Drawing Grass, Shrubs, and Trees in the Negative

There are many ways to draw grass, shrubs, and trees with charcoal, and perhaps one of the most challenging methods is by negative drawing. Challenging, yes— but, oh so fun. Drawing grass, shrubbery, trees, hay, and straw in the negative can produce a much more realistic drawing when charcoal is the medium.

My sixth grade art teacher, who was an amazing charcoalist, was the first to teach me about “white space” by looking at the positive and negative.

Negative drawing should not be confused with subtractive drawing. There is no eraser used in negative drawing.

Negative Art - A Trick of the Eyes

A common picture used to best describe negative drawing is at the right. When you look at it, what do you see? Do you see a black candlestick holder? The bottom of a wine vessel? The image in black is the positive area. Now look again. Do you see two white faces looking at each other? These are the negative areas or the “white space.” Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you; it’s how you choose to look at the picture.

If you were to draw this, you would imagine “seeing” the faces on the paper and filling in the space between them with black. It’s not as difficult as it seems. It’s simply a matter of your mind imaging the white space on the paper.

Grass and shrubs can be drawn in any manner, be it sketching in upward or downward strokes with the flick of the wrist or by subtractive drawing. When grass or shrubbery is integral to the focal point of the picture, negative drawing works well to accomplish this.

Lanaquarelle Watercolor paper and Nitram HB batons. The paper comes in blocks and has just enough tooth to hold the charcoal, yet, isn’t too grainy or rough. The batons were sharpened to a fine point with a sandpaper block. I prefer to use a long baton when drawing in the negative, so I sharpen several before I begin. I also like to do this so I don’t have to break my concentration to sharpen when my point wears down.

My reference photo was taken on my camera and I made two copies, one in color and one in black and white using the grayscale setting on my copier. I taped one on each side of my easel so I can easily refer to them.

Because I’m a lefty, I draw from left to right. Whenever I work in charcoal, I wear a Smudgeguard. Even though I work on an angled easel, I find when I work from bottom to top, I have a tendency to subconsciously lean my hand on the paper. The Smudgeguard keeps my hand clean and the charcoal doesn’t seem to “drag” as much as it does with my hand.

When I was ready to begin, using a 2B graphite pencil, I lightly sketched the tractor and tedder, continuing to the shrubs and tree. My concentration was then on the space between the lines — drawing the line around a white space.

Using the charcoal, I drew the tractor and tedder, shading, blending, and erasing until I had the tonal value I wanted, and next moved to the grass under the tractor. Because it wasn’t a prominent part of the drawing, I drew it in quick strokes, shading and erasing until I was satisfied.

Moving to the shrubs and trees, I began filling in the positive space. As I did this, I wasn’t concerning myself with tonal value at this juncture. I continued to fill in the positive space, letting nature be my guide and filling in freely so that the foliage had a natural look.

When I was satisfied with the foliage, I moved to the field and the sky. Once completed, I was able to move back to the trees and shrubs to define the tonal values, referring frequently to my reference photos.

There are several advantages to negative drawing. For me, it’s a time saver. I can move right along without having to stop to grab a blending stick or eraser. This drawing took just under two hours. I also feel there is more contrast and value with negative drawing, especially with grass, trees, shrubs, hay or any type of foliage, and there is more control.

With charcoal drawing, the only true available white space is the paper, and with negative drawing your white space remains pristine, unlike subtractive drawing. It does take practice, but the results are well worth the time it takes to learn.

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