Alright, my friends. We can’t avoid this subject any longer. We need to talk about edges.
When it comes to shading with graphite or charcoal, we’re basically dealing with two fundamental subjects: value and edges. Value being how dark or light a certain object is (we talked about double checking your values/tones in my last post), and edges being the transition between values.
Now edges, I think, are just as important as anything else in your drawing. And if you don’t have a proper understanding of how to use edges, your art will suffer for it.
Enter 14 year old me, just a few years into my journey of pursuing art seriously. I had just realized that I could draw people, and I actually liked drawing people, and I decided to draw the horn section from Chicago, which was one of my favorite bands at the time.
On one hand, I’m not ashamed of this drawing at all. I mean, for a 14 year old using the grid method, it’s not too shabby.
But on the other hand… Where do I even start?? The proportions. The facial structure. Those blotchy tones!
But anyway, I’ll stop, and for now I’m only going to pick on my youthful understanding of edges, which narrowed down to: if I don’t draw a clear edge, how will the viewer know the object is there?
Well, dear younger me, not to sound overly sarcastic, but that is where the human brain comes into play. Yes, indeed, our brains are awfully good at filling in the gaps, and figuring things like that out. You need not worry.
I used to go in and use my “artistic license” to change the value of objects around the edges so they would really stand out, and you could see them clearly. (You can see how I did this on the saxophonist’s shirt in the above drawing. 😝)
But if you go and look at the reference picture, you can see there’s several places where the edges kind of blend into each other, and disappear.
And sure, if you zoom into that area, you might have a hard time seeing that there’s an object there. But in the context of the big picture, it all makes sense, and it’s not difficult to see what’s going on.
Fast forward a few years and I began learning more about edges. I was informed on the difference between hard, soft, and lost edges and how to merge shapes through some of Marco Bucci‘s videos. Around that same time, I sketched this piece of character art for a friend, and I thought it would be fun to apply this new idea of lost edges.
See how the edge of the dark shirt under his sweater gets lost against the dark background? I was figuring it out, folks. I was figuring it out.
It was such a small, almost insignificant breakthrough, but I have to say, after I actually applied what I was learning, it was like I had unlocked a whole new level of creativity in art.
Well, fast forward a few more months, I was still having fun with edges, and I decided to sketch the drummer from another one of my favorite bands at that time, TOTO. And I’m not sure why I chose to use the blurriest reference photo on earth, but that’s what happened.
I wasn’t actually planning on blending this at all. It was just going to be a quick sketch. But somewhere along the way I realized there were no really clear lines in the reference picture that I could sketch from, so I started smudging everything with my finger. I ended up skipping over the outline aspect of the drawing, and just started putting in the shading as gradients and blocks of “color,” to create the form of the drawing.
This was actually the very first drawing that got me into finger blending again. And I learned a few important things through the process.
- You can communicate a lot with very little visual information.
- It’s totally possible to draw from blurry photographs.
- The finger blending method works really well for creating soft edges.
And yet another level of creativity was opened.
Okay, so let’s take a closer look at edges, and then we’ll get to some finger blending techniques.
A Crash Course in Edges
There are three types of edges: Hard, Soft, and Lost.
And yes, a lost “edge” out of context looks like there’s nothing there… because there’s nothing there. But again, in context, it all makes sense.
When I first started getting into realistic drawing, I basically only used hard edges. And maybe a lost edge every now and then, if I couldn’t see it in the reference.
But you really need all types of edges.
They help create depth and focus, as edges that are nearer tend to be harder, and edges that are further away are softer, or can disappear altogether. Softer edges can add movement and atmosphere to your drawings. And lost edges help you achieve simplicity and an added layer of realism.
I used to avoid blurry backgrounds like the plague, because all the soft edges seemed too daunting to draw. But that’s where finger blending does you a favor. Since blending with your finger isn’t as controlled and precise as blending with stumps, it helps you create edges that are naturally soft. Then once you get the hang of it, you can carry those same techniques over into your stump blending.
So let’s see what the process looks like.
A Wee Demonstration
For this one I’m using Strathmore’s 400 Series 8×10 Drawing paper. It’s a little bit thinner than the Bristol paper, and has a very fine tooth.
And the only tools I’ll be needing this time around are my mechanical pencils filled with HB and 2B lead; some black pencils, like 4B and 6B for touching up; my kneaded eraser; my pencil eraser; and the old finger tips. Gotta love simplicity.
My brother told me I should draw Glen Campbell, and since the drawing I was originally doing to demonstrate this was *cough cough* kind of failing, that’s what I ended up doing.
Let’s draw the Rhinestone Cowboy
I start with the very bare bones of the drawing. Measuring out where the head needs to go, and how far down the neck of the guitar is. These are kind of my anchors for the rest of the sketch.
This is a very simple pose, which makes the initial sketch stage a lot easier. I’m not putting in any details at this point. Just trying to get in the basic structure first. And then similarly to the charcoal technique I talked about earlier, I blend out my sketch lines, just to keep things soft.
Now we go right in with the shading. Again, no details here. I just want to get the structure right, and all the features placed correctly. Then afterwards, when I do put in the details, I won’t have to worry as much about whether I’m putting everything in the right place or not.
Then of course, I make a mess blending everything out with the pads of my fingers.
Keep building up layers of shading, and then keep blending them out. Double check the structure/shadow placement. Make sure the eyes aren’t too far apart (my most dreaded mistake), or the nose too long (my second most dreaded mistake), or the mouth too low.
Then the last thing I do before I start on the details is lift out the highlights with my trusty kneaded eraser. And yes, it’s very okay for it to look like a mess right now. All part of the process, of course.
Give yourself something to work with
I’m a lot more careful with my finger blending once I get to the details. I use more of my finger tip, and a lighter touch, and just try to be generally more controlled than when I’m in the blocking in stage.
Be forewarned, once you begin putting in the details things may go a little haywire. In other words, it’s most likely not going to look right. At least not from the start.
And that is okay.
You need to give yourself something to work with at the beginning, so that you can look at it and say, okay, I need to move that iris over a little bit, or lighten up that shadow, or deepen this shadow.
And then you can fix it.
If you are the kind of artist who is tempted to pull out a new sheet of paper and start completely over as soon as something goes terribly wrong, rather than going back and tackling your mistakes head on, I would hand you an eraser and say, “Be brave. An imperfect drawing is better than a blank page. Erasing may seem like a setback right now, but in the end, you’ll be glad you put in the hard work and fixed it.”
Moving on from the face for now.
Thankfully drawing clothing is a lot more forgiving than facial features (although faces are definitely more rewarding). While blending, I let as many edges soften and bleed into each other, creating a very ambient look. Then if I need to, I’ll bring some of the hard edges back with my pencil or eraser.
I employed a bit of artistic license here to make his shirt lighter than it is in the reference photo. I thought this would add more contrast and clarity to the image since there’s already a bunch of dark tones in the jacket and guitar.
And now we come to one of the cons of finger blending. Filling in the dark areas. I don’t know what the science is, but our fingers are just not the best tool for driving graphite into all the little microscopic crevices in our drawing paper. So when you’re laying down those dark tones and blending them out with your finger, you’re still going to have quite a bit of the white of the paper showing through, and your tone may not be as smooth as when you use blending stumps.
Fortunately, there are two ways I have found to overcome this:
- Layer like a madman. Yes, you can beat the system with lots and lots of layering. Use a blacker pencil to get down the black tones, and then layer over it with a harder pencil to fill in more of the cracks and crevices. Then go over it with the black again. Etc., etc.
- Use a stump for your darkest areas. Yes, this is legal. I can tend to be a little bit of a stickler sometimes, and not want to use stumps because, “I’m making a finger blended drawing!” Well, yes, but I remind myself that I’m also trying to make good art. And if you really want those large dark areas to be really dark and smooth, stumps are the reasonable way to go.
A Word of Caution
As I was finishing up my drawing, and just going over the larger details, I ran across this…
Legend states that if you squint your eyes, the index finger goes on forever.
This is where I realized I had gone a little overboard with my lost edges. And while my brain kind of filled it in, it just didn’t look right to me. I ended up using my eraser to bring that edge back.
So just as a word of warning, there is a point where you can go too far with the lost edges. Use your own discretion, and do what you feel is right.
After I had finished most of the details (saving the name GLEN CAMPBELL printed on the guitar neck for last), I showed it to my dad and asked if he could tell who it was. He recognized it right away, which honestly surprised me a little.
But then he said, “I don’t know, something about the face… I mostly recognized the guitar… and the clothes… and hair…”
Well… okay. Fair enough.
So I went back to work on the face, double checking my feature placement, and realized his left eye was a little too high. So I fixed that (read: spent way too long staring at it and thinking I had just made the problem worse, and trying to figure out if something else was wrong, and wondering if I had accidentally drawn an undertone of frustration into his expression, or I was just imagining that, and complaining in my brain that this was NOT gentle on my mind, until it all just became an indistinguishable blur…. *cough* but I think I fixed it).
Then I erased the lettering into his guitar neck with my pencil eraser, which was actually a lot of fun. I darken shadows, lighten highlights, and clean up the background shading a bit.
Quick Tip: a fun way to give your highlights a little more punch is to create this sort of glow effect around them. I did this with my kneaded eraser, just gently lifting out a faint area of light around the highlight. All I have to say it’s very satisfying, but you do have to be careful not to go crazy with it. Unless you’re drawing fireflies. In which case, go all out.
And with that, I do believe we’ve finally reached the end.
I may go back and work on the face more, because something… something is still bothering me. 😛
What about high definition details?
Well friends, we’ve talked about edges and how to create a very soft, ambient portrait. But what about drawing something with more definition and detail?
Well, I’m happy to say that the finger blending method works very well for those types of drawings too. You might not have as much control as with blending stumps, but you can easily clean up any smudges with the kneaded eraser.
I’ve found finger blending on these more detailed portraits creates a very crisp, beautiful, almost film-photography looking drawing, which I really love. I also really like using it in my sketches, because it softens the shading, but without all the polish and posh that comes with blending stumps. It’s quite freeing in that way.
But don’t take my word for it. Go try it at home. Make mistakes, embrace the mess and work with it, be lionhearted, and go create something beautiful.
I’ll be back next week to wrap up the series! Until then…
Carry on bravely,