Wednesday 6/20: Set-Up

A previous Art 160 class’s self-portraits

Today’s class was mostly set-up for the final project, a photorealistic self-portrait created through erasure drawing. Erasure drawing is a subtractive technique: by removing media (charcoal in this case) with the eraser, you can create a lot of interesting effects with lights and shadows.

Drawing a photorealistic self-portrait is a daunting prospect. I’ve known this project was coming since the first day of class, and many self-portraits from previous classes hang around the studio. They are uniformly impressive. I recognize most of the artists who did these. At first, I found them encouraging: at the end of this class, I’ll be able to create something like that. Now, I’m a little intimidated. Those students had all semester to learn visual thinking. I’ve only had a month. (And what if the displayed portraits are the best ones? Selection bias is a real possibility here!)

Professor Ruby demonstrated her technique for toning the paper for this project. Using a stick of Char-Kole, one vigorously draws on the palette (a separate sheet of paper) in order to grind down the charcoal. Then, using a wad of institutional-style toilet paper, one transfers this to the sheet of paper that we’ll be drawing the portrait on. It’s very slow work getting the page dark enough for the drawing, but it’s important that it be dark enough so that there’s a range of available shades between the darkest unerased portions and the lightest highlights.

I got strangely worried about getting my page dark enough. At one point, Julia asked me how I’d gotten mine so dark, and I thought she was crazy—hers looked much darker than mine from where I was sitting. I got up, looked at my classmates’ work, and realized that we had all reached about the same shade of dark gray, but it looked darker from farther away. It’s always interesting to realize a new way that my brain and eyes are conspiring to fool me again. From then on, I’d check my paper against the finished self-portraits hanging in the studio at various points. From a distance, they all looked much darker than mine, but I realized I was getting close when I looked at them from nearby.

I finally developed my own technique for getting more charcoal on the paper. I would grind down the charcoal as before, but instead of using the toilet paper to apply it, I’d tip the palette onto the paper and use the toilet paper to smear it. I’m not sure if it actually did work better, but it seemed to.

I spent about 2 hours outside of class trying to perfect my toned page. It was a little obsessive, but it was important to me to get this project off on the right foot.

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