drawing surface and further from the surface with the arm stretched out. As you address each of these variables independently, remind the students that all variables come into play at once in determining the quality of mark or line that is made. How hard of soft is the lead (whether graphite or charcoal or something else)? Is the lead sharp or dull or somewhere in between? Is the pencil long enough for you to hold in a variety of ways or does it need to be placed in a pencil extender? What kind of pressure are you putting on the pencil as it meets the paper? Are you standing or sitting very close to the drawing surface and do you have room to move away from it if you so desire?

Following your example, turn them loose with the goal of exploring line in every way they can imagine. Short marks, long marks, straight lines, wavy lines, crisp lines, soft lines, thick lines, thin lines, dark lines, light lines, sharp pencil, dull pencil, light pressure, heavy pressure, textured paper, smooth paper, precise movement, broad and sweeping movement . . . the list of potential variables is unlimited! Encourage them to also explore which lines and marks smear easily and which don’t, which lines and marks erase easily and which don’t, which lines and marks are light on the paper’s surface and which are bold and dark.

This exercise provides the essential experience of becoming familiar with the tools and their potential before investigating all the different ways that line can be used to represent and explore all different kinds of subject matter with sensitivity. The images that accompany this exercise are examples of the capacity of line to communicate a vast amount of information in relation to an endless variety of subjects. Numerous additional examples of line variation can be found throughout Drawing Essentials, 3e.

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