Category Archives: detailed observation of natural objects

part two: project one: detailed observation of natural objects

exercise one: detail and tone

This has been a tad frustrating. I’ve been happy with the simple line drawings I’ve done, but as soon as I start to add ‘detail and tone’ I come a cropper. The more I look at the shell the more detail I see, yet even when I try to just get one square inch down in detail it doesn’t look like anything – just a lot of smudgy pencil.

I’ve also been torn between a light touch and something more dramatic. The shell itself seems to lend itself to lightness. Underwater the light flattens them.  On land they take on new form, holding secrets and memories. I’m intimidated by all a shell stands for. A thing of such beauty and strength, and all made by a slimy blob!


Looking at the angles. I love the pale smooth underbelly but I want my shell alive and ready to bolt so in the end I choose right side up.

I’ve been thinking so much about the shell that I get it in to my head that I should take it back to the sea. It’s been on land for 30-odd years. This feels a bit weird, a bit like I might be letting trapped spirits free. After its dip, I feel mean taking it out again, drying it off, back in my bag.

I’ve been researching still life while working on this exercise. I became slightly obsessed with Juan Sanchez Cotan’s strung up cabbage and decided to suspend my shell. This has other meaning for me – we have a tradition of shell mobiles in our family – shells collected on travels and strung up from driftwood. When my mother died I hung hers in our garden, only to have the wicked Mistral that sweeps through our valley smash it to pieces.

The problem of course was I had to hold it from rotating, and though I spent some time with light sources and an IKEA box, I was struggling. I was tempted to try to capture its rotation, but the exercise is about detail and tone, and this idea wasn’t helping.

Pulling myself back to the goal of the exercise, I think about the negative space, and how and where my shell will occupy that space. ‘Soft’ pencils are mentioned, I’ve rarely ventured beyond 2B, so I test the range out. 9B is surprisingly crumbly.

At the last minute I have a change of heart and go back to my first position for the shell. Front on it has become too snail like, losing some of its elegance. I start from left to right, dark to light. As I’m working I think this is probably the wrong way to go about it, but at least I have a plan. This shell is going to emerge from the shadows of a dark ocean floor, so that is how I’ll draw it.


final drawing, exercise one, detail and tone, using 2H-9B pencils

Things I’m happy with:

  • I do think I met the requirements for the exercise: areas of strong dark and very light, a variety of marks, some continuous, some broken, filling the sheet.
  • I wanted my shell to be on the ocean floor, and it does feel like it’s in some kind of never-ending place. For a moment the shadows under it looked like a table top and I had to work to fix that. There is a sense of the light breaking through the water from above.
  • As I studied this shell, took it to the sea, hung it up, it began to take on some other value for me. Not power, exactly, but maybe the spirit of its last inhabitant. Somehow I see that in what I’ve drawn.
  • I struggled with the background. I wanted the sense of the deep ocean but I couldn’t just go dark everywhere. I began to cross hatch to reflect the planes of the shell, it became too heavy so I erased through – slightly blurring the edges of the shell and breaking up the pattern. I’m reasonably pleased with the effect – as if currents have moved the shell as it settles on the ocean floor.

Things I’m less happy with:

  • Now I see the image on the computer screen I’m slightly worried that the shell looks like it’s in some kind of Doctor Who vortex. I think I should have been braver with the rubber, taking out larger swathes of background and maybe even shell.
  • I started out too dark – in the end I was using a 9B pencil and still couldn’t get the depth I wanted. The surface of the paper has gone shiny. I’m not sure how to get around this. I did try adding charcoal but it just slid off the surface. I used a charcoal pencil for the very darkest shadows, though I’m not sure it will stick. How dark can a pencil go anyway?
  • I wish now that I had persisted with the suspended shell idea. The problem with this course is I need to get on with the next exercise and I can’t hang around to play with that idea. The the good thing about this course is that I got to think about suspending shells!