Learning to Draw pt. 3: The Pencil as Brush.

Note: This post is part of a series about learning to draw. Click here for Part I if you’d like to start from the beginning. Context might make this more interesting.

You’ve probably heard a variation of the Law of the Instrument before. It goes something like this: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But what happens if the man with the hammer thinks that his hammer is actually a screwdriver?

That might sound absurd to you. Or it might sound like a “one hand clapping” zen koan. Or it could be the title of Oliver Sacks’s next book. But I use it here to describe my recent drawing experience. For the past few weeks I have been “the man with the hammer who thinks it’s a screwdriver.”

Three-ish weeks ago my art teacher instructed me to buy a set of charcoal pencils, a kneaded eraser, and some toned paper.

A personal aside: To give you a sense of how green I am when it comes to making art, I didn’t even realize there were such things as charcoal pencils. I always assumed that when a museum piece said “Charcoal,” the artist had used a leftover chunk from a barbecue. Yep––I’m that green.

Anyway, my teacher’s instructions came with a bonus tip: “Charcoal is a brush.” This idea––that my pencil is actually a brush––led to an immediate qualitative change in my drawing. If it was not an axis break, it was at least an inflection point.

Here are a few of my graphite drawings from just weeks ago:

Compare to my charcoal drawings over the past two weeks:

This post is not about the quality of my charcoal drawings. I don’t mean to say that they’re museum ready or even that they’re “good.” This post is about the qualitative axis break resulting from the paradigm shift of “the pencil as brush.”

I don’t know if I can adequately see or describe the aesthetic consequences of the paradigm shift, but here’s what I notice when comparing my above drawings:

1. Lines and outlines are less important.
2. Lighting is more important.

“Pencil as brush” has not only had aesthetic consequences, though. It also changed the experience of doing drawing. In particular, it feels different to make brush strokes instead of lines––even if you’re using the same pencil to do both.

Besides the tactile pleasure that comes from putting charcoal on paper, I find “brushing with charcoal” to be more relaxed than drawing. “Mistakes” are somehow of less consequence: I feel far less pressure to make a brush stroke look “good” or “real” than I do to make a line adequately straight or curved.

I suppose in short I’m starting to understand just how Bob Ross is so damn chill when he paints.

Confounding Variables

It would be disingenuous to say that the pencil-brush paradigm shift is all that changed in the last month. For one, the shift coincided with a medium switch from graphite to charcoal. There’s a reasonable McCluhanesque argument that the new medium is just as responsible for the qualitative changes in my artwork.

And then there’s the fact that I’m just getting more technically skilled. I’m drawing for 30-60 minutes per day. It could be that my newfound attention to lighting, for example, is just a consequence of getting better at seeing the effects of light.

But ultimately I think there’s something valuable in the pencil-brush paradigm shift as part of the educational process. Because it’s not just the pencil that’s not-actually-just-a-pencil: The eraser, too, is not-actually-just-an-eraser.

Soon after starting to use a kneaded eraser, I realized that I could use the eraser to create an interesting smearing effect. The eraser is not just a subtractive tool that lets an artist rid his work of imperfections. The eraser can be an additive, creative tool.

To summarize:

The pencil is not a pencil.

The eraser is not an eraser.

The pipe is not a pipe.

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