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Drawing media can be divided into two broad groups: dry media and liquid media. Dry media are generally applied directly in stick form. As the stick is dragged over a suitably abrasive surface, it leaves particles of itself behind. Liquid media are generally applied with a tool such as a pen or a brush. Although some media are naturally occurring, most of today's media are manufactured, usually by combining powdered pigment (coloring material) with a binder, a substance that allows it to be shaped into sticks (for dry media), to be suspended in fluid (for liquid media), and to adhere to the drawing surface.

Dry Media

A soft, crystalline form of carbon first discovered in the 16th century, graphite is a naturally occurring drawing medium. Pure, solid graphite need only be mined, then shaped into a convenient form. Dragged across an abrasive surface, it leaves a trail of dark gray particles that have a slight sheen.

Graphite was adopted as a drawing medium soon after its discovery. But pure, solid graphite is rare and precious. (In fact, there is only one known deposit.) More commonly, graphite must be extracted from various ores and purified, resulting in a powder. Toward the end of the 18th century, a technique was discovered for binding powdered graphite with fine clay to make a cylindrical drawing stick. Encased in wood, it became what we know as a pencil, today the most common drawing medium of all.

Varying the percentage of clay in the graphite compound allows manufacturers to produce pencils that range from very hard (lots of clay) to very soft (a minimal amount of clay). The softer the pencil, the darker and richer the line it produces. The harder the pencil, the more pale and silvery the line. In his drawing Prince among Thieves with Flowers (6.5), Chris Ofili used a comparatively soft pencil for the image of the bearded man and a harder pencil for the pale but still precise flowers in the background. From a standard viewing distance, the lines that define the figure seem to be made of dots. But as viewers draw closer, the dots reveal themselves to be tiny heads, each sporting an afro, a black hairstyle popular during the 1970s (6.6). A young British artist of African ancestry, Ofili often uses imagery associated with the sense of black identity that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, treating it with a complicated mixture of nostalgia, irony, affection, and respect.

Chris Ofili. Prince among Thieves with Flowers. 1999. Pencil on paper, 29¾ × 22¼″.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Chris Ofili. Prince among Thieves with Flowers, detail at actual size.

Metalpoint, the ancestor of the graphite pencil, is an old technique that was especially popular during the Renaissance. Few artists use it now, because it is not very forgiving of mistakes or indecision. Once put down, the lines cannot easily be changed or erased. The drawing medium is a thin wire made of a relatively soft metal such as silver, set in a holder for convenience. The drawing surface must be prepared by covering it with a ground, a preliminary coating of paint. Traditional metalpoint ground recipes call for a mixture of bone ash, glue, and white pigment in water. As the point of the wire is drawn across the dried ground, it leaves behind a thin trail of metal particles that soon tarnish to a pale gray.

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Metalpoint drawings are characterized by a fine, delicate line of uniform width. Making thrifty use of a single sheet of paper, Filippino Lippi drew two figure studies in metalpoint on a pale pink ground, building up the areas of shadow with fine hatching and cross-hatching, then delicately painting in highlights in white (6.7). The models were probably workshop apprentices. Renaissance apprentices often posed for one another and for the master, and thus found their way into innumerable paintings. The figure on the left, for example, may well have been incorporated into a painting as Saint Sebastian, who was typically depicted with his arms bound and wearing only a loincloth.

Core Concept: Shading and Dimension
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Filippino Lippi. Figure Studies: Standing Nude and Seated Man Reading. c. 1480. Metalpoint, heightened with white gouache, on pale pink prepared paper; 91 11/16 × 8½″.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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Charcoal is charred wood. Techniques for manufacturing it have been known since ancient times. The best-quality artist's charcoal is made from special vine or willow twigs, slowly heated in an airtight chamber until only sticks of carbon remain—black, brittle, and featherweight. Natural charcoal creates a soft, scattered line that smudges easily and can be erased with a few flicks of a cloth. For denser, more durable, or more detailed work, sticks of compressed charcoal are available, as are charcoal pencils made along the same lines as graphite pencils. Yvonne Jacquette's Three Mile Island, Night I illustrates well the tonal range of charcoal, deepening from sketchy, pale gray to thick, velvety black (6.8). Jacquette has made a specialty out of depicting landscape as seen from an airplane. With the popularization of air travel during the second half of the 20th century, this view became common. Yet although we might consider it fundamental to our modern experience of the world, it has rarely been treated in art.

Yvonne Jacquette. Three Mile Island, Night I. 1982. Charcoal on laminated tracing paper, 48 13/16 × 38″.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
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The dry media we have discussed so far—graphite, metalpoint, and charcoal—allow artists to work with a range of values on the gray scale. With crayon, pastel, and chalk, a full range of colors becomes available.

Crayons and pastels are made of powdered pigments, the same as those used to make paints, mixed with a binder. For crayons, the binder is a greasy or waxy substance. The coloring crayons we give to children, for example, use a wax binder. Finer, denser, more brilliant versions of these crayons have been developed for artists. Another children's product, a crayon using a binder of wax and oil, has also inspired an artist-quality equivalent. Known somewhat confusingly as oil pastels, they are as brilliant as artist-quality wax crayons but with a creamier consistency that facilitates blending. Crayons made with waxy or greasy binders, in contrast, tend to favor discreet strokes that can be layered but not blended.

Perhaps the most well-known artist's crayon is the conté crayon. Developed in France at the turn of the 19th century, it consists of compressed pigment compounded with clay and a small amount of greasy binder. Initially conceived as a substitute for natural black and red chalks (discussed later), conté crayons have since become available in a full range of colors.

One artist who comes readily to mind in discussing conté crayon drawings is Georges Seurat. In Chapter 4, we looked at Seurat's painting technique, pointillism, in which tiny dots of color are massed together to build form. Seurat also did many drawings. By working in conté crayon on rough-textured paper he could approximate the effect of color dots in paint. Café-concert is one of several drawings Seurat made of an entertainment that was all the rage in his day (6.9). The cafés and their performers were condescended to by serious (and snobbish) cultural commentators, but ordinary people flocked to them. Artists went as well, attracted by the effects of the lighting, the colorful personalities of the performers, and the fascinating social mix of the crowd. By simplifying his forms and downplaying any sense of motion, Seurat tends to bring out the eerie side of almost any situation. Here, the distant, brightly lit female performer is watched rather spookily by an impassive audience of bowler-hatted men.

Georges Seurat. Café-concert. c. 1887. Conté crayon heightened with white chalk on paper, 12⅜ × 9 5/16″.
The Cleveland Museum of Art.
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Another artist attracted to the café-concerts was Edgar Degas. Whereas Seurat's drawing was made from the back of the hall, Degas' The Singer in Green (6.10) puts us right on stage next to the performer, who touches her shoulder in a gesture that Degas borrowed from one of his favorite café singers. Degas created his drawing in pastel. Pastel consists of pigment bound with a nongreasy binder such as a solution of gum arabic or gum tragacanth (natural gums made from hardened sap) in water. The principle is simple enough that artists can manufacture their own if they so choose, mixing pigment and binder into a doughy paste, then rolling the paste into sticks and letting it dry. Available in a full range of colors and several degrees of hardness, pastel is often considered a borderline medium, somewhere between painting and drawing. Artists favor soft pastels for most work, reserving the harder ones for special effects or details. Because they are bound so lightly, pastels leave a velvety line of almost pure pigment. They can be easily blended by blurring one color into another, obliterating the individual strokes and creating smoothly graduated tones. Here, Degas has blended the tones that model the girl's face and upper torso as she is lit from below by the footlights. Her dress is treated more freely, with the individual strokes still apparent. The background is suggested through blended earth tones and roughly applied blue-greens that show the texture of the paper.

Edgar Degas. The Singer in Green. c. 1884. Pastel on light blue laid paper, 23¾ × 18¼″.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

To geologists, “chalk” names a kind of soft, white limestone. In art, the word has been used less precisely to name three soft, finely textured stones that can be used for drawing: black chalk (a composite of carbon and clay), red chalk (iron oxide and clay), and white chalk (calcite or calcium carbonate). Like graphite, these stones need only be mined and then cut into convenient sizes for use. Seurat used discrete touches of white chalk to heighten his conté crayon drawing of the Café-concert (see 6.9); Leonardo drew his self-portrait in red chalk (see page 141). Natural chalks have largely been replaced today by conté crayons and pastels, though they are still available to artists who seek them out.

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Liquid Media

Drawing inks generally consist of ultrafine particles of pigment suspended in water. A binder such as gum arabic is added to hold the particles in suspension and help them adhere to the drawing surface. Inks today are available in a range of colors. Historically, however, black and brown inks have predominated, manufactured from a great variety of ingenious recipes since at least the 4th century B.C.E.

There are endless ways to get ink onto paper. You could soak a bit of sponge with it and swipe a drawing onto the page. You could use fingertips, or a twig. But if you want a controlled, sustained, flexible line, you'll reach for a brush or a pen. Traditional artist's pens are made to be dipped in ink, then set to paper. Depending on the qualities of the nib—the part of a pen that conveys ink to the drawing surface—the line a pen makes may be thick or thin, even in width or variable, stubby and coarse or smooth and flowing.

Today most pen nibs are made of metal, but this is a comparatively recent innovation, dating only from the second half of the 19th century. Before then, artists generally used either reed pens—pens cut from the hollow stems of certain plants—or quill pens—pens cut from the hollow shafts of the wing feathers of large birds. Both reed and quill pens respond sensitively to shifts in pressure, lending themselves naturally to the sort of varied, gestural lines we see in Rembrandt's Cottage among Trees (6.11). One of the greatest draftsmen who ever lived, Rembrandt made thousands of drawings over the course of his lifetime. Many record ideas for paintings or prints, but many more are simply drawings done for the pleasure of drawing.

Rembrandt. Cottage among Trees. 1648–50. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, on paper washed with brown; 6¾ × 10⅞″.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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The wind-tossed foliage of the trees shows Rembrandt's virtuosity at its most rapid and effortless, whereas the solid volumes of the cottage were more slowly and methodically built up. Here and there, Rembrandt used a wash, ink diluted with water and applied with a brush, to give greater solidity to the cottage and to soften the shadows beneath the trees. Before beginning his drawing, he prepared the paper by applying an allover wash of pale brown. By tinting the paper, Rembrandt lowered the contrast between the dark ink and the ground, creating a more atmospheric, harmonious, and unified image.

A more recently developed type of ink pen is the rapidograph, a metal-tipped instrument that channels a reservoir of ink into a fine, even, unvarying line. Compared with the line traced by a reed or quill pen, a line drawn with a rapidograph can seem mechanical and impersonal. In fact, the rapidograph was invented as a tool for technical drawing, such as the drawings that illustrate architectural systems in Chapter 13 of this book (see pages 282301). Before the advent of the computer, architects often used the rapidograph to draw precise images of buildings they were planning.

Julie Mehretu purposefully evokes the association of the rapidograph with architecture in drawings such as the untitled example here (6.12). Fragments of urban plans along with details of buildings and infrastructure seem caught up in an explosive whirlwind. Mehretu's drawings thrive on the contrast between their seemingly apocalyptic subject matter and their cool, detached style, a style in which the even line of the rapidograph plays an important role. Mehretu makes her drawings on translucent Mylar, a polyester film used in architectural drafting. Often, as in the drawing here, she works on multiple, superimposed sheets of Mylar, so that elements placed on an underlayer appear as though seen through a fog.

Julie Mehretu. Untitled. 2001. Ink, colored pencil, and cut paper on Mylar; 21½ × 27⅜″.
Seattle Art Museum. Courtesy the artist and The Project, New York.
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The soft and supple brushes used for watercolor can also be used with ink. Brushes can be wielded boldly and brutally or with great delicacy and refinement, producing a broad range of effects. The concept of using a brush for drawing shows how difficult it can be to define exactly where drawing leaves off and painting begins. Is Matisse's vigorously brushed Dahlias, Pomegranates, and Palm a drawing or a painting (6.13)? We tend to classify it as a drawing because it was created on paper, is in black and white, and is largely linear in character—that is, Matisse used the brush mostly to make lines. Taken together, these characteristics are more closely associated with the Western tradition of drawing than with painting. But if we shift our focus to China or Japan, we find a long tradition of works made with brush and black ink on paper, often linear in character, which by custom we call paintings. Look ahead, for example, to Ni Zan's Rongxi Sudio (see 19.21) or Toba Sojo's Monkeys Worshiping a Frog (see 19.28). Both were created with brush and ink on paper, and both are primarily linear. Yet within the cultural traditions of East Asia, both are clearly associated with the practice of painting.

Henri Matisse. Dahlias, Pomegranates, and Palm. 1947. Brush and ink on paper, 30 × 22¼″.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Realizing that categories such as “drawing” and “painting” are cultural and somewhat fluid can be a freeing experience for both artists and viewers. A drawing does not have to be made of certain materials, be of a certain size, or look a certain way. In the next section, we examine how some contemporary artists are taking advantage of this freedom by pushing drawing beyond traditional limits.