All tied up: how do you transform a simple line drawing into an image that looks three-dimensional?

How do you transform a simple line drawing into an image that looks three-dimensional?

Searching for an alternative to apples and chianti bottles, the usual stand-by for still life drawing? Escape from the routine by experimenting with sheets of foam carpet padding, a material which can be tied up into intriguing bundles. Carpet padding is inexpensive and readily available wherever flooring is sold. Students in my class were given 1' x 3' (30 cm x 91 cm) strips of foam and instructed to roll them up any way they wished and tie a piece of string around them. The sculpturesque shapes that emerged were certainly out of the ordinary.

Students began by drawing light pencil contours on 14" x 18" (36 cm x 4-6 cm) pieces of white drawing paper. The convoluted shapes presented difficulties, but I told students to trust their eyes as they followed the curving edges of their pieces of foam. Although complex, the lovely abstract shapes were less intimidating to draw than a rose or a tree, since students did not have to worry about making them look like recognizable objects.

How do you go about transforming a simple line drawing into an image that looks three-dimensional? Since the Ice Age, artists have tried to solve this problem. Students discovered a few of the techniques used by artists throughout history. We looked at examples of Michelangelo's work and tried to unravel the mystery of how he attempted to model form. As students looked at the interplay of the light and shadow Michelangelo used to describe a twisted torso, it all began to make sense. The next step was to apply what they had observed to their own drawings.

With an ebony pencil, shading was added to some surfaces to make them appear concave. A heavier application of shading created darker areas which seemed to recede more. Dimpled depressions, large hollow areas, or even spirals could be created by variations on this technique. Michelangelo used a similar approach to shade a man's ear or the hand of someone clasping a book.

Noticing how light gently strokes a curving surface, students kept edges soft and smooth to describe the rounded forms. To show the bulging parts of the foam, just as Michelangelo might show a bulging muscle, more white paper was left, thus creating highlights. The result was a convincing depiction of volume.

There was a tendency to overlook the shadow cast on the table by the foam bundle. As a result, students had to be reminded that the cast shadow anchored the foam shape to the page, while helping to balance positive and negative spaces. The cast shadow in most cases had an unusual shape that effectively set off the foam bundle.

Every so often, students were encouraged to step back ten feet or more from their drawing to see if there was enough value contrast. They often hesitated to put in very dark values, so I emphasized this repeatedly. Careful observation at this point was crucial. To bring the drawing to life, a complete range of values was necessary: the white of the paper, several different grays and some bold, dark, almost black accents.

As their drawings approached completion, I asked students to evaluate the following:

Do some surfaces of the foam bundle advance, others recede? Does the foam look rounded? Is the shading gradual? Is there enough value contrast, especially dark accents? Are the negative spaces pleasing?

For a variation of this drawing project, grey paper was used with equally dramatic results. Shading was done with an ebony pencil, but the paper itself provided most of the middle values. Highlights were added with white pastel.

Students began to look at famous works of art with a new appreciation for what the artist was trying to do and the techniques used. The awe ordinarily felt before a great master was transformed into understanding. A link with the past was forged as some of the techniques used by famous artists of the past were applied to the students' own work.

Monica Bishara teaches high school art at Ursaline Academy, New Orleans, Louisiana.