PROBLEM – How do you get that perfect design pattern on your art paper without ruining it?

AMPLIFY – I think, as beginning artists, we all go through situations similar to this:  You want to paint that perfect figure, or scenic composition, or whatever.  You pull out your paper and start drawing away.  Oh, that doesn’t look right, so you erase it and start over.  And over. And over again…ad infinitum…  Next thing you know, you have an erasure hole in your paper, or if you’re using sanded paper, you have erased all the “sand” away, which will leave an obviously different texture, or worse yet, NO texture, which will affect the color in that spot.  Even if you finally work out the design without making a hole or otherwise significantly damaging your paper, you have wasted hours and hours of time while killing your blood pressure.

The pattern is finally to your liking, so you start applying color.  Now, pastel isn’t like wet mediums where you can control the lines of paint and keep your pattern intact and visible.  It is by nature a messy medium.  You have to smear it to achieve complete coverage.  Even if you don’t, the pigment powder released by abrading it against the paper to make color adhere will get everywhere and smudge your pattern lines.  You may not be able to see them anymore.  You don’t want all that powder residue interfering with future colors on your agenda, so you grab your gum erasers and erase away at the residue.  Trouble is, you’ve just erased your design pattern along with the residue.  Nice clean paper again…with no pattern on it.  Arrgghhh!  How are you EVER gonna draw it back like you had it before?!?!?  What was I saying about blood pressure?

You leave your studio, go eat lunch, get a drink, or do whatever else will calm you down, then head back to the drawing board.  After more hours, you’ve filled in your pattern again.  Your #2 pencil is worn down to a stub, but you’ve really nailed it this time!  Your pretty, sky blue color needs a little blending along the edges, so you do that with your finger tip, only, the graphite from that #2 pencil blends in right along with the pastel, creating a dirty looking blue sky along the area of the pattern line.  By this time, you’re a good candidate for a stroke!

SOLUTION/STORY – After you’ve counted to ten, twenty, or maybe even a hundred, you read this article and discover how to avoid all this in the future.

First and foremost, draw your design on another piece of paper.  I use tracing paper because if it’s the right size, I can transfer it directly to the art paper.  More about that part later.  By doing this, you work out all your problems on the tracing paper.  Proportions, anatomy, composition, details, etc., are worked out on this pattern.

If you need/want the finished art piece to be larger, you will need to enlarge the pattern.  This is where “cartooning” comes into play.  No, not “Dennis the Menace” or “Garfield”.  This is a grid system, a technique as old as at least the Renaissance era.  Michelangelo painted the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling using this method of transferring patterns.  He drew his patterns out on paper, working out all the design elements and eliminating problems in this rudimentary beginning stage.  Then, he marked it off in a grid pattern.  He numbered the squares in sequential order.  On a much larger piece of paper, he drew off a corresponding grid, enlarged to fit the space on the ceiling he wanted to fill, numbering those squares to match the ones on the smaller pattern, but enlarged to scale.  Following the numbers on each smaller square, he drew the same lines on the corresponding square of his larger pattern.  This “blew up” the pattern to the size he wanted without changing proportions or making mistakes.  Back in that day, it was called “cartooning”.  I do the same thing on a much smaller scale.  Typically, I draw out a pattern and put it on a ¼” grid.  I typically enlarge to 5/16” or 3/8”, occasionally as much as ½”.  Perhaps you can do the same thing with an art desk enlarger, but I don’t have one and have not wanted to spend the money to buy one when I can cartoon it.  (I’m just cheap that way!)  Of course, I do all this in pencil so I can erase if I make mistakes.  I like #2 pwencils, so it gets a little smeary, but I try to be careful.  I also put in as much shading as possible, so I will have an idea of how it looks with a 3-D effect. I canalso get an idea of how the darker areas will balance out the lighter areas. The beauty of having a pattern worked out on another piece of paper lies in the fact that if you somehow do obliterate your lines on your art paper, you have something to go by to replace them.

Finally, I transfer the finished pattern to my art paper.  How, you ask?  I can tell you unequivocally it is NOT with pencil!  I use good, old-fashioned carbon paper.  I’ve had it forever and I’m not even sure you can buy it anymore!  It may be obsolete!  Anyway, I position the pattern over the art paper and attach it in place at the top with painter’s tape – very good because it doesn’t mess up the paper underneath with sticky stuff, and it comes off the paper very easily!  I trace the pattern on with carbon paper because if I run into a situation where I need to erase some smeared areas on the unfinished art, I can do so without obliterating my pattern lines underneath.  An advantage of using tracing paper for the pattern is that if you miss a spot in the carbon transfer process, you can easily see how to re-position the pattern to trace in what you missed.  A word of caution:  use only moderate pressure to transfer the carbon unless you will be using bold or darker colors.  A dark carbon line will be visible under a very light pastel color, no matter how heavily it is applied.  It is extremely difficult to erase, although it can be done, but you risk erasing the paper tooth along with the carbon.  Best to use lighter pressure when tracing the carbon onto the paper. See?  Pretty simple, huh?  Let the color begin!

TRANSFORMATION/TESTIMONY – This patterning process has saved me untold heartache, time and wasted energy.  Before I figured all this stuff out in The School Of Hard Knocks, I tried doing everything freehand—no patterns—and often ended up with a disaster.  The same can be said for using pencil for the final pattern instead of carbon.  There are plenty of other ways to make mistakes, so why not try eliminating a few?  This might not work for everyone’s style or temperament, but it sure works for mine!  I’m willing to bet there a few of you out there who would welcome a little less stress in the creative process, too!