This is an impromptu tutorial strung together from a few work in progress shots (apologies in advance for the quality), of a recent charcoal sketch made after an oil painting by the artist Luigi Loir (shown right).
I’ve only been able to find a low resolution version of the original, which was chosen not because it is the most stunning painting ever made by Luigi, but because it simplifies shapes and tone; it’s gloomy weather adds interest to the impressionistic characters and its rain soaked reflections on street level create interesting textures.
You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Luigi Loir, a French artist born in Austria who died in Paris. Much of his work features Paris during the Belle Époque, which is part of my personal attraction. The paintings also bring a happy compromise between naturalism and impressionism. A lot of Luigi’s urban work is set at dusk, or on overcast wet days, with emphasise of the paintings on the cold wet reflections, or bright lights from a local restaurant, shop or carousel. I do not know the title of this particular piece but am going out on a limb, and guessing it’s actually a coastal town, perhaps near Normandy? For simplicity I’ve greyscaled the image. The original is in colour, but fairly muted.
Anaylsing the scene
Even when sketching it pays to spend a minute or two analysing the scene. The horizon almost divides the vertical aspect completely in half, which most guides on composition will say is a no-no, but rules can be broken to good effect. The vertical aspect can also be broken up, almost into thirds, from the buildings on the left receding towards the horizon, the high rise apartments taking up the centre and the open space on the right filling the last third. Most of the darker tones are over on the left half of the painting. On the right, the suggestion of a couple of dark figures help balance the work.
It also pays to quickly analyse the perspective. I suspect Loir has just done the perspective roughly rather than mechanically laying it all out beforehand – the latter can often take away the spontaneity of an alla prima styled painting. We’ve already established the horizon as being about half-way. See how it roughly passes through the heads of the figures telling us the viewer is about the same height. The drainage ditch (with the reflective puddles, incidentally also denoting the lightest parts of the painting) almost comes directly at us, which is another clue as to the position of the viewer. I have largely just followed the vanishing points of the buildings on the left to the horizon, to give a vanishing point roughly somewhere within the middle of that small stand-alone building on the right. A couple of other things to note: the tall central apartments recede behind our horizon line, which gives the impression of a downward slope. In cases like this the vanishing point will lie below the horizon. Also take a look at the reflections on the street on right-hand side. The brushstrokes are no longer perpendicular but come down at a subtle angle suggesting a slight slope.
Starting the sketch
My sketch is 24cm by 27cm on a non-branded cartridge paper within a spiral bound sketchbook. The first thing I do is to mark out the overall shape of the drawing, by laying down masking tape. Charcoal can get messy, and the masking tape helps give a nice straight and clean edge when you’ve finished.
It is often easier to work on paper that has been lightly toned. By sprinkling vine charcoal dust (the twig like charcoal made from sticks of willow) from a piece of sandpaper, you can rub it over the paper with either your hand, a tissue or a chamois. Different tools will remove varying amounts of tone, it’s purely experimental. I mark the horizon and some of the vanishing points.
There will be lines that need removing, by using a tissue or finger, it is easy to blend them out into the background (one of the few advantages of vine charcoal). Some of the lighter patches of cloud are also put into place at this stage by dragging a putty eraser over the sky.
The toning is largely done with a paintbrush dipped into charcoal dust (stuck to the fine grade sandpaper used to sharpen the point of a stick of vine charcoal) and a pastel felt tipped blending tool which smoothes out the dust into the weave of the paper. You can use whatever blending tools take your fancy – they all add or remove charcoal to different degrees. The brush keeps tones quite dark, and helps with soft edges. The pastel blending tool keeps tones very soft and provides a medium tone; if you were to rub it over charcoal that is very dark, it will actually lift it off the paper instead, so can be used for both lightening areas that are too dark, or for laying down middle tones. A finger also lightens with similar effect, although you shouldn’t really touch the paper due to oils in the skin. The old masters used stale bread crumbs to lift charcoal and create lights (especially lights in the sky), but it must be from home-made bread, and not processed supermarket bread (which contains oils). I’ve yet to try this, but I suspect the putty eraser of today acts in much the same manner. I also once came across an old book that suggested using the pith from an elderberry bush for blending or lifting charcoal. This past fortnight I’ve been making elderberry cordial, wine, champagne and jam, as it grows in abundance, so I’m quite keen to give this a try. Blending stumps are also a useful tool, but don’t tend to pull off charcoal in darker areas unless you really smear them in dust first.
Drawing wet reflective surfaces
The wet ground is the fun part, and is just a cast of dragging across the pastel blending tool whilst covered in dust, and occasionally pulling across a putty eraser. It’s not really a conscious drawing effort, more haphazard and intuitive. Every so often I just stop, have a look and see if it looks like the texture resembles a wet hard surface.
Impressionistic Figures, gestures
The figures are mere silhouettes, which is just as well as my vine charcoal sticks were quite chunky and not made for details. There’s the suggestion of a figure in a coat, blown by a slight breeze which I’ve exaggerated slightly, though not intentionall. There’s a figure on the left which is pretty abstract and the blurry suggestion of characters on the right, as though barely registering in the periphery vision. I like the way Luigi Loir employs this, so that the viewer does not become distracted by sharp and well defined details.
Finishing the sketch
The use of the tools has made the sketch a bit wishy-washy. I like charcoal, but I always have to wrestle with it somewhat. To tidy up a little, I finished a few final details with a charcoal Conte 2B pencil, just to give a few sharper edges to the buildings and to the main figure to make them more of a focal point. I’ve also added a little more tonality to the ground, the slope and the reflections in the rain and puddles.
And there we have it. There are elements I like, elements I don’t like, but sketching is for practice and if you aren’t dissatisfied with certain things, then you can’t improve. If you have a moment, check out some of Luigi Loir’s work on the internet; he has a knack of bringing cities and urban environments to life.