Big sky over the Humber Estuary A large drawing made with graphite & gesso

Big Sky over the Humber Estuary is one of series of large drawings, produced over a six month period, of different locations. It is based upon a number of sketches—and a lot of memory—of the north bank of the Humber Estuary near the village of Skeffling, very near the river mouth where the estuary is up to six miles (nine km) wide and with flat land on both sides the dominant element is the sky.

On Fabriano Artistico paper, the drawing was made with graphite sticks and blocks and with a very liberal use of white gesso. It is a technique I have used on other, both larger and smaller drawings and involves repeatedly making the drawing and applying dilute gesso over the graphite. The gesso is applied using both a hard, plastic print-making roller and large brushes.


Black and blue graphite blocks were used to heavily block in the general composition; random linear marks and a general indication of the horizon line were made with graphite sticks. Much—perhaps all—of this initial work will be covered by later working.

The diagonal linear marks are artifacts of the roller used to apply the first very watery gesso; this also causes the graphite to dissolve and run in some places.

Using Derwent XL Dark Prussian graphite block I applied more heavy graphite to the sky area followed by a heavier application of undiluted gesso using a brush.

All or parts of the drawing can be fixed before applying the gesso in order to prevent runs but I sometimes spray water onto the paper to create deliberate runs. Once the gesso has dried, it also acts as a fixative—and provides the ideal surface for further applications of graphite.

Continuing the work with the blue graphite in the sky, rubbing over with soft paper or tissue and with my hand creates the softer tones. The process is very much one of lost & found where interesting, accidental marks will be found and whilst this can be very exciting, it is important not to become too precious about this as they may be lost in later stages.

Back to the black graphite to develop some foreground contrast and just a little detail on the far shore-line. In an expressive drawing such as this a little detail can go a long way. Very dilute gesso was applied with the roller allowing the black graphite marks to bleed; this greatly extends the tonal range of the graphite.


The drawing was made in about five or six sessions over a period of perhaps three weeks. Repeated heavy applications of the graphite and, more particularly, the gesso have created an uneven surface. Graphite applied very lightly will tend to ‘take’ only to the higher regions, likewise with gesso applied with the roller.

The graphite blocks are very soft so I fix the final work quite heavily, usually using a dilute acrylic medium sprayed on with a diffuser.

Created By
john david petty


Artwork & all photos ©2017–2019J.D. Petty

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