This is my current Bargue plate in progress. I’m learning how to shade properly, which I used to think I was pretty good at. That was until a professional artist friend of mine told me that using my fingers to blend would get oils on the paper and effectively ruin my work (although I don’t see any evidence of that on drawings I did many years ago). I also got the feeling it was generally frowned upon.

I ran right out and bought myself a tortillon, and while they work, I don’t have one right now and it seems wasteful to use bits of paper which I’ll eventually have to throw away. After struggling a lot to “control the pencil” (apparently I should be able to create completely smooth shading without any manual blending) I tried using a small boar bristle brush to soften things. It works reasonably well but I still feel like I’m cheating. Sam Haskell recommended that I try harder pencils, and his Bargue copies look amazing so I thought he might be onto something. I tried a 4H pencil and I felt I had a lot more control, which makes sense because you have to press a lot harder to go darker than with a softer pencil (oh hindsight).

Above is my last, somewhat disastrous attempt at a Bargue torso. I post it for two reasons:

1) To show what not to do: don’t press so hard on the paper that the fibers are completely flattened out and there’s so much graphite ground into the paper that it forms a silver film. Hard to see in this scan, but it’s there. Not only does it look terrible, but erasing becomes very difficult and the paper starts to wear away completely.

2) To show that progress can be made with practice over time. Although my second attempt still has a long way to go, I feel like I have a better idea of what I’m doing in general, and the work looks more like what I’m copying. I see now that I need to slowly, gradually build layers to create darker tones, rather than grinding my pencil into the paper and using the brute force approach (yes, art does imitate life). Although some are born with artistic talent and that helps, I do believe drawing is a skill that can be learned (and unlearned, which may have happened to you if you were artistic as a kid and then it mysteriously “went away”).

There are almost two years between my most recent torso and my first – how much better would I be if I had been more diligent about investing my time in learning? Have you ever applied yourself to learning – or relearning, or honing – a skill as an adult?