Contrast is a key component of successful pictures. If your darkest dark and lightest light are too close to each other, the resulting picture may feel anemic. While not an absolute rule, the suggestion to increase the contrast range in your drawings will improve many drawings. Once you are aware of this principle, you may still choose to break it but can do so with intention. Many graphite pencil drawings on white paper end up with little value range because the artist only uses an HB (or #2) pencil. For most of my fast sketching when I do not want to be bothered with switching pencils, I prefer using a 2B pencil. This allows me to push much richer darks. My mechanical pencils are loaded with this soft lead. Sketching with a dark Prismacolor pencil is another way to get richer darks in your work. Although the Prismacolor pencil is difficult to erase it is also less prone to smearing, a deficit of the soft graphite pencils. Let’s explore the role of contrast we we study how to draw raptors on toned paper.
Here I use a dark brown Verathin pencil on a sheet of mid-value brown paper. While the Verathin pencils can not push the same deep darks as the regular Prismacolor pencils, they keep a sharp point and great drawing tools. Sketching lightly, I frame in the posture, proportions and angles of a perched Red-tailed Hawk. As this bird’s head is turned to the right, I drew cross hairs through the eyes and centerline of the head to keep major features aligned. Stop and double-check proportions before moving on. You can enlarge this and all other illustrations by clicking on the thumbnail image.
Lightly block in the locations of major feather groups and plumage patterns. Here I use lines to indicate the lower edges of groups of feathers on the wing and also the large mottled feathers on the sides of the chest and the dark band across the belly (a useful feature in identifying Red-tailed Hawks).
Using you light guidelines as guides, draw directly on top of them, adding detail and value. Pay attention to where you see the darkest part of the bird, either from shadow or plumage color and do not be afraid to push your dark values.
Now, using a white Prismacolor pencil, add your lightest values. Notice that even though the feathers on the lower belly and parts of the tail are white, I left these the color of the paper. Do not cover every inch of your subject with white or dark pencil. Use the color of the paper as one of your values. This is hard to make yourself do because it is fun to add the white pencil but be strong.
On the wing there are bold pale patterns forming thin lines. If you were just working on white paper, you would have to create these by working around them. But, because you can now draw with white, you can quickly add these patterns with the tip of your pencil.
Sometimes the lightest parts of the bird are dark back feathers illuminated in strong sunlight. In these cases, you can think of the strokes of your white pencil as being sunlight illuminating parts of the bird. Do not be afraid to make the sun drenched darkly pigmented back of a bird, lighter than its white chest.
Go back to your dark Verathin pencil and push the dark values a little further. You can easily add darks around the edges of the thin white lines on the wing. The contrast make the white lines pop. You do not want to add white over dark lines or you will smudge the dark marks below. There are little dark spots on the lower belly of the bird. You can add these on top of the white pencil to keep them crisp.
Lets play with the background. The formula to keep in mind is “light against dark, and dark against light”. To get that white breast to pop, I added an area of deep value next to the white chest. Notice how the tail feathers, which are the same color as the paper itself, now read as light feathers in shadow. To make the bird read as being in front of the dark, I erased branches into the dark area. Your eye sees those branches disappear behind the bird, pushing the hawk into the foreground. The back of the hawk is a middle value. It could easily be lost if it was next to a mid or dark value area. Therefore, I did not extend the background area to the right of the bird.
Another clear example of light against dark, and dark against light is the branch on which the bird is perched. The portion of the branch that is against the dark background is light. Notice how this changes as you move to the right against a light background. Have fun with contrast. Push your darks and pull your lights. Be sure to incorporate the value of unmarked paper into your drawing.