Graphite remains an unwavering favourite of mine. Profoundly simple. Tactile. The chemistry. The history. Plus the fact I can’t get on with charcoal, (at all).
The harder the pencil the lighter the graphite ‘shade’ but the finer a point you can sharpen to. Softer grades are darker but more crumbly and more difficult to get a clean crisp mark with. They often leave thicker marks. So the real challenge with graphite is understanding the full range of properties within the range of hardness as well as the full potential of what can be achieved with graphite.
BONUS TIP. Don’t muddy drawings. Keep your contrast clear so your subject reads well. Too many subtle variations of grey ends up creating a very bland haze of grey. Not a drawing that pops.
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A wide variety of conventional erasers exist but I only use those shown here. The main requirement is for a soft eraser that can gently remove graphite and not grind it ever deeper into the paper’s surface.
It is for this reason that I no longer use ink or typewriter erasers. Apart from the block eraser (shown right and that I only use for cleaning the margin around a drawing on completion) I make most use of Staedtler’s stick erasers.
Of the two versions shown above I use the top one — although this is now unavailable the 528-55 refills for the 528-50 below will fit the old (and more comfortable and precise) holder. The eraser core is capable of being formed to a very fine point using a conventional pencil sharpener.
Erasers come in so many varieties these days that it’s impossible to recommend one over another as artists all have their favourites. I’m particularly keen on pencil erasers as I work small and frequently need a tiny point to erase with. I can’t stand putty erasers as they seem to retain the graphite (or colour pencil) and then smear it all back over your work. When I erase I want as much to shift off as possible.
Understanding what you can do with graphite and applying all that knowledge into creating your image can make this humble medium incredibly rewarding and key to success is experimentation and asking questions.
The starting point of every drawing will be your layers. Light areas will need light/hard grades. Dark areas will need dark/soft grades. Or you can stick to one HB pencil and us that throughout, layering many layers, over and over, creating quite a diverse range of shades. The best method is to use the FULL range. I will pick a hard, a middle and a soft grade of graphite and create my drawing layering all of those together.
Mechanical pencil, wooden pencil, caseless graphite pencil, graphitone, eraser pencil and blending stumps.
Protecting your artwork as you draw is vital since graphite is so prone to smudging. You can lay a fresh piece of clean paper under your hand to protect your work (I’ve heard magazine paper is particularly good as it’s so shiny and slips around with you) use a mahl stick like painters do, or you can simply work across the page from top left to bottom right (if you’re right handed, reverse if you’re left handed) and you won’t need to touch your drawing at all.
Be warned, though: attempting the use of blending tools too early can look smudgy and amateurish, so don’t rush into this. You also need to keep your pencils sharp. And while a pencil sharpener is fine when you’re just using a pencil to write with, for drawing we’d suggest you’re better off using a scalpel or craft knife.
The paper you choose is going to be equally significant as the pencil choice
Accept no alternatives. Blu-Tack is not widely available outside the UK and I have received many reports on similar products, such as Hold-Tu and Tack’N’Stick. I invariably find Blu-Tack to be superior because it possesses a tackiness not inherent in other products, which tend to be only as useful as a normal kneadable eraser.
Graphite Technique 2: Erasing & Keeping the White of the Paper
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Usually cased in Cedar, these pencils possess a lightness that can aid subtle shading techniques but suffer from a number of disadvantages. They shorten in use resulting in an ever-changing balance and weight; a variety of points can be achieved but very fine points tend to require the use of an emery board or other rough surface to achieve this – clutch pencils possess a needle-point by default.
If dropped or bent the graphite has a tendency to break internally – clutch pencils support the lead internally with virtually no breakages in normal use.
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Read our guide: How to start pastel drawing for more on key tools and techniques
After gaining an understanding of the abilities and limitations of each pencil, you can then investigate further with blending tools and erasers for different effects.
Continue layering and blending throughout your drawing. Job done.
Graphitone can produce a more matte finish to graphite meaning your blacks will really pop in your photographs which look great. I will also use a black coloured pencil if I feel my artwork really needs it. Otherwise, as a very last result, you can tweak contrast in photo editing software to try and portray your artwork as accurately as possible. We are artists and not photographers after all…
“I just received the Blu-tack… and it really is fantastic! I am working on a drawing, and as soon as I tried using the Blu-Tack, what a difference! I have about 5 other brands of tacky stuff and nothing works like this! And you are right that it gently lifts the graphite without ruining the original pencil marks.
I love it!”
Of course, drawing isn’t just about pencils: ink drawing is another popular medium that can lead to some beautiful results. Traditional pen and ink consists of black ink and white paper, creating space through thick or thin lines, repeating marks for texture. There are many options for working in ink so, just as with graphite, you’ll need to find which best suits you by experimenting.
I LOVE blending, as it allows me to have full control over what result I choose to have with my graphite. It can play with the tooth of the paper and have grainy, fluffy marks, or, I can polish it out with my blending stump and create glassy, flat smooth areas of tone which work flawlessly in photorealism artwork.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll no doubt want to stick with the familiar. Graphite pencils are the most common type of drawing tool as their composition allows for the smoothest strokes.
Many strokes can be employed to indicate textures of various objects. If you’re attempting a highly realistic style then use very small circular strokes with your pencil; otherwise unwanted banding of pencil marks occurs. Try shading with a variety of tools from blending stumps to paper tissue for better finishes.
Never brush eraser crumbs or dust off your drawing using your hand. Keep a brush or two handy for such jobs so your drawing doesn’t absorb oil from your skin. And don’t blow dust off as you risk moisture marking the surface.
I keep the big 1″ brush for general cleaning of the drawing surface and the red-handled brush lives behind my ear – it’s readily available for removing eraser dust whenever I need it.
When you’re starting a new illustration – whether doing quick sketches or highly realistic pencil drawings, you want to have your best pencils and drawing tools at the ready. But buying the drawing tools for your needs is largely a question of trial and error.
Progresso pencils are solid sticks of graphite and very versatile tools. However, although I keep both 2B and 6B I rarely use them except for outdoor sketching and for lightly washing tone over an incised area (see Incise tool).
Shading your layers requires gentle, even layers of built up tone. One on top of each other until you reach the desired shade. Like with coloured pencil you can vary the strokes you make but it does effect the final texture. Crosshatching and circulation are two common shading & layering techniques as demonstrated below:
Ink drawing with different nibs can produce stunning results
Once you grow in confidence, though, it’s time to start widening your scope. For instance, you could try solid graphite pencils. These are solid sticks of graphite and clay composite (as found in a graphite pencil), which have no casing other than a wrapper or label.
Softer grades of graphite are harder to shift but they are 95% removable. My belief is that errors are better off avoided by careful drawing, rather then erasing but that doesn’t mean erasing doesn’t provide a vital function or creative purpose.
Graphite Technique 4: Fixing Drawings and Photographing your Artwork
Used for blending graphite. Stumps are generally double-ended, larger and bulkier than the finer single-ended tortillons. Both have their individual uses although I tend to use only tortillons – for coarse work I wrap kitchen paper around my finger and use that instead.
Never use your unprotected finger to blend graphite. The natural oil in your skin will cause graphite to stick to your paper in irregular patches. It once took me two days to constantly tone and blend around such an area before it became unnoticeable.
..A wide range of grades is available of which the most useful, from softest to hardest, are 6B, 4B, 2B, HB, F, H, 2H, 4H and 6H. The softest I use is 6B although I use it infrequently – being coarse-grained the individual grains of graphite tend to be visible, which can distract from the reality that I’m trying to achieve.
In normal use my softest grade is 2B and my hardest 4H. Most of my drawing is achieved with just the three grades of 2B, F and 2H. The colour Shaper is used in much the same manner as a tortillon, being particularly useful for blending in tight corners.
Unlike the tortillon it doesn’t absorb graphite, which restricts its use to small areas – this is not a tool for mass blending. The one I use is a Forsline & Starr #2 Taper-point soft. A wider flat chisel point is also available and both styles can be purchased as soft or hard.
Buy KOH-I-NOOR Progresso Woodless Graphite Pencils: $6.15/£7.99 for 602. Charcoal pencils
I personally like exploiting the nature of erasers to lighten areas or add in detail and texture. It’s almost impossible to ever return to the pure white of fresh paper so if I know I’ll need to have areas of white I especially protect those places as best I can to retain the white of the page rather then erase back into an area I’ve already shaded.
How could I write My Essential Colour Pencil Techniques without sharing with you it’s sister post, My Essential Graphite Pencil Techniques? Especially when graphite plays such a huge role in my artistic practices.
Unlike standard office erasers, kneaded erasers are dry and don’t smudge or leave flaked residue. Their softness makes them ideal on sketching paper with a lot of ‘tooth’. These erasers can also be formed into points for picking out highlights in eyes and hair.
Read our guide: Get started with ink drawing for more on ink drawing tools and techniques
All graphite is not equal. There are different mixes and some brands produce better shades of grades then others. I recommend sticking to one brand of grades for one drawing otherwise you may find that one brands 2B is a LOT darker then anothers 4H and then you’ll struggle with picking grades for your drawing, and it matters.
Clutch/drafting pencils or lead holders Stylus for indenting / incising Graphite leads for clutch pencils Progresso solid graphite pencil Wood-cased graphite pencil Stump and Tortillon for blending Soft art erasers in holders Soft art eraser Blu-Tack used as eraser Sharpener for clutch pencils Sharpener for wood-cased pencils and eraser cores Colour Shaper
I am often asked about the tools I use to create my drawings. Do I use traditional wood-cased pencils or mechanical ones? What type of eraser do I use? It would appear that many Artists have a fascination (and a vested interest) in the tools and techniques used by other artists.
.. and I’m no different in that respect! So, what tools do I use……
Click any item for a full description of its uses and properties
Many strokes can be employed to indicate textures of various objects
To start, a brief explanation into graphite hardness. Graphite pencils come in grades of hardness. The full range is:
To blend, you just need a blending stump or cotton bud. You can even use a DIY paper cone to blend with. But never, ever use your finger. I don’t make rules about art but I draw the line (excuse the pun) at finger smudging graphite- just because the oils on your hand can destroy your artwork and leave great big grease marks all over it which will not come off… You’ve been warned.
Blending stumps are ideal for creating gradations and half-tones
Your final technique to master will be fixing your drawing with artists fixing spray and then taking the dreaded photographs.
Plus there are watercolour pencils, designed for use with watercolour techniques. (They can also be used by themselves for sharp, bold lines). In short, there’s a world of different drawing implements out there. So start trying different drawing tools, and don’t hold back.
Blending really depends on the artwork though. Sketches might not need blending, for instance, or you might just prefer to see the marks. I prefer a mix. I generally blend and then add in marks back on top creating artwork that has a photofinish, but you can still see is a drawing. All you need to do is lightly layer, then go over with your blending tool in the same motion, smoothing out your marks. The blending tool should smudge the graphite down into all the white of the paper leaving a lovely flat grey which you can then go back over the top and rework with more graphite.
“The Blu-Tack is better than I even thought it would be…I’m still amazed at how that light touch will pick up the graphite. It’s great!!!!”
Almost since the day I started drawing in earnest, over 20 years ago, I have eschewed the use of conventional, cedar-cased pencils. They have their place and many artists use nothing else but I use only one (6B) – and then infrequently.
Why? Well, there’s little worse than using a tool that continually shifts its size and weight and I don’t see any advantage in drawing with a tool that has to be constantly relearned. On the other hand the mechanical pencils that I use possess none of these faults and many advantages.
These mechanical pencils (known to me as Clutch pencils but also known as Drafting pencils or Lead Holders) remain a known constant at all times. Neither length nor weight change. Balance remains true, affording very precise control.
Sharpening involves only the enclosed lead and not the outer casing, allowing needle-sharp points to be easily achieved when required. The only thing you can’t do with a clutch pencil that you can with a wood-cased pencil is tuck it behind your ear.
Most makes of clutch pencil even include a built in sharpener which, although rarely used, can be a life-saver during outdoor drawing trips. Depressing the top cap opens the clutch around the lead at the base allowing it to be extended or adjusted in length to suit the current application.
The green pencil at the top is from Faber Castell but most of mine are made by Staedtler. From the top downwards the grades of these three are F, HB and 2B. How do I know? Because each pack of leads include a colour end cap to fit on the holder.
You will see that F has a green cap, the HB has its original chrome cap and a purple one is fitted to the 2B. If you’re buying for the first time I suggest you purchase just three – 2B, HB and 2H – these will achieve almost all the effects you might need.
Bonus Tip: Micro white details can be achieved in two ways- white ink over the top. Or, if you’re a purist, you can lightly emboss the page with a very fine embossing tool (which looks like a flat pin head) and this will invisibly dent the paper until you shade over the top- the graphite will skim over your mark leaving a white mark for you.
Erasing, using the white of the paper and protecting your work from smudges are all key skills I recommend researching and practicing.
Pencils are graded on a scale from H (hardness) to B (blackness). Generally a 2-4H pencil is as hard as one needs for light areas, an H-B is for midrange, and a 5B-6B is for dark areas. Rather than switching pencils for each tone, experiment with altering the pressure. Brands vary, so experiment to see what suits your temperament.
My soft grades will create areas of dark that I can then neaten with the crispness of the hard grades. The hard grades will allow me to create smooth areas of gentle smooth shading without the tooth of the paper showing through which the soft grade wouldn’t be able to manage. The middle grade will help connect the two in gentle but contrasting gradients which create my final artwork.
Buy the Prismacolor Premier Kneaded Rubber Eraser: $3.12/£3.01What to look for
Used for impressing a line into paper before drawing commences. It produces a clean white line with parallel sides and (with practice) a perfect tapering point. Uses include the cat’s eyebrow whiskers as shown here.
The tool is home-made and consists of a darning or sewing-up needle (round, not pointed, tip) with the eye snapped off and inserted into a spare clutch pencil. Once the lines are indented I use the 2B Progresso pencil to lightly shade over the area to reveal their positions during later work.
We gave the Staedtler watercolour pencils five stars in our review
Once you appreciate that graphite is essentially just slivers of graphite being abraded off by the paper surface and it is nothing more then dust, you being to realise it’s not too dissimilar to layering pastels or paint- just that its in a refined point and encased in wood. Graphite comes in a whole range of different forms from mechanical pencils to caseless sticks of graphite and even graphite dust. Below are the tools I use the most when working with graphite.
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Read our SAA Artists 12 Soft Pastels reviewBuy SAA Artists 12 Soft Pastels: $24.42/£21.1205. Carbon and watercolour pencils
“I use charcoal because it’s a versatile drawing tool that produces a variety of effects, from thin lines to bold strokes,” says Jean-Sébastien Rossbach, an award-winning illustrator, concept artist and painter. However, he adds a word of warning: as with blending tools, “those just starting out can find it tricky to control, with the results often looking messy.”
Bostik’s Blu-Tack has allowed my drawing to develop like no other product ever has. Its greatest strength lies in its unparalleled ability to remove already applied graphite and to “draw” light or white shapes within it.
The merest touch lifts graphite straight from the paper and, with practice, whole areas can be gradually faded. In pre-applied graphite it leaves a clear, sharp-edged impression of easily preformed shapes so it is exceptional at suggesting background foliage, hairs in areas of deep shadow, anywhere that a suggestion is to be preferred over sharp focus.
For making additions at a late stage it is unsurpassed – a determined series of touches of Blu-Tack can take 6B almost back to white before finishing with a conventional soft art eraser. Read my “Erasing with wall putty” tutorial for more information.
If you are drawing with clutch pencils the Staedtler sharpener (shown right) is a “must have” item. Purpose made to sharpen the leads inside these pencils, it is capable of producing needle-sharp points if required.
On top is a lead cleaner (a fibrous insert into which the sharpened pencil point is pushed to clean it of loose graphite powder) and, to either side of this, are two small holes — extend the lead into either to obtain a set length – one gives a sharp point, the other a standardised blunt tip.
You can also save the waste graphite and use it with a brush for gentle toning – although I don’t personally use the method, preferring the greater control offered by the gradual building up of lines of graphite for blending.
The conventional sharpener shown above is used not only for sharpening wood-cased pencils but also to obtain very usable points on stick erasers (see below).
Staedtler 2mm diameter leads are available in tubes of 2 and packs of 12. The 12-pack (illustrated above) comes complete with a grade-dependent colour-coded end cap for your pencil. The leads are fully supported within the pencil by an internal brass tube.
A wide range of grades is available of which the most useful, from softest to hardest, are 6B, 4B, 2B, HB, F, H, 2H, 4H and 6H. The softest I use is 6B although I use it infrequently – being coarse-grained the individual grains of graphite tend to be visible, which can distract from the reality that I’m trying to achieve.
In normal use my softest grade is 2B and my hardest 4H. Most of my drawing is achieved with just the three grades of 2B, F and 2H.
Do not discard old stumps and tortillons.Worn tortillons saturated with graphite can be used as “pencils” in their own right. I often use them to add delicate tone and to randomly sketch indistinct backgrounds.
Bonus tip: Don’t waste the graphite picked up by your blending stump. It can create soft, light marks too. If you need a fresh stump simply sand the tip down with sandpaper.
If you want your drawing to feature vibrant colours then you’ll probably want to investigate pastels. Pastels are a great medium for producing colourful artwork easily, with no need for water, brushes or palettes. The main types of pastels are soft and hard pastels, oil pastels, pastel pencils and water soluble pastels.
Charcoal pencils, as the name suggests, are made of charcoal and provide fuller blacks than graphite pencils, but tend to smudge easily and are more abrasive than graphite. Sepia-toned and white pencils are also available for duotone techniques.
And that’s not all! You can also try using carbon pencils, which produce a fuller black than graphite pencils, but are smoother than charcoal. There are grease pencils, which write on almost any surface including glass, plastic, metal and photos.
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Who knew shades of grey could be so important? But enough. Let’s talk techniques!
As much as pencil choice requires careful consideration, the paper you choose is going to be equally significant. If attempting to create a highly realistic style, for example, you could try using a smooth, hot press/plate finish surface. We prefer Arches 140 lb hot press watercolour paper or Bristol Board plate finish.
Top: Crosshatching. Bottom: Circulation. Graphite layering and shading techniques.
Buy the Stumps And Tortillions Set: $4.56/£6.36 for 1005. Kneaded eraser
Due to many requests Mike Sibley Fine Art now supplies Blu-Tack worldwide.Click below for prices, shipping details and order form.
Blending tortillons are made from rolled, loose-fibre paper and are pointed at one end. The softer paper texture of blending tortillons gives a different blending texture to stumps, and they can be used to push colour and soften pencil edges.
Often called woodless pencils, they’re used primarily for art purposes, as the lack of casing allows for covering larger spaces more easily, creating different effects.
Pencils are graded on a scale from H (hardness) to B (blackness)
Photographed incorrectly graphite will reflect light and as result all that beautiful detail you just captured becomes lost. Therefore graphite drawings need to be photographed out of the direct path of sunlight and presented in a way where there is no glare and this can be infuriatingly tricky in most people’s normal working environments. Yes if we all had photography studios it might be fine, but we don’t, so my advice is to look out for it, avoid shooting your artwork next to any bright light sources, check for any shadows you might be creating on the art work but ALWAYS take photos at daytime if you can- indoor lighting at night is just as intrusive and reflective but when you shoot in the daytime you get a nice clean white light rather then a hazy orange/yellow that indoor lighting always seems to produce.
Blending stumps are made from tightly wound paper, formed into a stick and sanded at both ends to create points. Used ideally to create gradations and half-tones, the sanded area is ideal for blending while the point (ideally kept clean) is best used to blend light-toned areas. Unlike fingers, blending stumps leave no oily smears.
Illustrator Terese Nielsen explains how to pick your paper, pencils and more…
Kneaded erasers are dry and don’t smudge or leave flaked residue
Blending tortillons are made from rolled, loose-fibre paper and are pointed at one end
Read our Staedtler watercolour pencils reviewBuy the Staedtler Karat Aquarell watercolour pencils: $44/£31.75 for 3606. Blending and sharpening tools
My Essential Graphite Pencil Techniques March 3, 2016Art & IllustrationLianne WilliamsComment
When first becoming acquainted with using pencils for artwork, we’d recommend buying one of each grade from 9H to 9B to become familiar with the hard/light and soft/dark qualities of each. Experiment with various surfaces, and a wide variety of strokes and mark-making.
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Lianne WilliamsArt & Illustrationgraphite, drawing, photorealism, blending, technique, Tutorial, derwent
A blending tool can be anything you can use to add texture to your graphite marks. The most obvious tool you have already to hand: your fingers! Other blending tools you can potentially use include tortillions, blending stumps, paper, cloth, cotton wool, make-up wipes, chamois, paper towels, paper tissue, paintbrushes, and probably a dozen other things we haven’t thought of.
Art How to choose the right drawing tools How to choose the right drawing tools