Technique: Acrylic Washes Over Drawings

by John Rutherford

Exhausted Surgeon
2002, Conté and acrylic, 17 x 21.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.

My approach to figure drawing allows me to work quickly in establishing both the linear outlines of the model’s form and the tonal pattern of light and shadow. To create the tone, I lay in one transparent wash of acrylic paint, which functions as an intermediate flesh tone throughout the figure. A second opaque wash establishes the lighted side of the form. The finished drawings are complete works of art, but they can also become foundations for more developed oil or acrylic paintings.

I use earth-colored Conté pencils (primarily No. 617) for drawing lines and shadows because they are easy to hold and move smoothly across the paper. I also like that they make either sharp lines or broad marks when pointed with a sand pad, and they are available in a range of flesh colors. Because I like to make long, flowing lines, I hold the pencils toward the middle with my arm fully extended. I begin drawing with the paper at an almost vertical position, applying more pressure when drawing shadowed areas and less pressure when identifying detail on the light side.

I work on white bond drawing paper because the smooth surface facilitates the lively, smooth lines that describe the posed model. It’s important that the paper be fairly heavy to accept the washes of acrylic paint without buckling.

2002, Conté and acrylic, 17 x 16.

I always begin by drawing the model’s head; it is the most convenient unit of measure for judging the proportions of the rest of the body. Holding the pencil straight in front of me, I close one eye and move my thumb down the pencil until the sharpened point marks the top of the head and my thumbnail marks the bottom. I then move the pencil down and across the model’s body to evaluate the depth and width of the form. A standing figure might be six heads tall and one to two heads wide, for example, and a seated or leaning figure would be shorter and wider.

Using the head as a unit of measure helps me judge proportion, while analyzing positive and negative shapes helps me accurately describe the model’s pose and gesture. After years of experience, I can make all of these determinations quickly and generally. I am just as concerned with making flowing, elegant lines as I am with describing the pose accurately. A stiff, exact drawing is less appealing than a lively, suggestive sketch.

A strong light on the model creates distinct shadow patterns that I can draw with the broad edge of the Conté pencil, leaving the clean areas of the paper to suggest the lighter values. When I’ve finished establishing those patterns, I take the work outside the studio and spray the surface with a workable fixative. This step, which I usually do when the model is taking a long break, ensures the washes over the drawing won’t disturb the lines.

Retired Couple
2002, Conté and acrylic, 16 x 16.

In a small container, I mix acrylic gloss medium with a small amount of burnt sienna acrylic paint and apply it over the figure to create an overall flesh tone. The more acrylic paint I use the redder the wash becomes. If a background tone will help establish the lighted edge of the figure, I brush that in as well. If the model’s skin tone is cooler in appearance, I use a wash of burnt umber as the flesh tone. When drawing from a clothed model, I employ washes of the local color to block in the overall shape of the shirt, pants, or other garments.

When the model resumes the pose, I add titanium white acrylic paint to the gloss medium mixture and paint the highlights. The white makes the paint slightly more opaque and cooler, and that balances well with the transparent, warm flesh color.

At this point the drawing is complete, but I could continue working with a full palette of colors on top of this simple value statement. In my experience, an accurate drawing is the best foundation on which to create a painting because the proportions, gestures, and composition are resolved. It doesn’t matter if the model shifts position after the breaks because the lines of the drawing have already fixed his or her pose
on the paper or canvas.

The process I am suggesting allows for simplicity and accuracy in drawing and painting. The paint goes on purposefully with the drawing. By contrast, piling on paint to correct a lack of preparatory drawing not only adds time and dollars to the process but also increases the opacity of the surface. That limits the glazes and cuts down on the vibrancy of the art, regardless of the medium used to establish the tones.

0706ruth5_306x356_2 0706ruth4_600x479
Here’s an example of how I use
a figure’s head as a unit of
measure for judging the proportions
of the entire body. Each square
in the grid represents one unit.
Reclining Female

2002, Conté
and acrylic, 15 x 20.

When working alone in my studio, I sometimes use oil paint for the washes of color over the Conté drawing, combining burnt sienna or burnt umber with a traditional medium of varnish and mineral spirits. In that case it is especially important to spray the entire sheet of drawing paper with workable fixative so the oil from the paint won’t leak and create a stain around the drawing. Oil paint obviously dries more slowly than acrylic and necessitates using solvents that sometimes create a bothersome odor. For those reasons, my students use acrylic or other water-soluble paints, and I take acrylics with me to drawing sessions in which I share space and the cost of a model with other artists.

I have also used the same technique with watercolor, gouache, and casein—all three water-soluble—and they work just as well as the acrylics and give a slightly different look to the finished drawings. Whichever medium you choose to use, it is helpful to test the mixtures of paint, water, and medium on a scrap of drawing paper to make sure the wash isn’t too thin or too opaque. It should be transparent enough to allow the Conté lines to show through clearly but opaque enough to create a satisfying flesh tone.

Of the thousands of wash drawings I have done from a model, only about 35 percent are successful. Some drawings make it because a beautiful model strikes a pose that guarantees a strong drawing; others make it in spite of a seemingly impossible beginning—a pose that looks like it won’t work because of the view from the easel or the position of the spotlights. But the point is to keep up the exercise and try to stay excited by the process. If you do that, every drawing will be beneficial.

About the Artist
John Rutherford was born in Napa, California, and studied at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and the Art Center College of Design, now in Pasadena, California, before embarking on a career as a commercial illustrator. At 55 he retired and became a full-time fine artist and teacher, offering classes in drawing and painting at the Academy of Art College. He is active in art associations in Mendocino, California, where he maintains a studio.

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