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Technique: Sherry Camhy: When Black Is White

Technique: Sherry Camhy: When Black Is White

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This New York artist uses the sheen of graphite to create the light highlights in her drawings on black paper.

by Bob Bahr

Study of a Roman Sculpture
2007, graphite on black paper, 50 x 33.
Collection the artist.
by Sherry Camhy, 2006,
graphite on black paper,
16½ x 30. Collection
Allen Miller and Susan Davidson.

Sherry Camhy’s recent suite of drawings, rich with plenty of dark tones, reveals a startling fact when the viewer moves closer to investigate the luminosity in the pieces: the drawings were done on black paper and the lights in the images were created using graphite pencils.

Camhy stumbled across this effect by accident in 2000. She was absentmindedly doodling on a piece of black matboard while talking on the phone with a friend when she noticed that the gray sheen of the graphite created shiny lights on the dark surface. After the artist hung up the phone, she began experimenting with pencils of various hardnesses and discovered another peculiar fact: the blacker the pencil was graded, the lighter the effect on the black sheet. Her HB pencil left fainter, darker marks and her 6B left bright ones. The reason was twofold: Camhy uses certain high-quality brands that don’t achieve the blackness in their darkest pencils by cutting the graphite with some carbon (hers are nearly pure graphite), and pencil makers make the harder leads by adding more clay to the graphite, which dulls the reflective sheen needed to get those lights. Camhy’s Light and Illusion Metaphor, reproduced on page 51, shows just how light graphite on black paper can look—the highlights on the salt shaker were made by burnishing layers of 9B graphite. The truth of this is hard to believe until one studies it from inches away.

Road Series: Morning Mist
2004, graphite on black paper, 30 x 70.
Private collection.
Portrait of Mark
1990, graphite on black board,
20 x 15. Collection the artist.

The board on which this image
was drawn has faded, but
the artist says she’s charmed by
the resulting warm tone in
the piece.

The artist’s first use of this interesting effect was Portrait of Mark, and her goal for that piece was to pursue the subtlety that graphite on black paper allowed. Her thinking was that if a viewer examined a drawing on black paper very closely, his or her pupils would dilate in order to gather more light and information. “It would force the viewer to physically see more as he or she looked at it,” says Camhy. From there, her work became bolder, the contrast in them more marked, as she explored the process with figure drawings and other subjects.

The artist says the hardest part of this process is reversing the order of her mark-making. Normally, on white paper, she would start with a dark pencil, perhaps a 6B, and lightly sketch her lines for the drawing. As it progressed, she would move to harder pencils for more precise lines and for details. On black paper, she begins by making very light lines with a 3H pencil and then continues to as high as a 9B for the last highlights. “I work all over the paper,” Camhy says, “and try to get the values down from the beginning. I lay out the proportions for myself and then start to work tighter.” Camhy never smudges with a stump or tortillon nor does the artist employ hatching. Instead, she slowly builds up tone using contiguous lines. “I like the control of building up the strokes line by line,” she explains. “It’s very personal—the idea goes from the hand of the artist, to the pencil, to the paper, to the viewer. The viewer can see how the artist did it.”

Camhy takes her entire process personally—right down to the individual pencils. In fact, she says she tends to name them, with the harder ones—like a 3H—getting the nickname Claudia, and softer ones—like a 9B—labeled Maria or Sophia. “The HB is Ann—very honest and direct,” she adds. She favors the Faber-Castell brand, and cites their consistency as the reason. “If I pick up a 3H from Faber-Castell it’s going to be the same as all the previous 3Hs I bought from them.”

Reclining Form
2006, graphite on black paper,
29 x 31½. Collection the artist.

Ironically, when Camhy first came across this drawing method, she was working on pieces in which she tried to make the lightest marks possible so the images would subtly emerge from the white of the paper. Her work on a black surface is similarly subtle, although the contrast in Twilight shows just how dynamic the effect can be. The drawings on black paper have occupied her attention for more than six years, but along the way she has also completed exquisite, actual-size figure drawings in the traditional fashion of graphite on white paper. And recently she has been executing pastel drawings of sea and sky on very large sheets of paper—and then ripping off pieces from the perimeter and affixing the core of the pastel to a second sheet of black paper. “Sometimes a piece just seems to need to float free,” she explains. “It would just feel confined by the frame otherwise.” Occasionally she will purposely break the glass in the frames of finished pieces for the same reason—“to let them be free.”

Camhy may explore other art materials, but the artist is clearly devoted to graphite pencils. Her graphite drawings take her longer to complete than her paintings, but they are a labor of love, and she points out that one way of translating the Latin word for pencil—pencillus—is “little brush,” blurring the lines between drawing and painting. Accordingly, she refers to drawing simply as “image building,” and rather than see her pencil as a mere drawing tool, Camhy calls it her “secret friend,” one that that is quiet, clean, odorless, inexpensive, and lightweight. “They can be precise or not,” she notes. “They can be subtle or hard-edged. Pencils are simple, honest, and direct. There are no fancy mediums. It’s just you and it.”

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