2.1 Space, Depth and Volume

The aim of this project is to create an illusion of space and depth by working into a dark field of charcoal with a rubber and other tools, continuing to develop tone and contrast using charcoal and a rubber but attempting to avoid describing edges by the addition of drawn lines.

I often use a variation of this technique in my life drawing, where I crumble charcoal on to my support and scrub it around with my whole hand in a very loose description of the form. I then work back into it with rubbers and charcoal to define and develop it. However, I don’t usually make the whole of the background uniformly dark and I don’t avoid the drawn line.

In order to produce charcoal powder, I used a mortar and pestle. I wished to lay down an even, un-textured surface. The charcoal was smoothed on to cartridge paper with a paper towel so that it was not pushed too deeply into the paper and could be lifted off again. As a subject, I selected a stalk of iris seed heads held in a glass vase. This would give me the challenge of the volume of the seed heads and the reflections and transparency of the glass.

iris seedpods (4 of 5)

I added the mortar and pestle for variety of form and because of its relevance. As my primary tool, I cut a Mars plastic rubber into a wedge, giving me a variety of edges to work with.

Carving into the charcoal, it is difficult to create a highlight accurately, unless it is a straight line. It is impossible to return the support to its original virginity. However, the rubber makes marks which are strong and produce a graphic, if not accurate effect. This is the result after about forty minutes.

iris seedpods (1 of 5)

Working back in with the side of the charcoal, I developed the tone and definition.

There is a difficult balance to be found between the appealing softness of the charcoal dust and the accurate description of volume in the seed heads implied by small, fine highlights. I have decided to knock back the denser blacks of the seed heads and sacrifice description to retain the soft character. I also edited out some of the seed heads and leaves to simplify and aid visual understanding. The marks left from the rubbed out elements have become the soft shadows on the surface beyond.


iris seedpods (2 of 5)

iris seedpods (3 of 5) iris seedpods (1 of 1)

I have made the surface on which the vase rests much darker, which balances the seedpods more successfully, and, mindful of the lessons of looking at Elizabeth Blackadder, I have tried to make the background interesting by emphasising the light motes and introducing some variation of tone. These shadows and light motes help to move the eye around the drawing. The centre of interest is in the glass and the way it reflects or bends the light; the seedpods and mortar and pestle are just a supporting cast. However, I think it would have been too dull if I had just drawn the vase, unless it had been a more complex shape, perhaps a cut wine glass.

Apart from the effect of light on glass, I think that this representation is rather predictable and dull. This needs to be my starting point, rather than my destination with this technique.

At this point I received feedback from my tutor for my first assignment. After carefully considering her comments, I resolved to rework this piece to see if I could make it less conventional and obvious and introduce some intrigue. I wiped charcoal dust over most of the background and used the heal of my hand to obliterate the iris pods and generally darken the image. I then rediscovered selected highlights with a rubber, especially in the light refracted through the glass. The iris seeds have now almost disappeared apart from a couple of reflected highlights to suggest form. The vase and pestle and mortar have been knocked back, loosing detail and especially edges. The subject has become the passage of light through the glass.

glass crop (1 of 1)

A2, charcoal

I think that this is more successful and a slight degree of intrigue has been introduced. I am glad I was prepared to attack the piece. However, I wanted to start another work which more fully took on board my tutor’s comments and reflected the research and experimentation I had been carrying out in parallel.

This piece was inspired by my skecthbook experiments  looking at volume and space and my research where I saw the work of Michael Borremans in which he uses two planes connected to each other at right angles. I wanted to take a small object and treat in a way which made it come out of the picture plane at the viewer.

skecthbook (2 of 5)skecthbook (3 of 5)

skecthbook (4 of 5) sketchbook (1 of 1)

I decided to use a small heather root which looks like driftwood, and gives no indication of its size. Having experimented drawing it in different ways, I hit upon the idea of extending it over a right angle edge breaking out of the frame towards the viewer, in addition to manipulating its scale. I had also been sketching objects on a window sill for back-lighting and liked the idea that I might use an aperture in the background to give a scene of space beyond the picture plane. The root could then travel out of one space, through the picture plane and into the space of the viewer.

The other ambitions I had were to work on a large scale and to build a richness of surface by combining media and layering up marks. As a starting point I swept the surface with powdered charcoal but reserved white spaces for highlights because I had found these difficult to reclaim in the previous piece.

decomposition (1 of 10)

decomposition (3 of 10)

The snaky-ness of the root has been exaggerated to to give a sense of life and movement. I realised that the aperture offered possibilities of adding a slightly surreal element to the image through collage. I selected an illustration from the British Library copyright free collection  which related to the root but also had a spooky, otherworldy feel.  I had to manipulate the image in photoshop to suitably alter its perspective.

decomposition (4 of 10)

‘Offering up’ the collage image

I continued to develop the tones and marks with charcoal, washes of Indian ink, white pastel and acrylic ink. I thought that it would add another element if one of the birds flew out of the aperture, and after trying this out on a photograph, I added the silhouette of a bird.

decomposition (7 of 10)

I developed the bottom left hand area, even though I thought I would cut that off, so that I could try out options on photocopied photos.

decomposition with bird (1 of 1)

Collage applied and integrated into image.

At this point, I was inspired by the earlier project in Part 1, where we are encouraged to glue the piece to a bigger piece of paper and carry on working. I have pushed the bird right out of the frame and into the viewer’s space. I have deliberately not described the bird in detail because I want to give the impression of fleeting movement.

bird (1 of 1)

Final work. 80 x 82 cm


bird detail2 (1 of 1)

Trying to create a rich surface

bird detail1 (1 of 1)

Root emerging from collage, the upside-down dead crocodile is an added surprise

bird detail4 (1 of 1)

The bird wing movement suggested by a sequence of large, gestural marks in charcoal and with rubber


I am pleased to have created something which, though based on observation,  has an unreal, gothic feel. I think that I have successfully implied three dimensions or, indeed, some multi-dimensional space. I have enjoyed drawing something from my imagination,

Although I have tried to be adventurous and unconventional in my concept and execution, I think that I could have been more gestural and expressive with my mark making. Layered marks have added interest and the layers of indian ink have produced lovely, rich black textures.

The bird flying out of the picture plane works as a concept, but it would have been more successfully executed from the outset, avoiding the step in the glued support. If I was doing this again, I would vignette the scene within a large piece of paper, with a circular or oval shape, rather than square, which I find too abrupt. I am considering getting rid of those straight edges with gesso, but I need to stand back for a while and think about that.

Working big is a pleasure and allows me to really get my hands into the materials. I enjoy the physicality of pushing charcoal around and using large sweeps of ink with the biggest brush I can find. I think I was over concerned with preserving white with the ambition of creating a large tonal range.  My application of ink did not always create the rich veils of black and grey I wanted  and I must work more with the ink to get its measure. I also need to experiment with heavier weight supports; this cartridge has buckled considerably.

I like using collage, but I would prefer it integrated more into the work than here.


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