Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Kubota Garden Ballpoint Study


(My plan was to batch all my 30-Day Challenge composition studies into weekly posts, but this drawing had enough lessons that I decided to give it its own post.)

Last week when I observed International Ballpoint Pen Day with a couple of on-location studies, I regretted that I was so hasty (five minutes spent on each) and messy. As any fan of France Van Stone knows, Bic ballpoint ink can be an elegant, sophisticated medium in the right hands. The next day, I wanted to make up for those by taking my time on another study, this time from a photo.

Although this may sound ironic, I find I get the best results from a Bic ballpoint if I use it the same way I use graphite – building up values with gradual layers and taking advantage of ballpoint’s pressure sensitivity. (That’s not a general statement about all ballpoint inks; the best ballpoint ink for this technique is still the cheap, lowly Bic. I’ve had much less success with modern, “hybrid” ballpoint inks.) This small composition study reminded me how much I enjoy this kind of Bic hatching once in a while.

I was also reminded of the Gage class I took last summer with Kristin Frost. Using only graphite, we practiced drawing trees and foliage from life. When a scene calls for dense layers of foliage, my habit used to be to begin by drawing the outline around each bush, including the upper lighted parts. But one of many things I learned in class is that foliage needs to be defined by the shadows underneath, where it’s always darker. It looks more natural if the upper shape is defined by the darkness of whatever is behind it rather than an actual line. It’s more challenging to “draw” this way without making a line, but I do like the look better. (In concept, this is similar to what watercolor painters are doing this month for the 30 x 30 Direct Watercolor Challenge – painting the shapes without drawing a guiding pencil outline first.)

As for composition, making this one taught me something else about how drawing from photos is different from drawing from life. People who started out learning to draw by using photo references have told me how much more difficult it is for them to later learn to draw from life because photos do all the work of converting the 3-D world into a 2-D plane. When drawing from real life, we have to learn to make the conversion ourselves.

Photo reference for the study

I’m the opposite: I cut my teeth on urban sketching. Maybe as much as 95 percent of the drawing I’ve done the past decade has been from direct observation, not from photos. When I looked at this photo that I took a couple of months ago at Kubota Garden, it felt very limiting to me. If I were there at the garden, I could walk around to see if there was a slightly better angle or better light just by moving a few yards. Though convenient to be able to sketch at my leisure in the comfort of my studio, it was frustrating to be stuck with only this view (not to mention the limitations of my photography skills).

Even the format was frustrating. I felt like I had to work harder to imagine other orientations because the view I saw was a firm, vertically oriented rectangle (in my smartphone camera’s aspect ratio that always looks a bit longish to me). I started out drawing this as a landscape-shaped rectangle, but by the time I finished, it became a square. In general with these studies, I’m finding it easier to draw the boundaries of the format shape after I’ve made the sketch.


  1. I find I have the same problems with working from photo, but it does make me savor sketching from life! I like the dark area behind the figure in your drawing.

    1. Thank you! Another thing I learned: You have to put dark behind the light to make the light show up. :-)


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