Beginner Art · Drawing

What is Subtractive Drawing?

Subtractive drawing is a really nice way of working for beginners and it can teach you much about tone (light and dark). Basically subtractive means ‘taking away’ so pigment is removed.

With drawing it is usually charcoal or very soft graphite that is taken away and commonly with a putty rubber (also known as a kneaded eraser).  A putty rubber is a soft, moldable eraser that you can shape and make into a fine point and is great at removing pigment.

A putty rubber or kneaded eraser

Why Draw Subtractively?

I really enjoy this way of working because it gives your drawings a different look, often very atmospheric. You start by covering the whole paper in charcoal or graphite – check it is very soft graphite otherwise it won’t remove easily.  You also want to use willow charcoal as compressed charcoal can be harder to remove.

You slowly start taking away pigment with the putty rubber looking for the lighter tones (remember you are removing to create lighter tones) and you keep the pigment for the darker areas.

portrait of a woman

The great thing about this way of working is that if you go wrong you can always go back in with charcoal so it is a very forgiving method. I think you do have to keep going if at first it just looks like a smudgy mess, soon something starts emerging.

Some learners find it frustrating because it is messy and you don’t have as much control as a pencil.  There are ways around this, you could use a blender or an eraser stick. You can vary the pressure with the eraser to create differing tones.

Endless Possibilities…

You don’t have to limit yourself to taking away with a putty rubber, you could use a cloth or clean rag, tissue, cotton buds etc.  You can work partly subtractive by going back in with charcoal or pencil.  I did that in this work below, it started life as a putty rubber/charcoal subtractive drawing but I went in with a charcoal pencil on top to add detail.  Personally I prefer the soft look of the putty rubber and I felt the pencil on top took away this quality. It just shows how the possibilities are endless!

charcoal drawing
Taking away charcoal gives soft edges

I would recommend trying out charcoal first on its own to see how it behaves if you are a complete beginner.  If you want to make life a bit easier the first time round try a simple subject like fruit because the shape is so simple you can concentrate on tones.

Hand holding putty rubber
Putty Rubber

The lighting is also important you really want strong lighting for subtractive drawing so you can see the lights and darks clearly.

Drawing under a lamp is a great idea so that you can really see the tones. Results will improve after a few attempts but if you like this way of working it is fantastic for creating dramatic, atmospheric drawings.

Why not give it a try?

4 thoughts on “What is Subtractive Drawing?

  1. Hi Rebecca, I tried this technique on two kinds of paper- tan toned and white and found out that the same charcoal drawing worked better on white paper. Maybe I will try the toned paper with with color pencils. ~Liz

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