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Subtractive Drawing: Techniques, Tips, and Exercise

Hey, fellow art enthusiasts! Like most beginners, I initially viewed erasers solely as tools designed for making corrections. Recently, I’ve been studying how artists employ subtractive drawing techniques, aiming to use erasers more deliberately in their art process.

In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about subtractive drawing, why it matters, and how you can use various types of erasers to lift graphite or charcoal from paper. There’s also a quick practice exercise at the end of the post if you’re feeling up to experimenting with these techniques yourself. 😊

First up, what exactly is subtractive drawing?

We naturally learn to draw by adding a drawing medium, such as graphite or charcoal, onto the drawing surface to convey shape and values. So for example, if we want to draw a face, we would create an outline and shade in the shadows to create a contrast with the lighter areas, and (hopefully) that gives a sense of depth to our portrait.

Subtractive drawing, also known as reductive drawing, flips the natural process of how we draw. So, instead of adding graphite or charcoal meticulously onto the paper like we usually do, subtractive drawing involves a quick block-in of tone followed by the removal of layers of shading from the lighter areas of a drawing using different erasers to create the illusion of shape.

How is Subtractive Drawing useful?

While I often focus exclusively on shadows and darker values when rendering a drawing, subtractive drawing allows me to establish the shape of highlights early in the drawing—a consideration I usually reserve for the final stages of my drawings.

Although rendering a drawing entirely with subtractive techniques can be challenging, it is helpful to consider how you can use erasers deliberately throughout the drawing process, in conjunction with the regular shading techniques. This not only speeds up the process but also enables you to observe tonal shapes through a different lens.

I do find it easier to erase charcoal than graphite once I have blocked in the base tone. However, if like me you prefer drawing with graphite then I recommend you to gently shade the block-in with a softer pencil like a 3B to make the process of creating highlights easier later on and avoiding muddy values.

If you’re new to drawing, practicing subtractive drawing techniques is a good opportunity to train yourself to recognize negative space, experiment with different types of erasers, and learn how they interact with graphite or charcoal in their unique way. So make sure to attempt the practice exercise at the end of the post.

3 Types of erasers I like to use in my drawings

Currently, I have these erasers in my drawing kit.

Currently, these are the erasers in my drawing arsenal. Here are the three types I tend to use in my drawing process:

  1. Kneaded eraser: Moldable into any shape, great for gently removing graphite and charcoal without damaging the paper. I prefer using other erasers to create brighter highlights though.
  2. Regular eraser: Firmer than kneaded erasers, useful for erasing crisp highlights. I prefer pencils with built-in erasers like the Blackwing simply for the sake of convenience, but any good old eraser works well when you need to erase something more harshly than a kneaded eraser.
  3. Mechanical eraser: Recently discovered and hooked! While not entirely necessary, these are ideal for creating fine streaks of highlights.

Subtractive Drawing: Practice Exercise

Above is a drapery study by Leonardo Da Vinci that we’ll use for practicing subtractive drawing. You can either use graphite pencils or charcoal for this exercise and having a kneaded eraser handy will be super helpful too.

There’s no ‘one right way’ to do it, but I find the following four-step process helpful. Allow yourself up to 5 minutes for each step.

Step 1: Start with a basic outline.

Step 2: Shade in a soft base of value and blend for a consistent tone.

Step 3: Refine and redefine the outline because it might have faded a little after the block-in in the earlier step. You could also skip defining the outline altogether in Step 1 and do it in one go after toning the paper, but I find it less intuitive to draw the structure of a drawing on toned paper because I have to apply more pressure. You could experiment and see what works better for you.

Step 4: Use erasers to remove graphite or charcoal from the lighter sections of the drawing.

Here’s how my attempt went. 🙈

You can take this a step further by using additive techniques to darken the shadows and turn it into a more detailed study if you prefer. Let me know how your attempt goes. Also, if you would like to share how you apply subtractive drawing techniques in your art process, do let me know in the comments below. Happy drawing! ✏️