Graphite Pencil Drawing Tips

Graphite pencil was one of the first mediums I really extensively developed for my art. When I was starting out, I was paint-shy. Paint was just so intimidating and hard to control! So I stuck with trusty graphite (“lead”) pencils, and discovered just how much this simple tool can achieve. Some of my all time favourite works, and most popular artworks, are my graphite artworks from this time. Below you’ll find some tips for getting great results with graphite.

But what is Graphite?

Growing up, we always called them “lead” pencils. That’s a name that has stuck since earlier times when the pigment encased in the wood in the pencils actually WAS lead! Obviously for health reasons, this doesn’t happen any more, but generally we still call them “lead” pencils, even though the pigment inside them is now Graphite. It’s technically correct to call them graphite pencils, and understand what they are because most art supplies brands and stores will also refer to them as Graphite. Still, the actual pigment section of a pencil which is encased in wood, is generally referred to as “the lead”.

A range of pencils:

When drawing in graphite, I like to have a wide range of pencils available. Each pencil type has it’s own uses- you don’t want to be shading large areas with a fine mechanical pencil, nor do you want to be doing precision work with a stumpy, thick lead. I tend to use the following for most work-

Mechanical pencils: these are for precision work, all the finest details. I have them in sizes from 0.3 t0 0.9mm widths, and keep some in 2h leads, HB leads, and 2b. Great for drawing strands of hair as well!

Wood pencils: Just your standard, wood encased pencils. I have these in just about all darkness ranges, but generally use from 4H through to 9B, with 2B’s and 2H’s being the most commonly used. I particularly love my Conte graphite pencils, they are smooth as silk and have slightly thicker leads. Always keep your wood pencils sharpened, preferably with a stanley knife rather than a pencil sharpener, so you can get a good end and less breakage (also a good tip for colour pencils!)

Progressos: These are the “lead” without any casing- just pure sticks of graphite. I use these for “special effects” mostly, but they are also great for some fun sketching, to help inspire and loosen up. By special effects, I mean creating interesting textures such as wood, or for example the background of the artwork below. The rough, spotty texture was done by lying a progresso flat on the paper on it’s longest side and rubbing it gently on the paper so it’s pigment caught just on a few points.

Erasers:

Erasers are as much of a painting tool with graphite as the pencils themselves. I use a range of different erasers for each artwork, which include: A putty eraser, a standard plastic rubber (of a quality that doesn’t smudge, I like Maped), and a couple of mechanical erasers (the kind with a tube of plastic eraser within a plastic dispenser pen). I also have an electric eraser, which has a small plastic eraser point which spins, efficiently lifting graphics from the paper. The artwork below is an example of erasers put to use. The sharp white edges of the fully clouds was erased out with an electric eraser. The streaks of light were done by softly dragging the putty eraser over the graphite shading. Even on the rocks, I made the putty eraser into a chunky, random shape and pressed it against the rock shading to lift some random shapes back out of the shading.

Smoothing the graphite:

Getting smooth shading is generally an important goal to most artists when it comes to pencil artworks, particularly to achieve smooth texture for things like skin. In the past, I would use items such as cotton bud, cotton balls, tissues, and “tortillons” (rolled pieces of paper for smudging) to smooth out my shading. Sometimes even my fingers (almost always a bad idea, oils from your skin can do nasty things and you end up with dirty fingers that will smudge everywhere). Using these tools both lifts and spreads the graphite particles around on the paper, lightning your darkest strokes and spreading the pigment onto clean areas, evening out the shading. However, doing this kind of blending can create very “muddy” looking shading, that then requires a lot of erasing to lift some graphite back off the lighter areas and re-darken the darker areas.

I’ve found lately that instead of using smudging at all, using graphite pencils from the “hard” range, eg, 2h, 3h, 4h etc (or for coloured pencils, harder, lighter colours) can be very good at creating smooth and delicate shading. It is important to shade very carefully and softly with them, because the graphite is quite hard and can scratch the paper if used with too much pressure. But delicate yet firm shading with hard pencils can create wonderfully soft and smooth shading with a much larger range of values. Use it over darker graphite shading to smooth it out and add a richer dimension to is as the hard lead pushes the darker lead into the paper surface more smoothly.

How not to smudge:

Lots of people ask this, and it’s a major issue when there is so much graphite pigment sitting on the paper surface! How do you stop from smudging when your hand is resting on the shaded areas? I used to use fixative as I drew, but don’t any more. I found it annoying if I fix an area then decided I wanted to work on it some more. Also, I just hate the smell of the stuff! As artists, we’re exposed to enough chemicals already, thank you very much. So I save fixative just for the very end now. To avoid smudging in the meantime, I keep my hands clean (wash with soap and water before starting to remove some of the oils from your skin is a good idea, and whenever your hand starts getting dirty again), and I keep a piece of scrap paper between my hand and the artwork it’s resting on. This barrier prevents a lot of smudging. Otherwise, don’t stress too much. A small amount of smudging can easily be cleaned off later with gently application of a putty eraser.

General Painting & Drawing Tips

A few of my best bits of advice for creating art in general.

Cool colours and Contrasting colours for lively shadows:

To make your pictures look more vibrant and real, and avoid boring, muddly browns and greys, using cool colours and contrasting colours is the key. Any time you draw or paint shadows, or things that are supposed to be white or black, try using a blue, cool purple or green instead of black or grey and it will look better. The colour you choose should match the rest of your colour scheme, and it helps for it to be a contrasting colour (eg, purple is the opposite of yellow, blue is the opposite of orange, red is the opposite of green). Using black or greys will make your image look flat and lifeless as these colours rarely occur in real life.

The right canvas:

Something I tell people a lot, because no one ever told me and it’s something I’ve found indespensible now I know, is to always use the right paper for the right job. For mediums such as paint (acrylic to watercolour), pastels, coloured pencils, they will never look good on the wrong paper. These are high demand mediums, and need the paper to match. Coloured pencil needs a thick paper with what is called “tooth”. This means the surface is slightly rough, to take the colour well. Otherwise the waxy pencils will just slide over the top, not leaving a smooth shading of colour. It doesn’t have to be textured as such, but some tooth is generally needed. Water colours generally use a LOT of water while painting. If the paper is too thin or weak, it will tear apart, buckle and become a mess. Using a proper watercolour paper, particularly a 100% cotton paper of a heavy GSM (thickness) will greatly improve the potential of the watercolour, allowing you to use more water, more layers and more interesting techniques. Think of it this way- have you ever tried to wash a stain out of cotton? Works ok right? How about out of a sheet of paper? It will fall to bits. When you use cotton paper the watercolour is much easier to manipulate. It blends effortlessly, and you can even lift paint back off by gently scrubbing the paper with a brush if you accidently get it wrong without worrying about damaging the paper too much, unlike normal papers.

The paper I use, which I think is a great multi-purpose paper, is Arches 300gsm smooth cotton watercolour paper.

Practice, practice, PRACTICE:

Some people think that art appears magically, because they only see the finished product. They don’t see the hours and hours of painting and drawing involved. And more importantly, the YEARS of practice that have come before. It is like the story that talks about a lady that sees Picasso in a coffee shop. She asks him for a portrait of her, and he quickly draws a portrait of her in five minutes and hands it to her, and demands $5000 for it. She complains, “But it only took you five minutes”. He replies, “No, it took me 40 years.”.
A lot of younger artists get frustrated with their skill level, and think they will never reach the level of the artists who are their idols. But consider that many of these artists have been painting for decades. And not just a painting every few months, but practicing every single day.
The point of this is that excellent artists ARE excellent because they work hard at it. They draw and paint all the time. They read books and take classes. They push their boundaries and paint things that will challenge them to learn more. Maybe there is a little talent there to start with, but like anything else it’s the time and effort you put in that counts. If you want to draw and paint well, practice, practice, practice! If you think you can’t draw faces, then just keep drawing them until they are right! Don’t give up or avoid doing something because you think you can’t. You will probably suprise yourself when you try. You will find that if you spend some time every day, or at least every week, your art will improve so quickly right in front of your eyes!

Mixing Mediums:

Every different art medium (a medium is what you paint or draw with, like watercolour, pencil, charcoal, etc) has it’s own special properties, abilities and downfalls. Using just one pure medium per artwork can create amazing results when you work with the mediums own special potential, however, sometimes, you want the best of all worlds. And using mixed mediums is a great way to get interesting results using two, three, or more mediums in the one artwork.
For example, watercolours beauty lies in it’s spontenaety. How you can use the way it moves almost of it’s own design through the water and the paper, creating interesting textures and effects. Many techniques like salting only work best with watercolour. However, it has some downfalls as well, such as it is difficult to create more darker, richer colours, and you can easily overwork the paint making it muddy and ruining smooth washes.
Acrylic paints, on the other hand, can be used to create very dark, rich, detailed paintings. But it doesn’t work as well for washes or special textures and effects that watercolour does. So why not get the best of both worlds and use both mediums in the same artwork? For example, you could create a background wash with salting effects in watercolour, but paint the figure or object of the painting in acrylics. When used in certain ways, you can paint acrylic over watercolour or watercolour over acrylic (more difficult). You may then want to go further, and use coloured pencils to do more detailed work over that, or an opaque gouche paint. Sometimes I use a little pastel over the top of my paintings and smudge it in for smooth glows or mists.
What mediums you use and how you use them depends on the result you want to get, and also how the mediums interact with each other. Much of this takes practice in the different mediums to understand their properties well before putting them together. My best advice is to just experiment and go with it!

Fear of losing your wonderful sketch:

I’ve been there. You’ve sketched up a stunning concept and you love it. But you’re terrified to paint it in case you stuff it up and that’s it, gone for good! But why does it have to be that way? We should be free to experiment and have a go at our painting without that fear. If we stuff up, we should be able to just have another go, and if you prepare well, you can.

For almost all my paintings now, I scan my sketch in before painting it. Often, I’ll sketch in my sketch book, which I couldn’t paint in anyway because the paper quality isn’t right for it, then scan the sketch into my computer from there. After that, I have the sketch available for as many tries as I need to get the painting right. I will then print the sketch out lightly onto my painting paper using my large format, waterfast printer. I’m lucky I have that available. If you don’t, you can stick to painting at letter size and use a home inkjet (just be aware if the ink isn’t water fast, you may need to use a fixative of something else to stop the sketch washing away). Otherwise, and this is a bit more work, you can print the sketch out on a few pieces of plain letter paper to be stuck together into a larger sheet and trace the sketch onto your painting surface. It’s not as ideal as printing the sketch directly, but still saves your original sketch and lets you have as many goes as needed to get the painting right.