Monday, 25 May 2015

Drawing and Seeing


 The question is not what you are looking at - but how you look and whether you see.
David Henry Thoreau


I've been thinking about useful blog posts for those starting out in botanical and natural history art. I've even revisited some old posts and added new material and yet again have come back to the importance of drawing and seeing. 
Drawing disciplines the eye and brain, it allows us to make judgements which the hand responds to in a coordinated way. The coordination of eye, hand and brain is essential for all artists if they are to produce accurate drawings. I have covered drawing in previous posts but feel it has to be the place to start.... why?....because observation and drawing go hand-in-hand and should never be separated or skipped over, if we can't see, how can we interpret with pencil or paint. 
 
A garden shell drawn in my sketchbook ( details of how this was drawn at the end of the post). Simple face seven on and profile views ( scale x 2.5). Hopefully you can see the basic measurements, from the outer margins and showing where profile view spirals line up with the face on spirals. If you measure you can't really go wrong with the outline and adding tone is about understanding the interaction of the object with light.

  Accurate drawing underpins all botanical and natural history based art. Failure to observe and interpret through line drawing probably results from a lack of understanding of a 3D form and an inability to see. The brain tries to trick us, often we draw what we think or know to be there rather than what we actually see but we need to create the link between the object and what is visible, which will enable us to convert the 3D object to a successful 2D drawing.  
Drawing is pretty important if you want to be scientifically accurate. Not that a disproportionate drawing can't be aesthetically pleasing - it can! however, it certainly won't be a botanical illustration, so it really is worth putting in the effort, but try not to be limited to pure botanical subject but work with a diverse range of material instead to keep your interest. Learning to draw won't necessarily come easily but the effort will pay off.
From line to tone, starting to work with simple perspective by drawing of a Camellia leaf. The skeleton outline is drawn first and tone added afterwards. Note: the original outline should not be visible in thr tonal study. 

A skeleton drawing, dealing with working out overlapping parts as thought they are transparent. 
Working out overlapping elements in a Camellia flower. Top shows the skeleton drawing and here moving on from line to adding tone. There are many things to consider when drawing but most subjects can be broken down into simple shapes and by measuring and looking for angles.

 Can we all draw?
I really do believe that most people can draw to a reasonable standard. At very least accurate line drawings can be achieved but first we have to learn to 'see'. Yes it's true that some individuals have a particular talent for drawing, it's something that comes naturally but even this 'natural talent' needs training, for others it is more difficult BUT is possible in all cases, it just requires work! 


John Ruskin, painted by John Everett Millais at Glenfinlas, Scotland 1853-54  copyright Wikimedia Commons 
Ruskin's Elelemts of Drawing is a good place to start.

Ruskin said ....if you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things that cannot be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them, or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people: if you wish to obtain quicker perceptions of beauty of the natural world, and or to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away....you wish to understand the minds of great painters, and be able to appreciate their work sincerely, seeing it for yourself, and loving it, not merely taking up the thoughts of other people about it; then 'I can' help you or, which is better, show you how to help your self.

Only onething you must understand, first of all, that these powers, which indeed are noble and desirable, cannot be got without work.
from Elements of Drawing

When do we start drawing and why do we stop?
Mark making is intuitive for very young children! I haven't met a young child yet that didn't want to draw and paint! Here's my grandson, aged 22 months getting stuck in with a bit of drawing and painting.

All young children want to draw....this happen as soon as they can hold a crayon

There are so many potential benefits in education with drawing, particularly for those with visual learning styles but sadly most children get locked into negative experiences and failure with drawing. Children should be permitted to draw regularly, yet many teachers reinforce the 'I can't draw'  idea even with young children, it becomes almost a 'feared' classroom activity and is quickly relegated as unimportant in comparison to other subjects. In recent years the specialist visiting teachers have diminished in numbers due to cutbacks, to the detriment of children and teachers.....to me it's short term thinking.  I believe that a child encouraged to draw will progress witrh numerous other skills.

Another drawing by my grandson, aged 3. Already he is able to count and make some controlled lines and to draw recognisable figures with an element of proportion. Fine motor skills are still developing but the subject is recognisable and drawing fires the child's imagination.

 The consequence is that parents and teachers tend not to draw with children and it eventually becomes unachievable. Sadly I observed this frequently in the years I worked in education ......drawing becomes elusive and perceived to be within the domain of the few. It's not the failure of the teachers but a failure of our education system to recognise the importance of drawing in learning and teaching. 
Observing, counting, measuring, creative thinking and problem solving are just a few of the benefits of drawing which can be transferred across the curriculum. 

Drawing can be therapeutic too and this should never be undervalued as a benefit. It also allows us to explore objects and surfaces in a way where we look at them and appreciate them differently. Unfortunately most young people start to believe they can't draw before the age of 10, most leave school and never pick up a pencil again....hence the cycle of failure continues and the 'I can't draw'  mentality continues. 

 Is it in the genes or learned?

 I believe that it's probably a bit of both. I was fortunate, my mum used to draw and we always had art materials around the house. I was never discouraged or told that art wasn't a worthy subject, and, I had a very supportive art teacher.  My own children have always been surrounded by drawing and painting, so it's probably no accident that one of my children is studying fine art. This probably has some element of genetics but I believe that nurture is equally important. Below is a drawing of a face wipe, by my daughter, Polly.

Untitled, drawing of a face wipe, in graphite and chalk on pastel paper by my daughter Polly Sutherland who is currently studying fine art at Lancaster University.

So where to start?
Think about why you want to draw and what you want to achieve. Are you prepared to put in work?..... If you're not then it's probably not going to happen! Why not read through Ruskin's Elements of Drawing , it's available as a free on line resource from the Ashmolean.


Ashmolean web resource, Ruskin's Elelments of Drawing


Drawing and seeing, IMPORTANT! Draw from Life!
The way that we see differs when we draw on a regular basis. Its not the same as just looking at an object, it's a complex analysis of objects and their relationships. Research has shown that the eye scans the subject differently when we draw on a regular basis - it skips back and forth, across the  3D form looking for these relationships and this scanning translates to the hand when we draw. Studies have shown that novices take less time to make a mark, they often start at one end of a subject with little or no planning because they have not analysed the subject visually and their ability to scan the object is limited. Read this study fascinating study by Bryan Maycock if you don't believe this is true. It shows the differing eye and hand patterns in people who draw and those who don't.

Looking at the whole, measuring andidentifying angles, curves and relationships

 Learn to take time exploring the relationships within and between objects before starting. Look at the overall picture, measure and look for angles.  

If one concentrates too much on one particular section, there is a tendency to see and draw in a manner different from the rest of the subject, and one of the first things to learn in the development of observation is that your eye must be kept active. (Simpson, Drawing, Seeing and Observation, 1987, p. 20)

 I can't emphasise enough how important it is to draw from life! I'm not saying don't ever use photos and iPads etc. for reference but the results are likely to be flawed if you are over dependent of such devices neglect to learn the basics. It's pretty obvious when subjects are drawn from photographs....photographs lie and don't allow us to understand the form, resulting in a flat lifeless or photographic result. Your drawing skills will never improve if you always draw from photographs.
Here another old post on observational drawing  titled 'A Bit About Drawing 1' 

Materials are probably worth a mention.
The good thing about drawing is that you don't need very much at all!
I wrote a post before on 'which pencil', so won't repeat but  Faber Castell 9000 pencils are best for  botanical and natural object drawing.
Eraser putty and hard rubber- use as little as possible!
Decent paper - use of a sketchbook and draw in it regularly....preferably every day! Stillman & Birn Zeta series are great!



A magnifying glass, a handheld will do and it doesn't need to be too large ( 3inchs is sufficient), in fact avoid large magnifiers, the quality of lens decreases with size. Don't go any stronger than x 2.5, high magnification really strains the eyes and it's usually not so good quality! 

Get to know your basic tools 
Play or experiment with the pencils in your sketchbook. find the difference using the pencil at different angles and when sharpened differently.
Practice -  continuous flowing lines and shapes and outlines
Master the basic shading techniques, hatching, cross hatching, stippling and continuous tone
Get to know the pencil grades by making graded tonal strips


Creating a tonal strip, the difference between progressively softer grades of pencil should be clear to see, if, the correct pressure is applied

Subjects, start simple 
Start with profiles and face- on views as line drawing
Choose simple subjects that wont die or move! shells, acorns and small fruits or seed-pods are perfect.

Measure
Learn to measure, use you pencil and thumb or a transparent ruler marked with mm.  You don't need to invest in proportional dividers just yet, unless you have lots of money to spare!There is no need to spend large amounts of money!

Shell Study Example

A shell make great starter subjects.  They have a simple outline and pattern and great form which catches the light.
Garden snail shell, with light is coming from the right hand side
After carefully observing your subject, start by measuring. The outer height and width the centre with horizontal and vertical lines. Mark out the position, height and width of each spiral. You can do this straight into the sketchbook. If it's for a final drawing you may trace and transfer - being careful not to apply pressure so that the paper is indented. I draw straight into the book, tracing is an alternative option if you are not confident and can minimise rough working lines which need to be erased. Be careful to ensure the tracing is accurate.

Transferring an outline of using Saral paper as an alternative to drawing directly on the paper.
Once the outline drawing is complete,  erase any working or correctionss. If using a hard rubber be sure to brush away any rubber debris with a large soft brush,  it catches in the graphite and causes black flecks.

 You can now start to add tone. This is what gives a 2D drawing a 3 dimensional look. Study the light source carefully. Look for the highlights and shadows and the mid tones in between. Make sure that your subject is lit well so that it's clear which side the light source is coming from
Start with the hardest grade of pencil, 2H and work from light to dark, working in the using increasingly softer grades. Here I have used the ribs of the shell for the direction of the shading.




















Heres a short hand held video, of the sketch made using an iPhone ( hence the camera movement,sorry). It shows the laying down on the first shading using  2H - HB pencils. I start by using the natural lines of the shell ridges. This is gradually built up to create a fairly dense covering of graphite. 

As the layers of softer pencil are added the depth of tone increases. Only the brightest highlights should allow the white of the paper to show through. It often works well to finish off with a harder grade to smooth the graphite, using a H or 2H is a good option.
 Finally I begin to add different views of the shell, side views and the rear of the shell using the same method of measuring. This approach will record all of the basic information needed to make and accurate record of the shell.

Adding different views of of the shell



Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Day 18 and 19, More Butterflies, Travels and moving on to Doodling

I've been away for a few days visiting the beautiful gardens and galleries of Oxford and Bath. Not much achieved  for the challenge other than two more butterflies on the vellum sheet. This time a Peacock and a Camberwell Beauty. 

The view through the magnifier. Working on a Peacock and the beginnings of a Red Admiral below, above is the Swallowtail completed some weeks ago. I always work with an illuminated magnifier lamp and wouldn't be able to see in enough detail with out it!

The finished Peacock, Aglais io, I have painted one before but that was a darker form. This one isn't as bright as most but is the only subject that I have. Scarlet Lake and Indian yellow were included and also some of the iridescent Daniel Smith colours on the shiny blue spots.

The Campbewell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa. A rare migrant to Britain. So named because it was found in Campberwell. I wasn't going to include this butterfly initially because it's so rare here but decided that it is a good addition to the sheet after all. In the US it's known as the Mourning Cloak. To find out more about this species check out the UK Butterflies site
The four completed butterflies. I'm hoping to end up with around 20 species on this piece of vellum,and hope to produce it as a limited edition print eventually.
While away I was lucky enough to visit the Ashmolean Museum, where I saw the Great British Drawings exhibition. Seeing work by Ruskin made my day, especially his Kingfisher feathers,  a  tiny still life by William Henry Hunt is also stunning! see below.
The Ruskin teaching resources are online on the website - so well worth a look for any self respecting painter of  nature!

Ruskin's Kingfisher, the painting of the three feathers is from this same bird.Copyright Wikimedia Commons
A beautiful little still life of Peach and Grapes by William Henry Hunt, Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on paper. Nobody paints bloom like Hunt! This work belonged to Ruskin and features in his teaching materials. Hunt paintings feature fruits, shells, flowers and of course his best known work...the birds nests! Copyright, Ashmolean

There's also the wonderful Dutch still life room...... Sigh!  In which there are a number of oils on copper plate by Jan van Kessel, also work by Rachel Ruysch....beautiful stuff!
Jan van Kessel's Insects, oil on copper plate. A number of his works are on show at the Ashmolean Copyright Wikimadia Commons, Public Domain
Upon returning home I was feeling inspired and the pencils were out immediately! Following on from my previous post I  decided to start a large sprawling graphite 'doodle'. Very little planning was involved, other than having the plants at hand and a rough layout is in my head! so I sketched out a few of the subjects and will add as I go. So this piece will fill the remaining days of the Challenge it may or may not work..... I'll share this in my next post.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Day 16 and 17, Plan, Experiment....Repeat

The good thing about this challenge is that it nurtures ideas for new work....one idea leads to another and so on.  Most ideas are cast aside, simply because they're not good but we need the bad ideas and regular work to come up with the better ones.....right?
Sometimes even the bad ideas return in another form. Not sure if these will, neither am I entirely sure what I was doing here but it was fun making paper surfaces and working with carbon, graphite, chalk and paper stumps...oh and of course more bulbs and seed- heads.

The beginning, working with carbon. It's a different type of finish great for smooth shiny areas and you can lay the basic form very quickly!

My first attempt with carbon, This paper surface was created using Gesso and paint....I was trying to make a surface that looks a bit like natural vellum and burnished it to make smooth when It was dry. It's not so bad, I used a marbling technique with a rigger and overlaid glazes, and even indented some veiny looking bits and also trashed the Daniel Smith Earthy dot card in the process!
Making a mess! textured coloured smooth base for the Carbon.... A kitchen sink approach!
 After the 'peaky' looking silver point in my last post, the dusky Wolff carbon pencils were an attractive prospect but I like the coloured background of the silverpoint, hence the paper experiment. I ground the carbon and applied with a brush and paper stump to model the general form. Then working with graphite and the carbon pencils before adding white French chalk for highlights. At this point I gave up and decided it was actually a load of rubbish and moved on to the iris seed head on paper.
The point of abandonment.....accept the fact that it's not really working and move on!


Carbon and graphite on Fabriano Artistico. Not sure why I worked this large. Thought it would be easier with carbon to work larger. It remains unfinished and I reverted to type and moved on to butterflies.
Both the Sketchbook Exchange Project or 30 Day Challenge have given me many ideas for new work and also a chance to reflect. And when I'm busy doing other types work I think about what I've done previously, I look for links or areas to develop sometimes. This carbon drawing of a bulb didn't quite work but I think it could. So I moved on to an iris seed-head on paper. It looks promising but the jury is still out on the carbon. The simple things in the Challenge seem to be pre-cursors or tasters for more complex ones.....like component parts. I used this approach to build up parts and ideas. One work I think about developing is the sketchbook page below but on a larger scale...... It tugs at my attention.

 
Complexity, my I've drawn all of these individually prior to this and want to develop it.
It's all gone a bit pear shaped with the 30 day challenge but there seems to be a purpose here. I had a super high pressure commission painting lots of complicated fruit compositions over the last two weeks,  so very little time for anything else. Working 15 hours each day to complete on time was draining but while I was doing this work I was still thinking about my own work up ahead and planning.... this is the important time leading up to new work. I've been thinking about a compositions for the look that I want to achieve for sometime. I've been observing habitats everywhere and the complex interactions between plants, it's not a conscious effort it's just something that people who paint and draw plants seem to do....eventually I home in on something. So my next focus will be the development of the sketchbook page approach and that's where I'm heading next. I love to work in black and white and love complex forms, it makes sense.

My favourite kind of subject, detailed graphite, complex pattern and texture!

 There are two types of compositional ideas that I favour, the simple floating subject and the complex with intertwining parts with overlaps, patterns or transparencyand.  I'm not really interested in too much in between, so look for interesting shapes and flowing  lines, movement and the interaction between objects, sometimes I like to 'order' them and at other times I like to go with the natural lines Neither is it necessarily about a particular plant initially but more to do with a particular feel or atmosphere. I think this idea will be my focus for the remaining days of the challenge....but after the carbon chaos a few colouful butterflies are in order first!



Sunday, 3 May 2015

Day 15, Silverpoint and Gouache

I'm falling further and further behind with this challenge but hey ho! Will plod on regardless because there are no actual rules here other than self imposed ones. So I'm ploughing ahead making stuff in a random fashion in between other work that I have to do. Yesterday it was time to rummage through the art cupboard looking for missing things when I came across the silverpoint again and thought I'd give it another go....even though I don't quite know what I'm doing!

Day 15, Another attempt at silverpoint, another tulip bulb but this one has grown some roots in water
 As a bit of an side, and nothing to do with silverpoint, I was reading about Andy Warhol the other day. Not that I'm a huge fan but I like him more since seeing the exhibition at Tate Liverpool last year or maybe it was this year ( can't remember ). Also my daughter was writing an essay about him, and I usually get the privilege of proof reading these essays ...anyway to the point! I came across this famous quote of his, apologies if it's not entirely accurate I tend to alter words to suit me.

' Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding , make even more  art.'

That's a philosophy I agree with, just get on with it! at worst it ends up in the bin and you start over, which is better than doing nothing and regretting it. So with that said, I'm not sure what to make of tonights effort. Seems a bit pathetic, but seemingly it will develop over time and it's quite nice to do. 

I had tried Silverpoint last year and not really been overly impressed with my efforts but everything takes time....right!? I've always loved those Renaissance silverpoint drawings, especially those by Durer so wanted to try it.... Guess I was always going to be a bit disappointed with my effort!

'Two Seated Lions' by Albrect Durer 1521. Copyright Wikimedia Commons
So what did I do?
First I referred to this brilliant website on silver point. If I can produce a website on vellum that's half as good I'll be very happy!
 First off you have to prepare the paper with a several coats of the ground. I did this first with ready prepared ground and then decided to add some colour to it to give a more natural colour, it's not unlike natural vellum. I used a Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook and the paper reacted well tho the ground. I can't remember quite what colours added, raw umber and some others, red and transparent yellow plus a touch of neutral tint. About 6 - 8 coats of ground was applied making sure it was fully dry between layers.

Preparing the surface with layers of Golden silverpoint ground, I added some colour to give this natural finish.
 Thereafter I worked with the silverpoint by drawing with the silver medium in it, which is called the metalpoint. You can use other metals too, copper and gold give a different finish. I only had one size piece of silver and could have done with a finer piece but I filed  it a little at the end. 
Hatching with the metalpoint - I added some white gouache to give more depth
The technique is line drawing and a hatching process, to give more tone the hatching lines are made closer together, just like hatching with pencil. It's quite light in tone but apparently it does develop over time as the silver oxidises, so I'll wait a few months to see what happens. Unfortunately if an error is made you can't go back or rub anything out, once each stroke is made it's permanent. 

I did get impatient with the lack of tone and decided to add gouache to highlight, not sure if that's what you are supposed to do but I can't see why not. It seemed to work well with the natural background.

So this is my final piece, I'll post it again  in a few months time if I remember, when hopefully it will have developed  more tone. I guess I can add more to it if needed at a later date.

Final drawing ....just need to wait now and see how it develops with oxidation. This photograph gives a more accurate colour than the others but is a bit dark. Maybe I'll try another one sometime.


 Not sure when day 16 will appear as I've got too much other stuff to do this week but will try my best!
 


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Day 13 and 14 Sidetracked by Vellum

I was sidetracked on day 13 and didn't paint or draw anything for the challenge! Instead I attended to a job that has been perplexing me since I returned home from London....the slight warping in my larger works on vellum! Although Kelmscott vellum sits reasonably flat at smaller sizes, when it's larger it can easily buckle and any exposure to humidity over time can cause this warping in small works too. Natural and manuscript vellum are thinner than Kelmscott and even more prone to warping. So on day 13 instead of painting I spent time trying to mount some pieces of vellum. For day 14,  I painted on the vellum.
On day 13 I mounted the natural vellum and day 14 I started this painting of a magnolia leaf skeleton but didn't have time to finish it.
Recently I've being doing some research for a new website I'm building which is all about vellum painting. I discovered that years ago miniatures were glued to playing cards to keep them flat, so I decided that it might not be too difficult to do it myself! I purchased rabbit skin glue and a variety of archival artist panels. Some are thin, about  1/8th inch and others are deep and cradled. I'd seen a few works on vellum at the Park Walk gallery last week, Carol Woodin's work was beautifully mounted on a deep panel whereas Kate Nessler's was not mounted. Both looked amazing but it's nice to have the option of presenting work in different ways and I want to be able to give my students the right recipe for mounting their work successfully if they wish. At the moment it's experimental but so far the results seem pretty encouraging.....but lets see how these first trials hold up over time.
The rabbit skin glue can be purchased in granules or sheets. The granules need to be soaked in water for about two hours, stir regularly to prevent it from solidifying at the bottom of the jar. I used an old jam jar. I used 20grams of glue: 250ml of water. The ratio of glue to water can be adjusted according to the job.
 I was expecting the glue to smell pretty bad but actually it has very little odour but you should be careful not to inhale any dust and to work in a well ventilated room.

I used an off--cut of natural vellum which was cut to be slightly larger than the 6 x 8 inch panel, I chose a panel with a primed slightly porous surface  I wanted it to be light behind the vellum to keep the brightness and I  needed the surface to absorb the glue in order to make a good bond, I could have applied the gesso coating myself  but decided to try a ready primed one first. This one is suitable for mounting canvas and other materials so it should be fine for velum too.

The glue should be heated to around 60 degrees, it should not be boiled. If the temperature rises above 70 degrees the bonding capacity is broken down. I placed the jar in a heavy bottomed saucepan which was filled with of water ( that's a double boiler or bain marie). I places a piece of folded cloth underneath the jar to ensure even heating. I placed a thermometer in the jar and stirred continually. I took about 15 minuted to dissolve all of  the granules. Never use a wooden spoon to stir if it has previously been used with any salt, this destroys the glue. 
After the glue had cooled for a few minutes I painted the panel with it. It has to be used warm and solidifies quite quickly ( but can be reheated a couple of times ). Once glued I positioned the vellum on top of the panel and smoothed it out. Tracing paper was over the vellum and heavy books on top of the panel. I checked it after 10 minutes and changed the tracing paper because it had rippled. I replaced the books and left it for 24hrs. I then trimmed the edges off the vellum, if it had been a little larger I could have folded it around the edges, this could then be float mounted. I'll try that once 've mastered this method.

Finally, I treat the vellum in the normal way by rubbing over it with a mix of 240 mesh pumice and French chalk, this removes any grease or marks.

The panel turned out very well, it's beautifully smooth and feels better to paint on. For day 14 I painted part of a a delicate magnolia leaf skeleton on the mounted vellum but will have to try something with more depth of colour to check that it doesn't lift. It certainly seems well secured, and rabbit skin glue is very tough! It's alos reversible so the vellum can be taken of f the support in need be. This whole process didn't take very long, maybe an hour and cost in the region of £7. This is only small panel though and with larger pieces it's definitely trickier. I have some larger ones currently being pressed and have also completed my first bevelled edge.  
I'm planning on painting 3 much larger magnolia leaves on vellum for next years SBA show so I'd like to make sure that the vellum is well prepared.... I'm starting early!

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Day 12 Unfinished Camellia Drawing, Plus some Graphite Tips

Last night I did a bit of late night tonal drawing for day 12 of the Challenge. I used a flower from the same Camellia cutting previously sketched on day 10.  It was a late start at 11pm, so I spent about 60 minutes drawing and I didn't finish it....but I quite like unfinished drawings, so that's fine.
I love tonal drawing, it's so easy to do, costs very little and requires little space....perfect!

'Red Camellia, Unfinished' graphite on Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketch paper, 7 x 7 inches. Completed using Faber Castell 9000 2H to 4B
And this is the flower, sorry terrible photo! It was dark and I worked in the dark with a lamp which is good  because it enhances the light and shade, 'Chiaroscuro' style. There's only tone to deal with so colour matching required light conditions are not necessary ....yes bad light is ok sometimes!

It was around 2008 when I first started tonal drawing and it's one of my favourite mediums now. It's an almost meditative process as the pencil floats over the paper surface with virtually no pressure, it's relatively easy to control really and can be learned easily. Funny really because I absolutely loathe coloured pencil!  I don't mean as a medium used by others, there are some amazing works using CP, I'm talking about using it, I find it the most tedious process ever!
When I teach graphite in my online courses and think it's extremely important to establish this as a foundation skill. I find that it's not so different from purist watercolour methods, especially for quite a dry painter like me....using the white of the paper for only the brightest highlights and layering different tones to build up a 3 dimensional form. It's also the best way of understanding tonal values before moving on to colour and is great for controlling detail. But you have to experiment to get the textures and desired effect too, just like watercolour dry brush work.
Building layers and texture. Working around the tonally light anthers and filaments being careful not to make any indentation or lines. small circular movements usually do the job but work with whatever the shape of the subject is...just go with the flow!

I don't invest in fancy tools, there is no need, they won't make your drawing any better. A set of Faber Castell 9000, are without doubt the best pencils and Staedtler are not bad too but a bit too soft for me. Some students find Faber Castell's a bit 'scratchy' at first but this is generally poor technique and too much pressure being applied. The weight should never be at the point of the tip of the pencil and pressing into the surface of the paper, but instead should be kept in the arm, so that the pencil glides over the surface without pressure or resistance. I have reverted to a hard rubber but also use a putty rubber but sometimes these can become sticky. A rubber should be used as little ar possible though. My best friends in the drawing tool kit are a good old Stanley knife and nail file for sharpening. Sharpening is really important and there are a number of variations in the way a pencil can be sharpened and used for different effects. Dark flecks generally only occur if you have rubber or other graphite debis on the surface of the paper, so dust off regularly with a big, clean dry brush and use tracing paper to protect your work from dirty marks. A magnifyer is a must for getting close in at the edges.
Some basic tools, the nail file/ emery board is a must have, and hand sharpened long leads are better than any sharpener on the market. I couldn't draw at all without a magnifyer.
 I sharpen long points and then fine tune with a fine nail file, this way the point tapers well and just requires fine tuning. Also important for a lazy person like me is the fact that the lead lasts a long time before further sharpening is needed. I don't really like continual sharpening!  I use HP watercolour paper Arches or Fabriano Artistico or Schoellershammer 4G for finished pieces but the Stillman and Birn sketch paper is good too. It all costs very little.  Sometimes I use a mechanical pencil, but you can buy cheap ones and put good lead in them!
Here's another unfinished - from a Skype tutorial with one of my students this week. I estimate to complete a life size tonal drawing of a tulip would take in the region of 5-6 hours. This one is in the early stages.


Here's a Camellia leaf, see how it's a good bit darker than the flower. This is achieved by layering with the softer grades. The underside of the leaf is much lighter though and these are the differences to look for. 
One of the most common errors in tonal work is the failure to add enough graphite. In the same way that every watercolour has a maximum saturation, every pencil grade has a maximum tonal value, so you can keep adding to smooth that tone ( using the continuous tone technique  ) it won't get any darker but it will get smoother as long as you are applying the correct amount of pressure. Thereafter, to go darker you need to move to a softer grade and so on with increasingly softer grades to get those darks. I do the majority of the work with 2H to 2B grades. The 2H is like the equivalent to a Tea wash, covering much of the surface apart from the main highlights. Quite often though students do not apply nearly enough tone and far too much white of the paper is left showing through. Neither is there enough variation in tone between light and dark parts, for example a Camellia leaf is significantly darker in tone than say a pink Camellia flower, yet often in drawings the difference isn't apparent. So to check tones, hold the subject against a white card and see how little white there actually is and also see which are the lighter parts and which are the darker parts. The other common error is reliance on outlines. In a tonal drawing the outline should not be visible. I make a very light outline drawing first and remove as much as possible with a putty rubber before starting to add tone. The tonal work should cover the line by working up to it. I often go back a grade to smooth out with a harder pencil too.....Like all artwork it's about trial and error and working out problems. You can tell people how to do it but you have to discover it yourself in order to fully understand.    

Hmm....30 day challenge = much faster Blogging skills too! albeit with the odd typo