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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Eye and HandRun River Run

Practical Art for Paddlers — 
Depth and Definition

By Tamia Nelson

June 1, 2010

Last month I concentrated on shape and size. Every attempt to capture some aspect of the visual world on paper begins with these two elements. But shape and size are just that, a beginning. Unlike Flatland, our world has depth as well as outline. This makes life difficult for folks who want to make a permanent record of what they see, and it doesn't matter if their chosen tool is a camera rather than a pencil. The problem is the same. Our world is three‑dimensional; paper and computer displays are not.

OK. I've addressed the challenges of photography elsewhere. This time around, I'm talking to paddlers who are interested in mastering the art of field sketching. If that's you — and I hope it is — then you've come to the right place. But our problem remains. How is it possible to give depth to a sketch drawn on a flat sheet of paper? The answer, oddly enough, lies in the realm of…

Light and Shadow

Look around you. What do you see? Even if you're sitting in an office cubical, you're surrounded by objects. You recognize them by their shape and size, but they're defined — given their familiar, three‑dimensional form — by the interplay of light and shadow. Of course, light and shadow can play tricks on your eyes, too. Just as a white card viewed against the backdrop of a cloudless sky appears to darken, small details are obliterated in the flood of brilliant light from the noonday summer sun. Take this photo of a cairn built alongside a navigable channel on The River, for example:

River Cairn

The coarse, granular texture of the sunlit rock is nearly invisible. But all is not lost. The shadows highlight the complex forms of the individual stones. Even when the sky is overcast and the ambient light is diffuse, subtle gradations in shade and shadow can add depth to a scene, as in this photo of a poncho shelter on a drizzly day:

Room With a View

The trunks of the trees are clearly divided into light and dark halves, revealing that they are not the simple rectangles their outline would suggest, but rounded, three‑dimensional forms, instead. And look at the undersurface of the poncho. The interplay of light and dark highlights every crease and fold, disclosing the complex topography of the ostensibly "flat" surface of taut nylon. Not for the first time, we're reminded of the importance of light.

But how can you make light and shadow work for you in a sketch? Let's look at an example. Here's a photo of two beaver‑gnawed stumps:

Beaver at Work

It was a bright day when I snapped this, but the forest canopy filtered and diffused the light, muting the shadows. This is sometimes a problem for photographers, yet it's easily addressed by a paddler with a pencil in her hand. I was interested in the tooth marks on the nearer stump, so that's where I concentrated my efforts. I began by sketching a rough outline of my subject, using a mechanical pencil with a 0.5mm lead:

Outline First

This was to be the framework for my sketch. All that followed would build on it. I added curved lines to define the individual tooth marks first, before scribbling short hachures to evoke the texture of the incised wood. I then used heavier pencil strokes to give prominence to the splintered heartwood at the stump and to suggest the radial cracks in the gnawed surface of the felled tree, in addition to outlining the irregular plaques of bark.

Then Shading

All that remained now was to bring out the cylindrical form of the trunk with a series of lightly drawn arcs, augmented by heavier scribbles to add depth and further define the rough bark.


The alternating pencil strokes and scribbles, sometimes light and sometimes bold, are a rough‑and‑ready technique for shading. Taken all together, they contribute vital definition to my simple drawing. I didn't attempt to reproduce every tooth mark, bark plaque, and splinter. I was making a quick sketch, after all, not creating an illustration for a technical monograph. My goal was to capture the essential elements of the scene, to fix what I saw firmly on the emulsion of memory. And I succeeded.

Now let's look at a subject showing a much greater range of contrast — the riverside cairn in the earlier photo. As in my drawing of the beaver‑felled tree, I began by sketching the principal shapes with a mechanical pencil, altogether ignoring the background:

The Cairn in Outline

Next, I used bold strokes to fill in the shadows and sharpen the outlines of some individual rocks:

Bold Shading

Then I swapped my 0.5mm mechanical pencil for a soft #1 "lead," using it to deepen the shadows and add textural detail, before adding a few quick, light lines to evoke river, shoreline, and neighboring trees.

Finished Sketch

Here's a side‑by‑side comparison of the photo and the finished sketch:

Picture This

Not a perfect rendering, perhaps, but I was happy enough with the result. And I couldn't ask for a better way to highlight…

The Importance of Tone and Texture

In my drawing of the cairn I used lines of varying widths and degrees of boldness to indicate contrasting depths of shade, or tone, and to suggest different textures. This is important, since no two shadows are alike — they range from pitch‑black to dove‑gray — and textures are equally variable. Luckily, a pencil is an extremely versatile tool. Short, sharp strokes (hachures or "hatch marks") or dots of different sizes ("stipples") can be used to depict either rough textures or deep shadow. Fine parallel lines, on the other hand, suggest smooth surfaces or light shade. And broad strokes with a soft lead — augmented by a little fingertip smudging, if necessary — can be used to replicate almost any degree of shadow from light to dark. Don't try to hurry things along, however. Build up deep shadows with repeated layers of close‑set lines rather than bearing down and gouging furrows with your pencil. Fill in the darkest areas first and then move on, progressing from dark to light.

Here's a sketch of three stones by way of illustration. Each has a different texture, and each was drawn from a slightly different perspective. The scales differ, too. Can you tell which is the smoothest stone, which is the roughest, and which is in‑between?

Picture This

Not hard, is it? The leftmost stone is a slab of pale, brick‑colored rock, with a coarse texture. I was looked down on it while I sketched, and the light came from the right, casting a very dark shadow onto the cloth which protected the surface of my worktable. Next, to the right of the slab, is a pebble. It's also brick‑colored, but it came from the bed of a small stream, and the moving water had polished away many — but not all — of its irregularities. It also exhibits notable banding and a prominent mineral vein that extends halfway up the "nose." I sketched it as it rested on a smooth wood table. The final example, the one on the far right, is another pebble, plucked from a beach on The River. Pale gray in color, it's the smoothest of the three by far. Other than a few small pockmarks, it has no obvious texture. None of these sketches took more than five minutes to complete, by the way. But despite the short time‑frame, my judicious use of lines, stipples, and cross‑hatching, combined with carefully layered shading, gave all of them just the right amount of definition.


Shape and size; depth and definition. Whether your subject is animal, vegetable, or mineral, you can produce a good likeness with no tools besides pencil and paper. Begin with a properly proportioned outline, then give your subject definition and depth by reproducing the play of light and shadow. The result? A workmanlike drawing, of course. But that's not all. Before you know it, you'll be experiencing your world in a new way. You'll be observing the things around you, rather than merely seeing them. That's the magic of sketching.


Tool Triptych


We live in a world of objects. Each one has depth and definition, and capturing these qualities on the smooth, flat surface of a sheet of paper isn't easy. But it's not that hard, either. And you don't have to invest in a lot of costly gear. You just need a pencil. So go on. Give it a try. Once you've mastered the elements of shape, size, light, and texture, you'll be ready to tackle almost anything.

What's next? If you've been following along, you've already been introduced to the fundamental techniques of field sketching. Now it's time to take a closer look at a subject that's dear to every paddler's heart: water. So keep your paper dry and your pencil handy —  and keep sketching!

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