Leaping Squirrel and Suggesting Detail

Squirrel Drawing
Graphite and white charcoal on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

Today I drew this squirrel, and although it took awhile to finish it would have been much longer if I hadn’t of just suggested most of the detail, so I thought I’d write a bit about that.

Basically, some areas of an image will benefit much more from high detail levels, while in other areas a lot of detail would either contribute little to the image or would even distract from the main focus. A lot of time could be wasted trying to perfectly draw or paint things that really only need to be vaguely indicated to get a sense of space or setting. These are the things that inform the viewer of what sort of a scene it is and generally what’s happening, but aren’t the actual subject of the image.

Here, I put the most of the detail in the squirrel’s face and paws. The further you look in the background the more vague details become until they’re just shapes, and that spared me having to painstakingly draw thousands of pine needles. Even the needles in the foreground are quickly sketched, and the shadows are really just dark shapes with no detail at all. Still, I hope it gives the illusion of a scene set within a dense mass of branches and needles.

This approach is often seen in portrait paintings where the face and maybe hands are carefully painted with high detail, but folds of clothing may simply be indicated with broad single brushstrokes. Part of that is because those are interesting portions of a person and tell us a lot about who they are and what they’re doing. Accurately painting every detail of the buttons on their clothes, for example, would not normally tell us any additional or useful information. By only suggesting the existence of detail, without elaborately describing each detail, an artist can direct the focus to what’s actually important while also saving time.

The narrower depth of field on the left has fewer distracting details.
The narrower depth of field on the left has fewer distracting details.

In photography, a similar idea would be referred to as subject isolation, meaning that the subject that’s in focus is clearly distinguished from the rest of the scene that’s out of focus. The rest of the scene is still important, because again it gives the viewer at least some idea of where the subject is and maybe what’s happening around them, but when everything is in perfect focus at once the other details can sometimes just be a distraction, like in the example above. Of course this isn’t to say you should never have everything in focus, such as in landscape photography, just that in many cases there’s benefits to letting extraneous details blur away.

For me, in the case of drawing and painting, it’s saving time that’s the main attraction.

Desert Sunset

Thin Red and Gold Sunset
Conte crayon and pastel pencil on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

I don’t think I posted the photo for this before, but it was taken five years ago while on a train crossing the desert. Probably somewhere in Nevada, looking back while traveling east.

Desert Sunset 1 ref

This past week I also worked on a couple of large drawings, one of which I posted on Instagram here.

Dall Sheep

Dall Sheep on Rocks
Graphite and pastel on grey paper, 5.5″ x 8.5″

A few months ago I went to the Denver Zoo and took a photo of a Dall sheep, which is like a bighorn sheep but white. Wikipedia says it’s a subspecies of thinhorn sheep, so I guess the horns aren’t so big either. By the way, I’m posting things on Instagram now, here, and I’m thinking that I might post things like sketches or works in progress there before posting them here.

Woodland Deer and the Use of References

Two Deer Among Trees
Graphite and white charcoal on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

I saw these two deer from a distance and got a few photos to use as reference material, but the photos really weren’t great for just copying as they were. Between being on a moving train, to the sky being overcast with poor lighting, and using an old manual focus lens at a distance, I’m just happy that I got anything useable. So here’s an example of using a reference photo or two just as a reference that I can adjust while drawing, rather than something to slavishly copy.

Woodland Deer 1 ref 1

To start with, the original crooked photo was cropped and edited a bit for contrast and sharpness. Then, I decided the tree on the right should be much closer in, because otherwise it wouldn’t have even been in the framing of the drawing. The viewing angle in the drawing was also lowered from the original photo so more vaguely vegetated background would be visible, because at the original angle none of the background would have appeared on the page. The far left foreground tree was added to give a little weight to that side of the drawing, hoping to help the composition, and a second deer was added so the scene would be a little less empty. The composition really wasn’t thought out as well as it should have been though.

Woodland Deer 1 ref 2

This is a crop of another photo taken a moment later after the two deer started moving away, which was when I realized that there was a second deer. I’m not sure which of these two deer was in the first photo, so I may have just drawn the same one twice. That’s a useful approach because a few photos of the same animal in different poses can be drawn later even as an entire herd.

Back when I was in school I remember feeling like drawing just from imagination was what I should always try to do, because people would always ask if I had made something “out of your head” and would always act more impressed if that was the case. The result of always doing that was things didn’t really look right, or even recognizable, because I didn’t have a good understanding of how they actually did look. That’s gained from practice and thorough study, not from just making things up based on how you think they should look.

Since then I’ve kind of gone the other direction and often feel like I can’t draw anything if I’m not looking at something. Then I often just copy what’s there. I think the real point and usefulness of reference photos is to have something that you can conveniently look at later for ideas or to see the details of how something naturally looks, but then to build a composition from that, not to just copy the references in a way that’s only transferring the image from one medium into another.

Reservoir and Trees

Reservoir with Fast Moving Trees
Black and white charcoal and graphite on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

A reservoir with a large dam, not seen, in the Rocky Mountains a little distance west of Denver. Although the reference photo I used was actually a clear view of the reservoir, in recognition of the trees that kept photobombing me as my train moved I added some in.

Waterfall with Egret

Waterfall with Egret

Pencils: Pentel Graph Gear 500 3mm with 2H lead, Eberhard Faber Design Drawing 6B pencil, General’s white charcoal pencil
Paper: Strathmore 400 series toned gray 80 lb
5.75″ x 3″

I wanted to try drawing a waterfall again, but in a different style. I also tried using a little General’s charcoal pencil in a few places, but it got mixed in with and I think overwhelmed by the much larger amount of heavy graphite in those places, so it probably didn’t affect the final image.

Waterfalls and Rocks

Waterfalls and Rocks 1

Pencils: Pentel Graph Gear 500 3mm with 2H lead, Eberhard Faber Design Drawing 6B pencil, Conté a Paris white pastel pencil
Paper: Strathmore 400 series toned gray 80 lb
4.75″ x 2.75″

I think I got a little carried away with the white, but I’m still getting used to this kind of drawing.

Grey Paper: Deer Sketch

Grey Paper: Deer Sketch

Pencils: Palomino Blackwing, an old Sanford Turquoise H (now sold under the Prismacolor brand name), General’s white charcoal, Cretacolor white lead.
Paper: Strathmore toned gray 5.5″x8.5″ 80lb.

Grey Paper: Deer Sketch reference

A long time ago I took this photo of three deer drinking water in front of my house from a bowl that was for the birds. This is a new sketchbook that I got recently and this is the first thing I’ve drawn in it, just the top half of the page. Normally I always work on white paper, but this toned paper was an enjoyable change. The method I used in which a grid is drawn to transfer the image from the photo to the paper is too meticulous though and took me a lot longer to finish than I thought it would. Even with the grid I didn’t get every detail exactly accurate.