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Drawing on Wood Tutorial by the0phrastus Drawing on Wood Tutorial by the0phrastus
Drawing on wood tutorial

I'm back to drawing on wood--mostly with charcoals, pastels, graphite, and watercolor pencils. I really got into it last summer, but haven't been back since--I'd really like to hear what others are doing with pencil or charcoal on wood, or any tips you have.

I'm working on some board designs for a California skateboard company, and I have a bunch of ideas I want to do with bold lines, with a single subject and a stark background--plain wood, or a single color.

I've tried drawing on maple, oak, but so far I like birch the best. It may just be the way maple and oak are planed--very smooth--for the kinds of things people build with them, furniture, shelving, etc. They're also very hard woods, and don't seem to have enough surface give to take a pencil. For the last couple pieces I've used pretty cheap 9mm or 3/8 inch birch plywood. The birch veneer on the front and back faces is thin and tends to chip on the edges no matter how careful I am with the circular saw--one thing's clear, though: when you cut, put the surface on which you want to draw face down.

I don't treat or spray anything on the wood surface before drawing.

I've included a shot of everything I used to draw and color "3 Diamond"--regular old Ticonderoga No 2/HB pencils, several charcoal and graphite pencils, a couple erasers and an eraser shield, blending sticks (although I mostly use my fingers), and three different sizes of Micron pen for outlining. (I use the 3 for most lines).

Drawing and coloring:
Wood is a tough, forgiving surface on which to draw. I may pencil something and erase twenty times before I really like what I see. I can get rough with an eraser, and the birch seems to take it well. Unlike paper, where the surface is very consistent, wood may be slightly rougher or smoother in some places, with the grain going one way, and different results when you want to draw against it or with it. Be prepared for that. Experiment, test some lines with different pencils, charcoals--I use the back for testing. The 03 Micron pen always seems to work smoothly, but you might run into some trouble with the 02 or 01 when the grain gets rough--almost as if the pen can't get enough tip on the surface to lay down ink. (I usually use the 02 with faces or any details).

The Order of Things:
As I show in the image, I start with a sketch, but unlike digital where you can always move things around, adjust, re-adjust, go back to the first version because you don't like the adjustments you've made. There's no going back. So, what I like to do is get to the point where I think I'm done with the pencil work, then put the board down and go do something else. Over the course of a day or two, I'll keep playing with the penciled work.

When I really think things are set, I'll ink the lines, using the Micron 03 for most of them, the 01 or 02 for detailed work, especially eyes, mouth, nose. Then I let the ink dry, maybe half an hour. Then I erase everything--the ink stays behind, but all the pencil lines are gone. I do this because pencil lines are very smooth and prevent the charcoal from going down evenly.

Time for coloring, shading, charcoaling, smearing, smudging, blending, and more erasing. I usually start coloring and shading with the face, probably because that's the most difficult part. It could also be that if I get the face right, then I have to make sure everything else lives up to it. From there, it's a boardful of drawing and shading fun.

Dealing with flaws in the wood:
I've been using cheap birch plywood because the drawings for my current project are going to be photographed and vectorized with the backgrounds dropped out. I'm less concerned with minor flaws in the wood or surface. ( In "3 Diamond"--the title of the work above, there's a nasty greenish bit of material that I ended up curling her hair through to hide, but there's also a very small nick in the surface of her cheek--and nothing I can do about it). I think the best thing to do here is choose the wood wisely, looking for cool patterns in the grain, smooth surfaces, very few knots. From here out, I'll just buy better quality wood--which I think is the best way to solve this issue.

On a related issue, I haven't been sanding down the edges or rounding the corners, but I'll probably do that going forward.

I'm using a couple different brands of fixative, including Krylon Workable Fixatif 1306, which is "acid free/archival safe" and seems to do the job well. These fixatives come in spray cans, and I've been going over my drawings with a couple coats. The Krylon one says it allows for "easy rework"--basically, you can draw and paint on top of it. I haven't tried that, but the one thing to keep in mind is that once you've put down a coat or two of this stuff there's no more erasing.

On ideas:
Doesn't matter what I'm drawing or painting, I like to begin with a story, something that tells me what's going down on the paper, plywood, or wacom. I'm an author--I write science fiction and fantasy books and short stories, and so I also have this drive to create the story behind the pencil lines and charcoal. With this one, titled "3 Diamond", I'm going with a combination of ideas. First, two themes you see a lot in skateboarding are skulls and girls. 1) Girl 2) Suit made out of cat skulls. Check. Check. Second, I was thinking about future warfare, where half of any battle is fought far from the battlefield by communications specialists and viral strike engineers. I'm also thinking that armor won't be bulky and tank-like, but powered up impact absorbing force fields that stop or deflect bullets, beams, shrapnel. And so, this leaves a lot of design room for particular divisions, brigades, companies, squads, enough to show their colors--which immediately shift into camo when things get hot, of course. "3 Diamond" shows an anti-viral tech with implants and other cool bio-hardware, stationed with 3 Diamond Company, "Panthers" (which then drove the cat skull armor design).

There, I have a story, a character. Time to draw something!
Add a Comment:
Mavan Featured By Owner May 26, 2013
question, have you tried using pastels? and if so how do they react with the finish on top of them? i'm starting to learn, gathering info before i start in.
the0phrastus Featured By Owner May 27, 2013
I have pretty much stuck with charcoals and ink, and the finish seems to work very well over a long time. I did some oil painting with some pastel work a few months back, waited a while to finish it, and it appears to be holding up, not rubbing off, but I don't know how the piece will hold up a year from now. The oils and pastels go on thicker than charcoals, and definitely have a surface you can feel through the finishing. Are you thinking that pastels are chemically more complex and may not work long term with the fixative? I'm wondering about that as well. I don't know.

Mavan Featured By Owner May 27, 2013
i'm working on a project to make toys for kids, for language learning, and at the moment I've no time to experiment since exams are coming up. I'm going around the internet picking people's brains. As soon as school is out I'm going to go at it in earnest, and right now I'm trying to figure out the best supplies to get and such for experimenting. Actually any advice would be appreciated. I've only ever really done colored pencils, chalks, or embroidery. I know how I want it to be, but the execution is leaving me a bit puzzled.
the0phrastus Featured By Owner May 28, 2013
For toys you definitely want something stronger than the fixative sprays I'm using, something that safer that goes on thicker and that can take a lot of handling. I googled around and found this thread about varnishing toys on Etsy: [link]

One of the commenters said, "Behlens makes a food grade varnish that is approved by the FDA for use on wood but there are other finishes out there for salad bowls. Check out Rockler and Woodcraft." Another said, "Minwax water-based Polycrylic".

Worth experimenting with.

Good luck!

Mavan Featured By Owner May 28, 2013
Thank you so much!
roboticmonkey514 Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011
Great tutorial. Makes me want to get the plywood out.

Here's a tip If you want to avoid the plywood chipout:

Once the fence on my tablesaw is set to the cut line, I put blue painters tape (or masking tape, whichever is handy) down the cut line on both sides. This gives the wood some support and the blade doesn't make the fibers break. Also, sometimes if there is a void in a spot that I know will be shaded or painted over, I will use wood putty to fill in the void.
the0phrastus Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011
Thanks! I'm going to try to the painters tape!
JRhyme Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2011  Student Digital Artist
This is really cool.

Makes me want to go start a project on wood.
the0phrastus Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2011
Awesome! I'm going to try some oil pastels on birch later this week, going for a thicker, more opaque look.
JRhyme Featured By Owner Jan 19, 2011  Student Digital Artist
Very cool. Inspiring.
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Submitted on
January 17, 2011
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