Exercise 38: Plotting space through composition and structure

Using A3 paper, and graphite and water-soluble pencils, draw a picture establishing a foreground, middle ground, and background. Convey the impression of great distance by emphasising aerial perspective.

Prior to starting this, I jotted down a few notes to serve as a reminder to myself:

Foreground attributes

Clearer, more detailed, larger, more textured, more saturated colour.

Middle ground attributes

Less detail than foreground, more than background. Helpful to have some kind of ‘framing’ device for mid-ground.

Background attributes

Vaguer shapes, less definition, more even tones, colours turn bluer/greyer.

aerial perspective on dartmoor

aerial perspective on dartmoor

I struggled with this picture – so much so, I really don’t want to post the result here. However, in the spirit of learning from one’s mistakes, here it is (see above). The problem didn’t lie with the principles of aerial perspective (as outlined above) – I can grasp how that works. Putting it into practise with the prescribed materials, however, proved a real stumbling block. As the course book drew a distinction between graphite and water-soluble pencils, I took the latter to mean colour water-soluble pencils, using water to explore their full potential. This worked well enough at the sketching stage.

plotting space, sketches 1 and 2

plotting space, sketches 1 and 2

I actually really enjoyed doing these sketches. The freedom to draw shapes and make marks without concern for ‘finish’ is exhilarating! With hindsight, I’m aware that I used the pencils in a bolder way (i.e. more pressure and looser) in these sketches than I did in the resulting work, which I think gives a far greater feeling of liveliness. In the first sketch (on the left of the picture above), I slipped up a bit by making the foreground green brighter than that in the mid-ground when, in fact, the light was shining on the mid-ground, with the foreground more in shadow. That aside, I liked the composition, with the two thorn trees in the mid-ground framed by the big rocks of the tor. The distant hills in the background were faded shades of green and grey.

The second sketch (on the right of the picture above) was on another part of Dartmoor, with a sheep sitting by the roadside observing passers by. I didn’t opt to use this composition as I thought it might be too simplistic (?), but I did like it, and felt that it emphasised the principles of aerial perspective quite clearly – rough textured long grass in foreground, plus sheep and rock, with dark shapes to indicate distant trees in the mid-ground, rounded off with more muted grey hills in the background.

plotting space, sketch 3

plotting space, sketch 3

In the third sketch (above), I tried another view from the tor. This one had a greater sense of space, with a far more open view. The great rocks in the left-hand foreground were interesting, I thought, and the thorn tree provided a focal point for the mid-ground.  The hills in the distance  were quite indistinct, and so suited this exercise fairly well. The difficulty with this view was that the colours of the mid-ground were actually quite a bit lighter than those in the foreground, which complicated things a little. However, I hoped that the additional texture in the mid-ground should provide enough of a distinction to read the scene properly. Usually, I have a strong gut reaction that moves me more towards one composition than another, but that wasn’t the case here, and I found it very difficult to choose between the three potential choices, but finally settled on the third sketch as it had more features than the second, and had a greater feeling of space than the first. Still not sure this was a wise choice.

I used a Staedtler Mars Lumograph 8B graphite pencil and Derwent Graphitint water-soluble pencils for the final drawing, on 160gsm A3 cartridge paper. The initial drawing went well enough, but the problems started once I began to use water. My instincts told me I’d be better off using watercolour paper, but I followed the course instructions instead to my regret, as even minimal water application (using a Pentel water brush to stem the flow) caused the paper to buckle. Lesson learnt – if it’s a toss up between instructions and instinct, follow the latter! Added to this, I had only used Graphitint in sketches up to this point, and found that the more careful application to a ‘finished’ drawing resulted in patchy, insipid colours (particularly unpleasant in the background). The graphite in them had a greying effect, even in the foreground. Perhaps because, as I’ve mentioned above, I used them more boldly in sketches, the problem wasn’t so apparent there.

I really tried to retain the loose quality of the initial sketches, but don’t think that comes across. Maybe my unfamiliarity with the materials was partly responsible, but I was aware, also, that I’d rather be making an A3 ‘sketch’, as I’d enjoyed drawing that way so much. The only thing stopping me was the worry that the finished article would look too ‘unfinished’. This really is a hard one to shake off. I looked at a number of drawings of similar subjects, trying to get a feel for how to approach things more loosely, but sadly that didn’t translate in the resulting picture.

'finished' picture

‘finished’ picture

In the end, I’d say I ‘stopped’ rather than ‘finished’ this picture. I’d persevered with it, on the earlier advice in the course book (about not casting aside a picture that isn’t going well in order to start again). I do think it follows the basic principles of aerial perspective – more detailed forms in foreground, with more intensity of colour and stronger contrasts, less distinct forms in mid-ground, but with some texture apparent, and evenly toned blue/grey forms in background – and, therefore, does convey some impression of distance. The light was coming from the right of the scene, but it was a generally overcast day, with a blank pale grey sky. Overall, though, it feels lifeless, which is a disappointment, as landscape drawing seemed a good opportunity for doing more lively work. Just one picture, though – that’s all it is.  Others will be better (and plenty will be worse!)