Making Book Part 15: I Can’t Draw, But…

I like photographs, but I adore illustrations. 

Unfortunately, my drawings don’t (yet) live up to the images inside my head. While I am able to make acceptable small-scale drawings, I usually hire an illustrator to help with the complex stuff. Until I become a better illustrator, I take photos, trace the parts I like, then shade them with hatching. 

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It’s a simple process and produces acceptable results. Here are the details if you’d like to try it yourself.

For the paper, I use 100 percent rag vellum. It’s expensive, but it smudges the least of any “tracing” paper I’ve used. You can get the stuff at good stationery stores. 

I manipulate the photo I’m tracing in Photoshop, usually to lighten it so I can see little details. Sometimes I bump up the contrast, too. Then I scale the photo so it’s 110 percent of the finished size I want on the page. This scaling is important. If I don’t scale all the chair photos the same, then the line thicknesses will be inconsistent from drawing to drawing. The reason I draw the image at 110 percent is that the slight reduction of the image (to 100 percent on the page) tends to sharpen up the lines a bit.

I print out the photo on cheap copy paper and tape it to the backside of the vellum. Then I get out my LED lightbox. This is an inexpensive apparatus that makes tracing easy. You can get them at art supply stores. Mine is made by Artograph; there are much cheaper alternatives. Before I owned one of these I would tape the vellum to a window and use the daylight to illuminate things. The lightbox makes life easier. And I can work at night.

I use three sizes of mechanical pencils: .9mm for the thick, exterior lines in the foreground; .7mm for shading, interior lines and exterior lines that are distant; and .3mm for details and fine shading (like inside a spindle). 

The only drawing tool I use is a translucent plastic 6″ rule. No templates for curves or ellipses. I tried working with those years ago and preferred drawing without them. The straightedge rule is great, even for chairs. You learn to draw entasis and shallow curves with a straight ruler after a while. The other hard-won lesson was this: Move your arm when you draw, not your hand. Your lines will be much smoother as a result.

All my shading is done with straight lines. It’s a bit comic-book-y, but I like comic books.

I take liberties with the tracing. I fix broken spindles, repair splits in seats and restore chunks that have been taken out of the legs. And the shading is used for two things: to show value, of course, but also to emphasize key parts of the construction, such as through-tenons and seat saddling.

So far for “The Stick Chair Book” I’ve made about 40 drawings and have many more to go. If you’d like to see the results of the tracing, you can download this sample chapter.

Please note that the text is a draft. There is still a lot of editing and peer-review to do. I mostly wanted to see how the images and text looked together. So, if you don’t mind, please blunt that sharp tongue of yours.

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.


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