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Eraser use preferred

“Portrait of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child”
Gustave Courbet
Graphite on paper             1841

Why am I covering the use of graphite as a painting medium?  I have heard frequently the phrase, “If you can draw you can paint”. There is some truth to this because painting requires more technical experience but it is not much different than drawing with a brush.   In many cases with art, personal technique and preferences create strong opinions as well as varied disciplines. Although pencil drawing traditionally has been used only for studies and preliminary sketches, my objective with this article is to eventually demonstrate how rewarding the medium of graphite can be for you as a finished work of art.

Just in case you may have wondered how pencils are made you should visit General Pencil Company for their online tour. Pencils are manufactured in a wide range of harnesses determined by their clay to graphite ratio to create differing tonal values. Pencils vary in hardness grades from 9H (the hardest) to, 9B (the softest). Soft graphite sticks are also available in 2B, 4B, and 6B grades (wood less pencils) and should always be part of your drawing board inventory. Some are also water-soluble which can be used with water to deepen the tonal qualities or create a watercolor wash effect. Graphite powder is also available and can be used in large areas to establish tonal values but, it is most widely used the pouncing  technique used to create a cartoon outline for fresco.

Although both forms of elemental carbon can be smudged, smeared, or erased and moved across your support similar to paint, some graphite may not mark as dark as charcoal. My appreciation for graphite stems from the precision and clarity that can be obtained where it tends to produce a more accurate drawing style within a relatively short amount of time in comparison to other mediums. Some find not being able to obtain deep blacks and  graphite’s shiny metallic appearance undesirable. However, some water soluble graphite pencils produce a deep black once they are daubed lightly with water and if a fixative is applied with a final satin or matte finish it will remove the shiny spots and create a uniform luster.

As usual, I  have a list of “do’s and don’ts” but not with out explanation.

  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Continue to wash them through out your drawing. Some people enjoy the use of their fingers to smudge and blend. Avoid this habit  and touching of the paper with your bare hands. Everyone’s hands will release oils as they perspire which in turn will pick up the small particles of graphite dust creating undesirable smudging and transfer the oil from your hands to the paper in the lighter areas making  your work appear “dirty”.
  • Develop a light hand. Don’t depend on the pressure you apply to affect the lightness and darkness of your drawing.  Learn to use the different harnesses in relation to their tonal qualities. Harder pencils produce lighter lines and the softer leads will make darker lines. Especially with the harder pencils, when more pressure is applied you may chance scratching or damaging the paper. If  you are attempting to create deeper blacks, consider using the water solubles sparingly instead.
  •  Don’t use cheap paper. Unless you are just doodling, don’t put all your time into a drawing on paper that won’t hold up to your techniques. For future reference and to observe how much you’ve progressed with your talent you should always keep a sketch book handy. They  come in a verity of sizes and stiles, in  glue bound or wire bound 60lb. paper and hold up well to pencil and colored pencil. However, they are intended primarily to be used for preliminary sketches of difficult subjects to render or to assist in you with determining composition. They are not recommended to use with inks or watercolor  because they cause the paper to buckle and bleed through. Keeping these sketches in a book will also turn out to become a convenient portfolio if you keep it clean and organized.

Daler-Rowney Simply Sketchbooks extra white 8 1/2 in. x 11 in. pad of 110

These sketchbooks are a great value and feature a durable black hard cover. Each book contains 110 sheets (220 pages) of creamy white 65 lb (100 gsm) paper. Pages are acid-free .

Materials Needed

Use a heavy weight hot pressed cotton paper  80 lb. or more for your finished pieces. Hot pressed paper generally has the smoother texture associated with drawing paper. The heavier the weight of the paper the more it can withstand the abuse of erasers, blenders and tortillons, and water sometimes necessary to create the image. Illustration board is also an excellent choice for larger pieces since it is usually available in 30×40 sheets. It also works well for mixed media.

Drawing Board
You will have to have some form of support beneath your paper.  This is to assist holding the paper if you re using an easel. It is best to use  a board which has a non porous or smooth textured surface such as a laminated board (like draftsmen use), masonite , or even Plexiglas. I have found the most effective way to to do this is to set up your work similar to watercolor without wetting the paper. I generally tape the paper around the parameter to create a clean edge and to ease handling the work once completed.

You will almost always find a time when a fine straight line makes a serious improvement in the overall appearance of your work. They are also an effective means to scale an image if you are working from a photo. If your work requires this, avoid wood and plastic as they tend to get nicked progressively and this will appear on your work. All of my rules are constructed of either aluminum or stainless steel.

Drawing Malh Bridge
As  previously explained keeping a clean canvas is essential to creating an appreciable drawing. A drawing bridge is a slab (preferably 1/2″ Plexiglas) held over your work and used as a hand rest to prevent you from resting your hand on the paper. A mahl stick is mostly used when painting for the same reasons as well as to help the artist maintain a steady hand without touching the canvas but is still effective when drawing especially if you will be doing your work in the upright position on an easel.  These can be easily made if you prefer not to buy one. It is not recommended using a piece of paper to rest your hand on. While moving the paper around your work you might defeat the purpose you were using it in the first place.

Graphite Drawing Pencils
Purchased in different hardness’s to vary the darkness of your strokes. You may also want to have a set of Water Soluble Graphite Pencils to create some terrific blending and line techniques.

Charcoal Pencils
Supplied in different hardness’ comparable to graphite, charcoal is generally used by some in dry media to express the deep dark tonal values. Since the development and versatility of water soluble pencils though, many artist have switched in favor of them.

Powdered Graphite or Charcoal
Used to smug or brush on to create special effect or tone a background.

Conté Sketching Pencils or Crayons
Produced from a blend of compressed  clay and pigments, the conté crayon is good for two or three color renderings and responds well to blending of tonal values.  It is available as a raw stick or as a  pencil  in the three hardness grades of soft, medium, or hard and in the colors of  black, white, sanguine, and sepia.

Paper Blending Stumps &Tortillons
By rubbing  graphite particles with a stump the artist is able to blend shadows and light tones or create different blending textures by smearing the line with this a tightly rolled piece of soft paper or chamois.  These paper sticks are available in  different sizes and have points on both ends.

Other Blending Materials
The materials you use will make a difference in the blending effects you are trying to make. It  is a good idea to experiment with various materials such as  paper,  tissue, chamois,  felt,  or  sponge to achieve your desired results. Watercolor brushes are also an effective option if you are using a water soluble pencil.

The major types of erasers include: Kneaded , Gum  and Pink Rubber as well as, White Vinyl and Pink Rubber  pencils used to remove fine lines. The kneaded is something  like a pliable ball of clay  which can be ‘kneaded’ into any shape to use for touch-ups or highlighting and cleans itself when ever it is kneaded.  Electric eraser pencils are also a great tool to use with fine highlighting areas. Gum erasers are soft and easy on  your paper but leave allot of particles in the process. Erasers at times come as an extreme benefit to an an artist for highlighting, blending smearing and removal. However, in some cases are too abrasive and they can wear away the paper when you use them so, first off patience and discipline must be used when it comes to making the mark. Pink rubber erasers are more abrasive than the gum eraser with the same properties and work well with graphite pencils or sticks.  White vinyl erasers are less abrasive and respond well for use with highlighting and also work well  as blending tools. Experimenting before beginning a serious project is always best.

Soft Bristle Dust Brush and/or Hair Drier 
Rest assured you will need one.

Pencil Sharpener
A small piece of fine grain sand paper works well when you need a fine point after using the sharpener of course.

Spray workable fixative used sparingly allows you to continue to work on your piece after applied.  Be sure to spray it with adequate ventilation. Turpentine can be used with  graphite, charcoal, and conté and will dissolve the marks,  if you desire to create a watercolor effect. Use sparingly to avoid penetrating the paper.

Getting Started
The first consideration to make is to determine a plan unless you are  intentionally sketching and in acceptance of experimental results. Picture your image as you expect it  to look. With your image in your mind analyze the details such as;

  • Tonals – will your mood cast from an evening background or in the brightness of full sunlight?
  • Contrast – are your shadowing lines crisp with hard contrast or blended softly?
  • Texture – what would be the best way to depict the detail of the objects in your work or better yet, what interested you about the subject in the first place?
  • Blending technique – do you see hard stroke lines, are your lines softened, or are you using a combination of both?
  • Uniformity – or style of your stroke. The most frequent used are when the strokes are all running in the same direction,  the cross hatch method, and using a series of circles. Not much different than a painting,  your stroke style and blending technique should be uniform though out the piece.

I’ve been progressively working on a portrait capturing images in stages to show how to create realistic drawings with graphite. You will find these when posted within my WIP pages.

Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see.”.. Edgar Degas

Links about the use of graphite

Derwent Cumberland Pencil Co.

Drawing Tutorials by Mike Sibley

You Can Draw   Secrets to Drawing Faces And Caricatures

For All Things Colored Pencil – Ann Kullberg


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