Project Five – Exercise 2: Tonal study of bones and shells

For this exercise I was very happy to get hold of a sheep skull. To have a real skull in my hands was not only an intimate but also a kind of dramatic experience for me.  I could feel and touch it, and I knew that once it was a living animal. So special and so unique. I wanted to capture these feelings in my drawing.

I did a few sketchbook studies to see what material could work best. Also I checked with the lamp the best viewpoint and light direction. At the end I chose a view slightly downwards view with the light from left so that good shadow values were visible. I wanted a more intense and slightly dramatic appeal of the skull, therefore I chose charcoal and rejected pencils. Pencils have a kind of shiny, silver tone and do not give very deep blacks.

Study #1

Stefan513593 - project 5 - exercise 2 - Charcoal #1

Stefan513593 – project 5 – exercise 2 – Charcoal #1

I chose A2 format, a format between large scale (for which I would prefer drawing at the wall) and small scale (where I am close to the paper). I intended not to go into too many details but rather to keep the drawing with free expressive marks. For the composition I took the learnings from the previous exercise and I kept more space to the right than to the left of the skull. This makes the ‘view’ of the skull into the free space more interesting. There is some foreshorting in the composition, as I think this keeps a more intimate relation with the viewer.

I started with blocking in the main shapes and darker tonal values, and continued with differentation of the darker values and outlining the characteristic shapes. I kept the putty rubber in my hand for differentation of the lighter tonal values and for the highlights. I continued towards the end with line marks to follow better the contour of the object and for more expressive appeal.

In  the surrounding space I drew some cast shadows and some indicative marks of a supporting surface to make it more believable. This also gives more solidity to the object. Solidity and weight comes also from the dark/light contrasts on the surface and the areas with more hatched marks.

The final drawing conveys the intended dramatic appeal to show my experience while touching the skull. I think I created believable solidity and weight. I am pleased that the A2 format allowed me to stay away from too many details. I am not so convinced about the foresighting effect and overall dimensions. Also the tonal value variations are somehow limited, as the overall impression is a bit on the dark side. Perhaps I could have enlarged the skull a bit more to cover the paper surface better. However, I am satisfied with the expressive markings.

Study #2

Stefan513593 - project 5 - exercise 2 - Charcoal #2

Stefan513593 – project 5 – exercise 2 – Charcoal #2

I decided to do another study at eye level to get a more majestic appeal of the skull. Also I wanted to do a different drawing with more focus on the tonal variation and less focus on expressive marks. I chose compressed charcoal, as it is harder and less brittle than willow charcoal and easier to draw fine lines with. It is not so good for deep blacks. Therefore I used willow for the final touch of the deepest black values. This time I was a bit more careful about the dimensions and I used a viewfinder with horizontal and vertical lines to capture the outer dimensions correct. I applied finer marks with the sharpened charcoal stick and I was careful to keep the overall tone lighter, but still with bold contrast and deep blacks. With a few hatched marks I added some more expression to the shadow areas. The putty rubber helped me to go back and force with modulating some areas and to make highlights clearer. For the surrounding space I just added a few marks with the side of the willow charcoal for cast shadows (to enhance solidity) and for a believable support.

I am satisfied with the final result and the overall capture of correct dimensions. Also the composition is balanced with focus on the skull only. This drawing gives quite a different appeal than #1. Subtler, calmer, and less dramatic. On the other hand this drawing seems to be more realistic, but still with an expressive touch.


I discovered that there is so much to see on a skull. Only with intense scrutiny of the overall form, key shapes, and tonal variations I was able to make the drawings. I am happy that I did two drawings, still with the same material charcoal, but with different compositions and different focus: #1 with more focus on expressive free strokes, #2 with more focus on subtle tonal variations. To have the skull at my hand was very helpful, as in a museum typically there is not so much choisce for compositional freedom.

  2 comments for “Project Five – Exercise 2: Tonal study of bones and shells

  1. Alison
    March 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    This is a lovely drawing Stefan, the skull seems to have character 🙂

  2. Stefan
    March 11, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    Alison, thanks. Which of the two do you prefer?

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