Why the Eraser is My Favorite Drawing Tool

By Kim Curtis

Recently, while perusing a list of supplies necessary for drawing, I came across this passage:

Undrawing Implements:

Eraser: A white rubber eraser is efficient and clean.

Don’t plan on using this much.

“Don’t plan on using this much?” I thought to myself,  “I rely on it!”

Erasure has long been my favorite drawing technique. As the lucky student of an incredibly inspiring -and demanding- instructor in art school, my love affair with the eraser began the moment I realized it was not just a tool for correction.  Our teacher guided us through the process of drawing by using countless approaches including -but certainly not limited to- drawing with our non-dominant hand, drawing with our FOOT and, if you can believe it, drawing with our non-dominant foot. (There’s a difference!) I remember the frustration I felt in his classes, drawing determinedly from a live model, under pressure of time, only to have him come by and smear through part of my drawing so that I could re-see and re-draw it in the scant time remaining. This is the single most important skill I learned in art school: how to create temporarily.

Perhaps “erasure” is misunderstood.  Yes, it eradicates information but it also creates it.

Just as a pencil can be used both to apply graphite and to scribble it out, an eraser is both subtractive and additive. In my studio where I paint and draw, I have my “additive” tool (paintbrush or charcoal) in one hand and my “subtractive” tool (rag or eraser) in the other.

I work with them both constantly and interchangeably. Each adds and subtracts from the other. This is how processes go(How would I organize these thoughts without using all of the keys including “delete”?)

To explain more specifically; when I draw someone’s portrait, I am interchangeably applying charcoal and taking it away. Out of the dark smudge I’ve laid on for the eye-socket, I carve out -through erasure- the eye-lid. The eraser has eradicated part of the smudge but it has also created the eye-lid. It acts as both a subtractive and an additive tool simultaneously.  Conversely but similarly, I use an eraser to create a plane for the cheek, then use charcoal to lay in the lower eye-lid. The charcoal eradicates part of the space I created with the eraser, but it also creates the lower eye-lid.  The finished portrait relies just as heavily on subtraction as it does on addition. Each tool is used both to draw and to un-draw.

“Not all artists work this way”, you may say. Ingres’ incredible one-line profiles come to mind, in all their gorgeous restraint and perfection. These are exceptions though, not the rule. And they are the end product of many other messy processes that came before.  Every person I know who has created anything ambitious describes elements of this back-and-forth: how unnerving the backing up and rearranging can be, the problem of protecting a phrase or area at the expense of the whole, the “break-through” after finally surrendering (erasing?) something and the nagging suspicion that other (better) people are immune from it all. No one is immune, it’s how things get made.

True, erasure can be frustrating. In a sense, it is backing up when you’re trying to move forward. When my teacher smeared my drawing, he halted my (perceived) progress. However, he also created a space for me to re-examine, recalculate and eventually to move beyond where I’d been.  I learned that the determination to keep everything as it is can actually hamper one’s progress. I also learned that the willingness to eradicate information and recreate it builds confidence. The knowledge that you are capable of re-doing something makes the process far less scary and the artist far more adventuresome.  The act of reclaiming that fresh clean paper from the soot on top can be extremely gratifying.  And it gets easier.

Maybe our problem with erasure is that in our quest for the knowledge of “how”, we are almost always given a prescription, a recipe.  I love You-Tube, but in searching that channel I’ve found that the explanation for how to do almost anything involves a process that begins with A and moves systematically forward to Z. The demonstrations provide great recipes, but they’re not an accurate description of how things get learned or created.

What we learn or create is inevitably a product of hitting obstacles, changing directions, re-tracing, re-inventing, reconfiguring…. all of which require undoing. Still, we are taught and repeatedly reminded that un-doing is the opposite of creation and the opposite of success.

I love my erasers.  Each one is a powerful tool and in my opinion, undervalued and under-recognized. In reality, we use them all the time: during simple acts of drawing or writing all the way through to complex processes of raising children or creating a life path we find interesting and rewarding.  We think we shouldn’t un-do.  And perhaps we don’t like the idea of constantly replacing the temporary. Maybe our mistake is that we don’t see erasure as positive. But we can correct this.