Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Backyard Raccoon (and Failed Whiskers)

9/20/23 Bic ballpoint in Uglybook sketchbook
(reference photo by Greg Mullin)
Last week when we were eating lunch on the deck, our regular blue-feathered friends didn’t show up, but a new beggar did: a youngish raccoon. Smaller and slimmer than other raccoons we’ve occasionally seen in the neighborhood, this one seemed to be missing most of its tail. Getting up on its hind legs, looking up at us optimistically, it entertained us for quite a while. Comfortable around humans, it had perfected its adorable begging stance for maximum payoff in treats. (I know I’m not supposed to feed them, but I couldn’t resist tossing one peanut.) I wanted to make a portrait first, but I’ll probably make another sketch sometime showing the raccoon’s full stance.

Ratty bear abandoned.

Process notes
: This wasn’t my first attempt at sketching the raccoon. A couple of evenings earlier, I had begun a sketch from the same reference photo but abandoned it when I realized that the space between the eyes and other proportions were way off (shown at left). Even without looking at the photo you can probably see that it isn’t right – the face looks ratty or bear-like. (Hmmm, I’m having déjà vu . . . maybe I just have trouble with raccoons.)

In Gary Faigin’s portraiture workshop several years ago, he advised us to begin with the shape of the head first before adding facial form and features. I usually have proportional problems with this technique; my results are better when I begin with a feature (usually the eyes) and build the rest of the face and head around it. That’s usually what I do with all the Earthsworld portraits I’ve been making. With the raccoon, I thought I’d challenge myself by beginning with the head shape, so I blocked that in first. Sure enough, I got into trouble.

When I tried again, I began with the eyes instead of the whole head, and my proportions were more accurate. I’d like to learn to make portraits the “right” (or classical) way, but I seem to do much better this way.

Failed whisker technique: In both graphite and colored pencil classes, I’ve learned a trick that I call the “whisker technique” (or, if you prefer botanicals to animals, the “leaf vein technique”). To make thin, white lines such as whiskers or veins, use a stylus or other instrument to score the paper. Then apply graphite or pigment to the area, and the incised lines will remain white. Since I’ve used this technique successfully with both colored pencils and graphite, I wondered if it would work with ballpoint ink, too? I’ve always thought of the Bic as “the pencil of pens” because its unique ink is pressure-sensitive and builds in layers, just like pencils. It was worth a try.

Unfortunately, when I tried it on the raccoon, it didn’t work. Afterwards, I made a more formal swatch study (below) to see if I could either make it work or figure out why it doesn’t work. It looks like the ballpoint pen nib is so fine that ink is able to be applied inside the incised lines. With graphite, I used the side of the pencil point, which could skip over the incised lines more easily.

The "pencil of pens" isn't quite pencil enough.

A well-rehearsed begging stance for maximum treats.


  1. You definitely did better starting with the eyes. That one came out great! I don't think there is a right way or wrong way to do is whatever works for you. I forgot about etching the white lines before working with the graphite...that shows how rarely I use graphite for a "portrait."

    1. I agree with doing whatever works! Maybe with more practice, I would eventually get better at using the other method, too.

  2. I've run into the same thing with drawing faces - I always do better starting with the eyes. What a cute little beggar!

  3. That anonymous comment is mine - you know me as Sheila Barnes over on the Urban Sketcher FB page. Don't know why blogger was having such an issue recognizing my google account!

    1. Oh, hi Sheila! Yeah, other readers have complained about the same thing... Blogger definitely has "issues." But you get what you pay for. ;-)


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