Friday, 29 June 2012

Elephant No. 271: Carbon Dust

Although I'd tried producing a drawing with graphite powder some months ago, the carbon dust illustration process appeared to be quite different, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

The carbon dust technique was developed by medical illustrator Max Brödel in the early twentieth century. Characterized by subtle and precise gradations of grey, carbon dust soon became widely used among medical and scientific illustrators. Although the technique was eventually superseded by photography and less labour-intensive illustration techniques, in recent years carbon dust has enjoyed some resurgence among illustrators, both technical and artistic.

Carbon dust medical drawing by Max Brödel, ca. 1910.

Available information on the technique is shockingly sparse. Most practitioners of carbon dust appear to guard the technique rather jealously, providing lists of materials but absolutely no information on what to actually do with all the pencils, brushes, erasers and so forth. So I decided to try and figure it out on my own—then share my findings with everyone, for what they're worth.

Pippa by Bonnie Miljour.
This drawing uses charcoal as well as graphite.

As far as I could tell, the technique involves rubbing various types of pencil lead, charcoal or even Conté crayon against something like sandpaper or a fine metal file. Once you have little piles of dust, you apply it using a dry brush technique to a surface with a slight tooth—such as vellum-finish bristol board or frosted mylar, the latter being the preference among medical and scientific illustrators. Use blending stumps at will within your grey areas. To create highlights, either erase them away, preferably with a kneadable eraser, or paint over them, which is what Brödel himself often did.

For today's elephant, this is the supply list I settled upon:

• Graphite pencils ranging from B to 6B
• A nail file
• Blending stumps and tortillons of various sizes
• A kneadable eraser
• Whatever paintbrushes I felt like using—flat, fine, round, wide
• A sheet of artist-quality bristol board with a very slight tooth/roughness
• Matte-finish spray sealant

In a bow to the scientific origins of this technique, I thought I should probably work from a photograph. My first idea was to use a photograph of an elephant skeleton, but I couldn't find anything with interesting tonal values, so I decided to look for some kind of elephant closeup instead. This is the photograph I chose:

Eye of Asian elephant, Dubare elephant training camp, Coorg, India, 2005
Photo: © Nilesh Chaudhari

I started by running the pencils individually against the nail file. I had B, 2B, 4B, 5B and 6B, and I ranged them around my palette in order, running counterclockwise from left to right. A few tips for this part:

1. You get the best filings if you run the pencil lead perpendicular to the file—in other words, with the point flat against the abrasive surface.

2. This process will dull your nail file, so use an old one. You can also use sandpaper or some other type of metal file, such as a fine jeweller's file.

3. You don't need as much as you think. I filed down each pencil lead, sharpened the pencil, then filed it down again, but I probably only needed to do this once.

When I had my palette of carbon dust, I took a small, stiff, flat-tip brush, and dipped it in the B-grade graphite. I sort of wiped it against the edge of the palette to remove the excess, just as if it were paint. You could also use the side of your hand or a tissue. I then used the graphite and brush to make a light sketch. Obviously you don't really want sharp pencil lines for this process—although, more about that later.

I really liked the way I could use a brush to draw with graphite. The graphite goes on exactly where you brush it, and makes very nice, soft lines. At this point, I was more interested in ensuring that I got the general outlines down, but you could also begin by swirling on large areas of various tonal values.

Once I had a feel for this, I got a bit bolder, and began adding more texture and background. So far, I was using only brushes, manipulating the greys by either loading up the brush with a lot of graphite, or using it fairly sparsely. At the beginning of each brushstroke, the graphite is going to be darker, gradually lightening as the graphite is distributed across the paper.

At this point I wanted to start dealing with the many wrinkles and add some sharper lines. This is more or less impossible with a brush, so I decided to use the very tip of a new, pointy tortillon. I dipped just the tiniest part of the end in graphite, as though I were dipping an ink nib, then used that to draw sharper, dark grey lines. The first touch of the tortillon to paper will give you a brief hint of black, but this doesn't last beyond maybe a 1 mm (0.04 inch). If I hadn't wanted to be a purist today, I would have sooo used a pencil to add some sharp lines.

The tortillons also proved useful in creating texture. Because they're blending tools, you can run them heavily across existing areas of graphite and create new lines. I did this in many areas. For darker sections, I dipped the tortillon and used a sort of circulism to really grind in the graphite.

When I thought it was as good as I could make it—and, believe me, you could play with this forever if you wanted—I turned my attention to adding highlights. For this, I used a kneadable eraser, squeezed as thin as I could make it, and either slid it across the graphite to make white lines, or dabbed it at the surface to remove blobs. One helpful tip: if you have a dark line and want to make it appear sharper, remove the graphite beside it, even if there is no white on the original.

I quite liked this technique, although it's a bit messy. I was also surprised at how hard it is to wipe graphite away from virtually any surface, using a dry cloth. You have to dampen the cloth or all you'll do is spread it around. Also, although you can blow off excess graphite from your drawing, make sure you don't blow in the direction of your palette. I know: duh. But that doesn't mean I remembered.

This took me about 90 minutes once I started the actual drawing, and I could have fussed with it much longer. In some ways I wish I'd done a whole elephant rather than just an eye. That way I could have avoided the penance of trying to draw tons of wrinkles without a pencil.

There was something almost magical about "painting" with graphite and, if you have the time and patience, this is a lovely technique. Although I was trying to draw something realistic, I think it would be really nice to use for something more dreamlike. There's always next time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Throughout history, elephants have inspired every kind of art, from sculpture and painting, to jewellery and clothing. The example, below, however, is one of my favourites.

I don't have a cat—and the feral cats in my neighbourhood avoid capture, even when I try to explain my intentions—so I can't make a hairy elephant myself. But it was so funny that I wanted to include it in this blog somehow.

Hairy elephant by Antonia Cornwell, London, 2005.

For full instructions, check out Antonia Cornwell's blog at And if your cat is cooperative enough to allow this, send me a photo.

Hairy elephant by Antonia Cornwell, London, 2005.
2006/08/hairy-elephant- rainy-day-project-to.html

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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