In response to a query from a recent visitor regarding the background tree and the softness of appearance in the last completed work of the show horses, I will endeavor to give a brief explanation today. So, Laurene, this is for you!
First off, I wanted the focus of the work to be on the horses and riders, so the background was to be a relatively insignificant part of the overall composition, soft and played down, ethereal, but still strong enough to act as a counterbalance to the negative white space on the lower right of the work. Actually, the negative white space and the soft overall tonal quality of the tree shape act as two mirrored triangular halves of the work, dissecting from top right to lower left with the head and rear quarters of the left most horse holding and emphasizing that angular line.
OK, so to the background and how I kept it soft. As I have said many times here, it is a matter of slowly building up layer upon layer of ever darker tonal values of grey, not only to make the occasional distinct break to indicate a leafy pattern, but also to 'manage' the values as I went along.
As you might be able to see in the posting for the in-progress shot of this work on March 3, I began by roughly 'scrubbing in' a pretty basic, overall pale gray tone using the blunted edge of a 6H. If you click on that image and look at the blown up version, I think you can see just how roughly this initial scrubbing was. I am, at this point, only trying to develop where I want to go with the tree shape/form and not being too specific with any of my marks. Only at the points where I know I want to establish trunk and branches, do I add a bit of pressure to the stroke and thus intensify the tone at those points. I also at this point, am trying to gauge where I want certain qualities of gray to meet the already defined parts of the riders, especially the foreground figure in the very dark coat.
Now, if you look at the posting for March 6, you can see that I have begun to establish the diagonal line of the leafy branches to the right of center and heading off toward the upper right quarter to set that apparent split between the two halves of the space. Still, the scrubbing is very light, using that 6H blunt edge and just touching the surface of the Bristol Board. Since I work, again, on the slightly textured finish of board (I think it is the cold press or what some call the kid finish), what I am doing here is basically picking up the top most surfaces of the texture, just ever so slightly letting the blunt edge graze across those peaks. Filling in will occur later on, but all I want to do is set a basic under layer of very light gray at this point.
Apologies for not having any intermediate postings of the background work at this point, but in the final, finished image, you can see how I pretty much followed all those preliminary soft tones. What I did to get to this point was to continually add layers of graphite, working in a cross hatch manner and often with small circular motions, very softly again just hitting the upper surface of the texture of the board. For most of this first pass across the entire area, I still was using the blunt edge of the 6H and then continued over that, in areas where I wanted to vary the tone and darken it, making leafy breaks, I began to use a rather rounded point on an 8H pencil. Both of these pencils, by the way, are very old Schwan Stabilos, as you can see in the accompanying photo of the four pencils used to create the background (the two red ones). I will also say at this point, that the tonal quality of a specific graphite grade, such as a 6H, differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. The yellowish pencil in the image is another 6H, this one being Austria Cretacolor, which I picked up someplace on sale once, not remembering where, but at closeout pricing, could not resist. I had never used nor seen this brand of pencil before that day, but it is interesting that it holds a point differently than the Schwan Stabilo does, and also lays down a very different tone of grey for being the same grade, 6H. For my way of working and my technical approach to drawing, this has unique results for me.
As I continued to build up layers across the entire form of the tree, I kept making certain that there were no intense separation lines or strong contrasts as to keep the soft over all texture to that part of the drawing and not to make a truly defined tree form with leaves picked out. This was achieved for the most part, by using blunted tips as opposed to sharp points. What that does is to leave you very soft edges. The only stronger lines are at the vertical of the tree trunk and several of the angular branches, but still, nothing as strong or 'certain' as any of the lines of the foreground figures.
During this whole process of building up layers, all the little craters in between the high points of texture to the Bristol Board, are being filled in, making for an overall even tonal quality to the grays. Pulling out darker shadowy areas with a slightly pointed, yet still rounded end of a 3H (the Faber Castel) at this point, helped to establish some depth to the background, yet still I was careful to not press too firmly on the work surface, keeping my pencil point hovering just on the very upper surface and grazing the board. It is a laborious process, but actually one that I would say only took about 3 and a half hours in total work time to get the background done.
A note here about cross hatching . . . since the texture of the Bristol Board that I work on (Rising) has a distinct pattern across the long length of the 20 x 30 product, all my drawings are oriented with that moving in concert with the horizontal plane of the composition. With only two exceptions for works that I wanted to be very strong in vertical format, both of which are included in my bridge pieces that were part of the recent 'Unknown Bridges' exhibition and can be seen on my blog, linked to the right, to pieces from that body of work, I find that the initial scrubbing of soft under tone is best done in line with that apparent texture of the board. Subsequent hatching then goes angular, right to left, left to right, sometimes up and down and then back across the horizontal plane. What this does is to set a very even tone across all the grays and acts as a blending method in the way in which I work. Others might find the use of the end of their finger works the same, or using a blending stump, but the way in which I have developed my technical approach over the years, and based pretty much as I have mentioned here before upon the fact that I began as a painter and that is the way I painted, building up layers or glazes, this is what works for me.
And so, as things began to take shape you might say, and I developed overlapping indications of leaves and see-through light areas, the tree shape materialized. All of this accomplished by continuing to over layer 8H, 3H, and 6H tones. Again, by not using any softer grade of graphite, I was not conflicting with the intense blacks and shadows of the foreground figures which kept the tree in the distance and kept it soft. And let me add at this point that by working in this manner, not establishing darks right off and by slowly developing the tones in the background, I have complete control of how dark I go, where the darks are and by constantly backing away from the drawing and checking the balance across the entire work, I keep the soft quality, soft.
I hope this explanation makes sense and will give a fairly descent telling of the way in which I keep things soft!