Charcoal up your nose

I’m studying oil painting at the Atelier Art Studios in Brisbane. Which is to say, for the past two or three months I’ve been making detailed tonal studies in charcoal (my arch nemesis). Of apples, bottles and goblets. Nick takes great delight in pointing out the flaws of my studies, but upon allowing me to pick up a brush and some raw umber, he granted that my hard work was paying off and that I am coming to understand tone.

To understand tone, we perform all sorts of tricks that are difficult to explain, to do with separating true shadow from apparent shadow, and shadow created by different planes of the object. We run a paintbrush through the air over the object to see where the true shadow falls, and from this we can determine where the object is still in the light, but darker. We always add the crevice shadow at the base of the object, to ground it. We start here, because it is the darkest part of the drawing, where no light can possibly reach.

We squint a lot to cut out excess light to determine which highlights and reflected lights to depict. If shades of grey are lost when squinting, they are to be ignored and not represented in the drawing.

We change the sharpness of the drawing to depict differently-textured surfaces. Shiny bottles have sharp lines for reflections, but matte ones are blended. Highlights on shiny things are hard circles, but on rougher surfaces they gently fade into the surface.

Individual grapes have crevice shadows, real shadows, darker parts of the lit region that seem to be in shadow, lighter regions and highlights. Bunches of grapes as a whole have a crevice shadow, a darker collection of grapes that are furthest from the light, and brighter grapes nearer to the light. It’s all very meta.

Sometimes I argue: ‘I’m drawing what I can see! If I can see it, why can’t I draw it? You’ll never fool the eye if you selectively take out things it expects to be there.’ But Nick calmly explains that the eye overcompensates, it takes in more light and more information than is really there. Our drawing must therefore offer less to match up with the external world. I imagine that filling in all these visible but not ‘real’ touches is what leads to ‘hyperrealism’ that somehow looks both realistic and garishly false.

When I pack up at the end of each week, my head is in a foggy, charcoal-dust-filled state, tearing away at itself trying to comprehend what is real, and how to convey reality.

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