Quick Drawing Tips & Techniques: What Is Subtractive Drawing

Photo caption: Subtractive or reductive drawing employs erasers as mark-making tools and is a good way to learn about values. Photo courtesy of the Milan Art Institute.

Light and dark are the tools of visual dramatic affect and, as an artist, they are yours to command. Much like the masters of old, you can manipulate these powerful and intense effects to accentuate different areas of your work and even enlighten your audience as to the actions taking place. But to do this, you must master the skills of light and dark.

One of the reasons that the paintings of master artists, like Caravaggio and da Vinci, look so exceptional and dramatic is because their paintings employ the chiaroscuro technique. And one solid way for art students to learn how to master the chiaroscuro technique is to learn how to do subtractive or reductive drawings.

What Is a Subtractive or Reductive Charcoal Drawing?

Many artists and students start a drawing by placing a series of lines on a piece of paper. This is the additive drawing technique.

Creating a subtractive drawing is a bit different. Instead of building up the values of the drawing by placing line after line on the paper, the subtractive drawing technique works in reverse, so to speak. 

First, the artist covers the whole paper with a coat of charcoal. This becomes the mid-tone of the drawing. To create the drawing, the artist then erases out the details with a kneaded eraser, so in a sense, the eraser replaces the pencil in the mark-making stage. 

In the drawing at the top of this blog post, the shiny areas on the camera are just a few spots where you can see subtraction in action. Most of the lighter areas are the areas that were erased out, again using a kneaded eraser. (Just a note, artists also use line erasers that look like click ink pens to create fine light lines in these drawings, too.)

Are Additive Drawing Techniques Ever Used in Subtractive Drawing?

The short answer to this is, “Yes.” After the initial image is etched or erased into the charcoal, an artist can go back over the drawing with charcoal and add in darker lines and areas of shading. 

Doing this allows the artist to create a complete range of values. In subtractive drawing, the “one” on the value scale is the white paper. The 10 is the darkest of darks in the charcoal. It is created by a charcoal pencil or stick, usually. By creating a ground in charcoal at the outset of the drawing, a mid-tone or five in the scale of one to 10 is created. 

As such, adding darker marks over the areas of the drawing that are supposed to be really dark builds up the values to as high as the 10 on the value scale. Continually working on the drawing in this way eventually adds life to the overall design of your drawing.

Why Do a Subtractive Drawing?

As we mentioned, subtractive or reductive drawing is an excellent way to learn some of the techniques of the Old Masters, like the chiaroscuro technique. Creating an exceptional subtractive drawing requires practice. However, dedication to the process will eventually yield results and allow you to master this important art technique. 

It’s also a foundational technique to learn if you want to do a subtractive painting. The only difference is the medium. That is to say instead of creating a ground in charcoal as you would with a subtractive drawing, you create the ground in paint and wipe out the paint to create the initial image. 

If your vision for your art is to give a nod to the Old Masters of art history and to employ the chiaroscuro technique, then subtractive or reductive drawing is an important technique to master. 

It is a foundational technique that we teach in programs, like the Beginner Art Program and the Mastery Program, our college-level professional certificate program. Or try a free limited-time membership to Art Club, where you'll find new instructional content every month!

Video caption: Learn more about chiaroscuro, the technique of Old Masters, like Caravaggio. 

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