Lesson 2: Contour Lines, Texture and Construction
Texture and Detail
Up until this point, we've largely explored matters relating to solid, three dimensional forms. Things with volume to them that occupy space and relate to one another in that space. This last point is something we'll focus on a great deal in the next section.
Texture - that is, what people tend to think of as detail - isn't actually all that different. While we treat it a little differently, texture is also made up of three dimensional forms. The only difference is that these forms adhere to the surface of some other object - and this difference fundamentally changes how we approach drawing it.
An example I like to use is fish. If you've got a fish swimming in the ocean, then we draw it similarly to how we draw the boxes and sausage forms we've tackled thus far. We apply constructional means - drawing through our forms, defining their silhouettes with outlines, describing how their surfaces move through space with contour lines, etc.
If, however, you take a bunch of fish and use it to wallpaper your bedroom, it becomes a texture - and the way we draw it changes. The fish is now a part of the wall itself. If the wall turns, the fish will follow. If you were to strip down this fishy wallpaper and wrap it around a box instead, the fish would come along with it. They cease to be an independent object, but rather become a part of this texture that can be applied to any other surface.
Now, before we get into why that matters, first we have to take a bit of a detour.
Observation and memory
Before we even think about how to go about adding texture and detail to a drawing, we must first learn to slow down and observe. Your brain doesn't simply start off with any real knowledge of all the kinds of textures that exist in the world, so you don't really have much to pull from when you're looking to add detail to a drawing.
Sure, you've seen all kinds of textures in your daily life, but have you really taken any time to really look at them? In all likelihood, you saw them at a glance, your brain tucked the smallest bit of that information away while throwing away that which it deemed unimportant, and you went on with your life. That's normal, and it's how human brains - and specifically human memory - works.
Okay, let's say you did for whatever reason really look closely and carefully at an object. That's fantastic, and you should absolutely keep that up. In all likelihood however, you're probably still not in a position to use that texture, because even if you looked at it a minute ago, your memory's still done its job and thrown away all of the superfluous details it didn't deem worthy of recording. Unfortunately most of the information you need to draw a texture is going to be considered unimportant.
What does that mean? It means you're going to have to spend most of your time looking at and studying an object, or some reference imagery of that object. You're going to put a lot of time into really identifying the visual elements that exist on it, whatever makes it look wet, dry, sticky, smooth, rough, etc. as well as how those elements are arranged. Once you've done that, you'll go ahead and make a mark or two on your page to represent a specific feature you identified that you want to transfer over, and then you're going to go back to studying it - because your memory has already started throwing everything out the window.
Ultimately this process (of observing and studying and then transferring that information into your drawing bit by bit) is something that is gradually going to rewire your brain to better retain the information that will be critical to our purposes. Over time you'll develop what many artists refer to as a visual library - a part of your memory where you hold bits and pieces of information that can be applied to details and textures, as well as to generally understanding how certain kinds of things are put together or constructed.
None of it will be complete, but sometimes that's where the best designs come in - from misremembering a tiny piece of information here and there, and then taking it wherever it leads. But that's a discussion for a much, much later lesson.
Don't worry about shading here
When thinking about detail, a lot of students end up trying to add shading to their drawings, relating detail to the act of simply making their drawing look pretty. Shading (making a surface lighter if it turns towards the light source, darker if it turns away) is actually a very common concept covered in most drawing courses, specifically as a means to convey how a form is 3D.
Drawabox takes a different path. We do not use shading for the purpose of making our forms feel 3D, as the constructional techniques we employ (drawing through forms, using contour lines, and purposely crafting the silhouettes of our objects) are vastly more effective tools for achieving that goal.
Furthermore, everything we add to our drawings serves a specific purpose. Therefore if the shading does not serve any such purpose (since it's already being handled by the techniques listed above), then we do not bother to include it.
There is one purpose that shading does offer to us, however. Specifically, it is the fact that form shading requires a smooth transition from light to dark. In many cases you'll see this achieved using hatching lines, since they can be built up more densely or sparsely to simulate a change in tone.
We can instead replace this hatching pattern with texture, effectively using shading as an excuse to sneak a little extra visual information into our drawing.
To keep it simple:
Shading where you're just using generic hatching to achieve the transitions from light to dark should not be part of your drawings within this course
Shading where those transitions are achieved with textures specific to the surface of that object, however, are perfectly acceptable.
While we specifically avoid shading in order to more directly focus on the spatial reasoning skills we're trying to develop here, it's still an important skill to learn - both in terms of understanding how light works, and depending on the kinds of tools you intend to explore, the techniques behind successful hatching.
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Instead of form shading, what your primary focus should be is on cast shadows. Cast shadows occur when a form blocks the light. The key thing here is that where form shading occurs on the form in question itself, cast shadows are projected onto another surface.
Texture is made up of the little forms that sit along the surface of a given object, and each of these textural forms can cast shadows. In fact, all of the lines we perceive as being part of a texture are generally just that: shadows.
All of the bumps, the changes in topography (where the surface rises or falls), little holes or scratches, etc. can all be thought of as independent bits of form that are added to or taken away from the surface of our object, and each one interacts with the light that is being shined upon it.
Implicit vs explicit
This brings us to why knowing something to be a texture (as opposed to a free floating, constructed object) is important. As mentioned before, it determines how we go about drawing it. Going back to the previous analogy, if we have a fish floating freely in the sea, we want to define it in explicit terms, clearly defining the forms that make up its body and how they exist in 3D space in relation to one another.
When the fish is stapled to the wall however, this ceases to be the case. As we can have thousands of these fish all lined up against the same surface, if we were to draw each and every one explicitly, not only would it end up being an insurmountable task, it would also look horrible. All that detail would result in a great deal of visual noise - basically a lot of light and dark marks crammed together generating so much contrast that the viewer's eye would shoot right to it. It would probably even hurt to look at.
We always have to be in control of our drawing - and specifically, how our drawing leads the viewer's eye around. As such, focal points must only exist where we intend them to. The trick to achieving this kind of control is to imply the presence of forms. We can do this by leveraging the cast shadows explained above - instead of actually drawing outlines around each of these textural forms, instead of drawing them directly, we capture the shadows they cast on their surroundings.
When people track a particularly elusive animal in the wilderness, they can derive a lot of information from the signs they leave behind. The tracks, their scat, the fur that might get caught on branches and bushes. Without ever seeing the animal itself, they can get a sense of how big it is, what colour, what it's been eating - that's essentially what we're providing the viewer with here. We're not drawing the forms themselves, we're not giving them explicit and direct information, but instead we're giving them enough from which to derive a general understanding of how that form sits along the surface of the object, how big it is, etc.
One of the biggest advantages to working implicitly is that it allows us to vary how densely we want to pack in detail across the surface of our object without actually changing the nature of what is being communicated to the viewer.
Let's say we have an object with a lot of very tiny scales on it. We may want to draw a lot of scales in a particular location along its surface (to create a focal area and draw the viewer's eye), but draw very few scales, or none at all in another point on it (to give the viewer somewhere to rest their eyes, creating a nice sense of balance to the drawing). Working implicitly, drawing only shadows, allows us to achieve a smooth transition from the densely detailed to the sparsely detailed areas without ever suggesting to the viewer that there are more actual scales in one area, and fewer in the other.
This is achieved by giving the impression that there is more light hitting one area, and less in another. We get a lot of detail packed in when we've got medium lighting conditions - that's where we get a lot of the grey values that transition between light and dark. If we lower the lights, then the shadows grow deeper, merging into one another and creating large swathes of solid black. If we increase the light, we start burning the shadows away, leaving only those that fall within the deepest cracks where multiple forms come together.
Now, all of the information we pack onto the surface of a form is nice and all, but that kind of internal detail isn't actually all that important - not compared to detail conveyed in the silhouette of the object.
A silhouette is basically what you can see if the whole of an object or form is filled in with solid black. At that point, all you can make out are its external edges. Any information that breaks the silhouette and stands out from that shape is going to read very clearly. It's an effective tool that can be used to great effect, or abused terribly.
The reason the silhouette is so powerful is that it's the first thing the eye registers, before even considering any of the information present inside. Your subconscious first picks that out, and then as necessary will start evaluating the rest. Because it's prevalent at the beginning of the process, it has the biggest impact. This is why when you have a good friend approaching you from a great distance, you can still tell it's them from their silhouette, as well as how that silhouette changes as they walk with their particular stride.
This comes into play a great deal in design, because you generally want important objects or characters to have a silhouette that is not only distinctive but informative as well - but that again is a discussion for another lesson.
Don't copy your reference - understand it
A lot of students make the mistake of thinking that the texture exercises are about copying your reference, but that is not the case.
Your reference is merely a source of 3D information. When we copy it directly however, all we're copying is two dimensional. Instead of looking for cast shadows in your reference and copying them, which basically involves taking something from a 2D photo and transferring it to a 2D drawing, approach your textural drawing in these three steps:
Observe. Identify a specific form that is present in your reference. An individual scale, a bump, etc. Remember that we're focusing on actual forms - so if your texture has negative space like a hole or a crack, you're actually to focus on the walls and floor, as they're the forms that'll be casting shadows.
Understand. Use the information your reference provides - through its cast shadows, its form shading, and any other visual signs you can pick up, to grasp how each textural form sits on the surface of the object and how it relates to the surfaces around it.
Transfer. Moving to your actual drawing, you create a cast shadow shape - first outlining it (the shadow shape, not the textural form) in order to design it in a specific, intentional manner, then filling that outline in (you can use a brush pen or a thicker pen for the filling). The specific design of this shape is critical, because that's what defines the relationship between the form you're implying, and the surfaces around it.
The cast shadow you draw may be present in the reference image, or it may not. It may also be present, but different - because the reference is subject to one lighting scenario, while your drawing may have another - for example, with the gradients the light source is always at the far right, blasting away the cast shadows closest to it to create that transition in density.
Remember that you're only drawing cast shadow shapes, each one being outlined, then filled. You're not outlining your textural forms, you're not capturing form shading, and you're not capturing local/surface colour. It's just cast shadows.
Homework and exercises
Every Drawabox lesson consists of lecture content and exercises that are assigned as homework. It's best to complete this homework before moving onto the next section. As this lesson consists of three sections (thinking in 3D, texture, construction), it is best that you only submit your work for review when you've completed all three.
The homework assignment for this section is as follows:
1 filled page of the Texture Analysis exercise.
- Your first texture should be crumpled paper, as this will force you to think more about the shadow shapes you're drawing, rather than outlines. For the crumpled paper, you're actually not going to worry about cast shadows - instead, its purpose is to get you used to working with bold, clearly defined black shapes, rather than being timid and using hatching. Your crumpled paper study/gradient should be made up of clearly defined, distinct black shapes and white shapes. We find that despite breaking away from cast shadows, this helps students become bolder and more confident, which then yields better results for the other two textures that follow.
- The other two textures can be anything else. Remember that as explained above, you don't copy cast shadows from the reference - you create them based on your understanding of the forms that are present.
2 filled pages of the Dissections exercise
All the assigned work for this section should be done in ink, using fineliners/felt tip pens as described here. You may also use a brush pen if you have one, though only to fill in large areas of solid black.
As you collect reference imagery for these two exercises, I highly recommend that you pick up PureRef, a free piece of software that allows you to build and save moodboards extremely easily. It works for Windows and MacOS, and allows you to drop in as many images as you like, scale/rotate/flip/move/arrange them as you please, and save them all to a single portable file.
Color and Light by James Gurney
Some of you may remember James Gurney's breathtaking work in the Dinotopia series. This is easily my favourite book on the topic of colour and light, and comes highly recommended by any artist worth their salt. While it speaks from the perspective of a traditional painter, the information in this book is invaluable for work in any medium.