The Sphere Project

This has been the most brutally obsessive project I have done at the atelier heretofore. I started over twice. It took forty hours. I learned to render form. You can see my wobbly orb above.

After four months of learning to draw (and still shaky as we go), Juliette had us start learning how to render. This is where we take a flat line drawing and use shading to make it look like you could take a bite out of it. We learn to use the value scale to recreate the form-defining principles of light and shadow on the page. There’s an example of the value scale below, to the left side of the diagram. We’re trained on a 9-step scale starting with white at 1 and black at 9. The graphic shows the grouping of values into the lights, midtones and darks. Juliette has explained that most people don’t automatically see midtones. You have to train your eye to see them. Obviously they bridge the darks and lights, but truly identifying midtones and placing them correctly in a drawing is harder than it seems.

On the human form and even on still life objects, there seems to be infinite variety to rendering form. However on a single sphere, you’re trying to hit one note perfectly for a very long time. It’s an exercise. Nothing for the mantle piece. And typically when students are doing this exercise they are learning to manipulate charcoal for the very first time, which can be a steep learning curve. Sphere projects don’t always look great, but in rare instances when they are done really well, they’re very pleasing to the eye. There’s one by a former student that’s sitting in the supplies closet and it looks like she applied the charcoal one molecule at a time. Legend has it that she didn’t finish it until April. Not that she was working on it exclusively that whole time, but she was poring over this one small monotonous 10″ x 8″ piece for hours at a time for perhaps 5 months. It’s immaculate and almost disheartening to look at as an example. This could not have been her first rodeo with charcoal.

The Classic Order of Light informs all of our rendering. I find it fascinating and I urge you to quickly sketch a sphere right now with pencil or pen or whatever you have and see how the effect takes shape. Follow this diagram from Juliette’s book Lessons in Classical Drawing. Draw the circle (trace anything you have handy – jar, tape roll, quarter). Then draw an ellipse for the cast shadow. Now draw a core shadow belting the sphere low toward the cast shadow as shown. Place the values dark to light coming out of the core shadow toward the light (note the lightest point is not at the edge of the circle) and then dark to middle from the core shadow to the ground. Our teachers remind us that the reflected light – where the sphere lightens slightly below the core shadow – should not be lighter than any value above the core shadow. Even as a quick sketch the effect is very satisfying.


Now imagine applying these principles to every curve on every surface in a drawing. It’s kind of mind blowing. I’ve just started doing this in the life room where three hours can pass in the blink of an eye and I’ll have barely rendered a thigh. I’ll get stronger at it over time, but for now it’s a vast charcoal desert in the studio. I almost want to continue finessing the sphere but I know my time is better spent on new projects and life room works. Still, there’s something alluring about the elusive perfection of the sphere project.

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