Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review: Pencil Art Workshop

Pencil Art Workshop by Matt Rota

Artist Matt Rota is probably best known for his book, The Art of Ballpoint - Experimentation, Exploration, and Techniques in Ink (which I referred to but didn’t fully review in this post). Like that awe-inspiring book, his more recent work, Pencil Art Workshop, explores graphite’s potential as an art medium, including eye candy galore.

(Although I usually save quibbles for the end of a review, as a writer, I must begin with this pet peeve: The author consistently uses the term pencil interchangeably with graphite. The pencil is a form that can contain a variety of media, including graphite, pigment, charcoal, pastel, etc. Using the term pencil is like using the term paint – do you mean watercolor, oil, acrylic, latex, or will any kind of paint suffice? For a writer to interchange the specific with the generic reduces understanding instead of expanding it. End of editorial rant.)

As a pencil geek, I was delighted that the book’s introduction included a brief timeline of pencil history (and by pencil, the author means woodcased graphite pencil history). I always find material history fascinating and generally lacking in most art technique books that otherwise include detailed information about tools and supplies.
Timeline of graphite pencil history

The first two chapters cover drawing with line and drawing with tone. In the line section, I was especially interested in a series of process examples showing how varying line weights can be used to add depth and focal emphasis to a drawing. The chapter on tone was a good capsule of the same techniques I learned from Eduardo Bajzek, including using an eraser as a drawing tool.
Drawing with line

Drawing with tone

Of particular interest and relevance to me is the chapter on Drawing Quickly, which is essentially about sketching on location. I admire the author’s capture of people in single-line gestures that evoke the poses so well. Rota also shows examples of how he builds larger compositions, using varying line weight and tone to give depth as well as detail to a sketch.
Quick captures of people with simple gestures

A curious part of the book is the chapter on Photorealistic Drawing. While I have no interest in creating photorealistic drawings myself, it was intriguing to understand what photorealistic artists strive for to keep their work from literally reading like a photograph. Despite how paradoxical that sounds, it makes sense. For example, photos often reveal a spot of light made by the flash that doesn’t look natural, so the flash effect must be avoided while retaining the realism. Hmm. Not my bag, but fascinating anyway. In addition, this chapter helped me understand why I can often look at a painting and realize instantly that it was made from a photo instead of from life – though I’m not always able to articulate exactly why.

An unexpected chapter is one called Adding Color. In most other books I’ve read on drawing with graphite, color is not discussed. If graphite is used with paint, it is typically used only in the preliminary drawing that would later be erased or concealed by paint. Here, Rota shows how graphite can be combined with watercolor, colored pencil, ink or gouache so that each enhances the other in unique ways.
Instructions for applying graphite to a watercolor painting

Each chapter ends with a drool-worthy gallery of graphite art featuring the methods discussed in that section.

While I wouldn’t recommend this book to novices who are just beginning to learn to draw, it would be inspiring to intermediate and even well-seasoned artists who want to push graphite beyond what they might typically find in how-to books. And the eye candy would be inspiring to anyone.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I love Rota's work. I even took his Craftsy course (pen and ink). BTW, it's easy to tell when I've drawn from a photo. The result is always bad (grin).

    1. ;-) I agree -- Rota's work is amazing. I'll check out the Craftsy course!


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