“When shading, use an extra piece of paper underneath your hand,” advises artist Brun Croes. “This will minimise the amount your hand smudges your pencil lines. If you’re right-handed, start shading from left to right; if you’re left-handed, start at the right and move to the left.
This is a valuable beginner’s tip: I always put a piece of paper under my hand to keep from smudging my drawing.
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I try to avoid outlining my drawings because this tends to make things look flat and deadens the 3D effect. Breaks and spaces in my lines show form in the lights and shadows.
“To test out whether your characters are readable as silhouettes, grab a piece of tracing paper and trace around your character, filling it in with a solid colour. A great way to test your silhouettes is to show them to your friends or colleagues and ask them what they see.”
Create subtle shading by smudging large areas of soft charcoal
Shading with unified lines versus shading in patches produces a different feel
“There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to make a clean-looking drawing that loses its brilliance and value thanks to smudging. Instead, use smudging to your advantage every now and then to smooth out shading. You can do this with several tools. I use a simple piece of tissue paper to get the job done.”
In this article, I’ll share seven expert pencil drawing techniques to help you take your skills to the next level, whether you want to create stylised or realistic pencil drawings. Take a look at the video above to see these pencil drawing techniques in action, or read on for my expert tips.
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When covering large areas, I shade with my pencil perpendicular to the line I’m drawing to get wide, soft lines. For details, I hold my pencil parallel to my lines to get sharp, narrow marks. The only time I use the point is when I’m working on intricate details.
“Have you ever noticed that every important character in an animation movie is recognisable from their shadow alone?”, says artist Leonardo Sala. “This magic has a name: the silhouette. The purpose of finding a strong and interesting silhouette is to create an easily recognisable character that will remain clear in the visual memory of the viewer.
The first step is to master how to hold a pencil correctly. When I draw, I use not the tip but the side of the lead, in order to maximise its utility. Holding my pencil like I would charcoal also keeps it sharper for longer.
Take control of your pencil by holding it correctly, says illustrator Sylwia Bomba. “If you position your hand closer to the end of the pencil, you have more control and precision, but heavier strokes (darker markings). Gripping further up the pencil will give you less control and precision, but lighter strokes (lighter markings).”
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The Beginner’s Guide to Sketching is a book that offers lots of inspiration and advice for anyone looking to take their first creative steps or wanting to add a new piece to their design portfolio. The comprehensive guide covers everything from choosing the right drawing tools to understanding shading and value, adding colour, and creating a finished scene.
If you’re a complete novice, you should have a look at our seven fundamental pencil drawing techniques and our 100 drawing and painting tips and tutorials. But if you’re ready to go, here some of the artists that contributed to the Beginner’s Guide to Sketching offer some expert advice to get you off to a flying start…
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When drawing something symmetrical, I focus on the spaces between the lines, and of course keep reevaluating as I go along.
No matter what kind of artist you are, chances are pencil drawing was the skill that helped you learn how to draw, and the one that kicked off your artistic journey. Throughout my career as a character designer and visual development artist, I’ve realised that having a strong respect and understanding of the process and fundamentals of drawing is essential to becoming a better artist. And what’s more fundamental than pencil drawing?
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Shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create interest
Use varied lines, says illustrator Rovina Cai. “Not all lines are equal. Subtle shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create a dynamic, visually interesting drawing. Controlling the kind of mark you put down can be tricky in the beginning, but with practice you will be able to create a variety of marks that work together to make a cohesive image. Experiment with different pencil grades (from 3H to 6B) and with holding the pencil at different angles.”
Use an extra piece of paper under your hand to avoid smudging your work
If anything seems off – even if I can’t immediately put my finger on what it is – I trust my gut and troubleshoot my drawing before continuing.
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I also like to view my drawing in a mirror, through a camera, or step away from it. This way, I can get different vantage points on my drawing and detect if anything is off.
But remember that a drawing can be overdone! Eventually, I make a conscious decision to put my drawing away and start something new. That’s when I consider my drawing done. Well, maybe…
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The next drawing technique concerns line weight. Having control over my line weight is a great way to separate objects from one another, and can help emphasise shadows. Thicker lines can fade and disappear into the shadows, which can help convey the 3D form.
Like every other artist I know, even after I’ve signed my name, I will sometimes continue tinkering with my drawings. I can always find something to change if I look hard enough, so it can be difficult to tell when a piece is truly finished.
“Double this wavy line a little below the first. You can already see a curly ribbon forming before you. Now connect the open parts on the sides, remove the guidelines, and add some details.”
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“The use of irregular lines when shading adds a lot of dynamism to your sketch,” Bomba says. “If you want to create a fresh and unique sketch of a portrait, architecture, or concept art, you should definitely use this technique. I use it to sketch loosely, flat backgrounds (if there is no texture, this technique will add some), bushes, or grass.”
When I’ve checked my drawing, I check again. I have to nail down its underpinnings before I can add details. I really avoid guessing at the details; I want to make sure things are symmetrical and look right before putting down stronger and harder lines. I constantly ask myself, does this feel right?
“A benefit of tracing paper is that you can flip it over to see how your drawing looks from the reverse angle,” advises artist Justin Gerard. “This can help reveal errors in proportion. As you work, take advantage of this in order to arrive at a more successful drawing.”
I like to shade in two main ways: the first is with all of my lines going in the same direction, which makes my shading appear more cohesive. This pencil drawing technique also helps my details pop out from the lines I’m using for shading.
When I start drawing, I plan and explore using loose lines, and avoid committing too early with hard, dark lines. As I progress my lines will change, so checking and rechecking my work is vital. I darken my lines and add details at the end. I don’t focus on one area for too long to prevent overdrawing.
Want to draw curly hair? Illustrator Eva Widermann suggests these sketching tips: “Draw two straight vertical lines; these will be your guidelines for the width and length of the curl. Now loosely draw a wavy line down between the two lines.
If you want to sketch a sky, artist Marisa Lewis has some advice: “Sometimes it’s preferable for your shading to be less sketchy and more smooth and subtle. Pencil lines don’t blend perfectly unless you’re very careful. We don’t want a sky full of scribbles, unless it’s on purpose.
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If you look at the examples here, it’s clear that the first girl is holding a mug, but what about the second one? It’s not as clear!
For more in-depth advice on composition to how to capture light and shadow, take a look at our art techniques article. And if you’re still trying to find the right tools for the job, we also have a guide to finding the best pencil for your drawing style.
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I hope these pencil drawing techniques have helped – join in the conversation by adding your tips and tricks in the comments on Facebook or Twitter.
Designer Patricia Ann Lewis-MacDougall suggests keeping some texture. “Some artists might find using watercolour pencils a little on the grainy side; however I like the added life the grain gives to a sketch. You don’t have to add water over the whole image. Leave some areas untouched to add a bit of texture to your sketch.”
Keep a nice contrast going between a finished look and a more of a sketchy feel
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The second method I use is working in patches, which help define shape. Patches of lines go around the form, which help keep things in perspective. This drawing technique is also great for backgrounds and adding texture.
“I like symmetrical drawings but they often look boring all too quickly,” says Croes. “A good way to prevent this is to add some subtle changes and only keep the general lines symmetrical instead of mirroring every small part. Keeping some elements asymmetrical helps to avoid boring repetition.”
“Instead, use spare paper to doodle a big swatch of soft graphite or charcoal pencil, then use a large blending stick to pick up the soft dust to use for your image. Keep using the blending stick and adding more scribbles as you need more graphite. Using the same technique, start darkening some areas of the sky to define the tops of the clouds.”