The Pencil: Thinking and Technique

International Artist|April - May 2020

The Pencil: Thinking and Technique
James Gurney shares six ways to use the pencil and six ways to think about it
James Gurney

The pencil is the most basic tool for visual thinking, and it can be used in a lot of different ways. I’ve taken some random sketchbook pages and grouped them into six categories. For each one, I’ll tell you about what I’m thinking and how that thought process influences my technical approach. Not every sketch turns out great, but it’s more likely to be successful when it starts with a clear goal and a strategy to achieve it.


Thinking When a solo musician gives a concert, it’s a good chance to sketch a person actually doing something rather than just posing. They are in constant motion but they return to one or two home positions. At first I’m a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the accordion, so I count the keys and double check it to try to get it more or less right.


This is drawn with a water-soluble graphite pencil in a watercolor sketchbook. I use a water brush to blend the pencil and create the soft gray tones around the figure. I switch to a harder pencil for the fine lines between the keys.


What grabs me about this scene is the juxtaposition of architectural styles. The art nouveau building stands tall and alone, a survivor of the WWII bombs that flattened much of London. It also nearly got torn down during the urban renewal movement of the ’60s. I’m not interested in a snapshot or a retinal impression. I want to understand how time has altered this little corner of London.



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April - May 2020