Pencil drawing, tips and equipment

Pencil drawing, tips and equipment

The use of any art medium requires a little knowledge. This article focuses on the tools you should use, and some of the techniques of pencil drawing.

Firstly, consider the pencils themselves. In my experience, paying more for a pencil merely buys a better quality casing; the performance of the leads is pretty similar across the price range.

The import thing when buying graphite pencils is to have a range of different grades. “H” pencils have hard leads. “B” pencils have soft leads. The higher the H or B number, the harder or softer they are; so an H9 is very hard, and a B9 is very soft.

In terms of drawing, pencil “harness and softness” equate to lightness and darkness. A hard pencil will make a very faint, sharp grey line, while a soft pencil will make darker and less sharp mark. Pencil drawing is a matter of recording light and shade, so you need to use a range of lighter and darker pencils to capture tonal variations.

The range you choose is up to you, and dependant on the style of drawings you wish to make, but the “Bs” are suitable for most drawings. I would recommend the minimum of an “HB” (neither hard nor soft), B, 2B, 4B, 6B, and 9B.

The choice of paper again depends on type of drawings you wish to make, but generally, the best type of paper will be very smooth (e.g. cartridge paper). Paper quality is important. Imperfections in the surface of a smooth paper have a nasty habit of filling-in with graphite, and forming blotches.

Pencil work can require a fair amount of blending and reworking, so it is advisable to use a paper that is reasonably robust. My personal recommendation is that you use the heaviest weight paper you can – something that will stand-up to a bit of a battering.

Always apply pencil very lightly, and never press hard. The aim should be to float the graphite on the surface of the paper, and not to produce an engraving. Pressing hard will make the pencil mark darker, but it will also deform the paper. Far better results can be obtained by using a darker (softer) pencil lightly, when you need to draw darker areas. Altering the angle of the pencil to the paper can help if you tend to be heavy handed. Briefly, when the pencil is vertical to the paper, it’s easy to press down hard. Leaning the pencil reduces the amount of pressure than can be applied to its tip, and the least possible amount pressure is achieved when the pencil is leaned so far that is almost horizontal.

When shading an area, don’t randomly scrub the pencil back and forward in all directions. Try to apply pencil strokes in a uniform and specific direction. The best direction is often one that describes the shape of an object, so if shading something that is round, used curved strokes.

The hardest thing to do with pencil is lay down and area of flat and even shading. The problem is often that the pencil strokes overlap, with the result that the overlapping areas are darker. One way to avoid this is to always shade an area two or three times to achieve even coverage. So long as you use the correct grade of pencil lightly and consistently, you will not end-up with darker shading as a result. For example, three layers of B should not be as dark as one layer of B2 (but it should be smoother). 

The usual approach with pencil is to work from dark to light. The reason for this is as described above, but this additionally acknowledges of the properties of pencil. Graphite is a lubricant. If you lay-down a very light shading first, you will find that this effectively lubricates the paper, and subsequent shading goes on more smoothly and fluidly. So, if you want to shade an area to a “B3” depth, don’t go straight in with the B3; build-up through two of three steps, say a B, a B2, and then a B3. If you wish to shade an area to B8 or B9 depth, similarly go through a few steps, but start with say a B6.

If you want to record really dark shades, it is possible to buy specialists’ pencils, darker than B9, or you can use a little charcoal. Graphite is shades of grey, and never black.

Time for a quick word about sharpening pencils. Most pencil drawing is a matter of recording areas light and shade; it’s not about “lines”, unless technical drawing is your thing. My advice is therefore – don’t sharpen your pencils too often. Shading is easier to do with a blunt pencil, so only sharpen when you need crisp detail (usually the finishing touches).

Blending is a vital pencil drawing technique. Blending is fundamentally smudging.  Smudging can be used to smooth-out shading, and blend different pencil grades to produce a smooth tonal graduation.

Pencil smudges very easily due to the lubricating properties of graphite. You can do it with your fingers (although a little messy), Torchillons (paper stumps), and “Q-tips” (cotton buds on sticks found in most bathrooms) are very good for blending. Whatever you use, make your blending strokes directional rather than random.

An eraser can be very useful. It isn’t there to correct mistakes; it is necessary for cleaning-up (because pencil smudges so easily). The best type is a putty eraser. These are very soft and can be pinched into points or thin edges to take out tiny dots or thin lines of pencil from your picture, without doing any damage to the paper.

The final bit of equipment you like to use is a fixative spray. This stops the drawing from smudging once it is complete, but can also be used mid-drawing to prevent unwanted smudging. Don’t use hair spray (except on your hair): use a purpose made fixative, and don’t over do it (a light spray is enough).

Portraits by John Burton

Portrait artist working mainly from clients’ own photographs.

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