Drawing with pencil is an accessible method of creating artwork at any skill level. It requires minimal materials, and even beginners have a strong grasp of how to use this medium.
Best drawing pencils and supplies
While pencils don’t make the artist, being armed with the best equipment sets you up for drawing success.
What do the numbers on pencils mean?
Graphite pencils come in various degrees of hardness, from 9H (the hardest) to 9B (the softest). H stands for hardness and B for blackness, so a 9H pencil will be very hard and light, and a 9B pencil will be very soft and black.
Harder pencils are sharp and can be used for details. They’re easier to erase but more difficult to blend. You can use them for very light shading, but it would be difficult to shade a large area with a hard pencil.
Soft pencils are great for shading the darks and the middle tones. The most common medium soft graphite pencils are 2B pencils, which are usually used for general outlines and sketching.
Which pencil should you choose?
Though pricier, the Faber-Castell 9000 Graphite Pencils also come in sets of different grades of hardness and have superior black, break-resistant leads.
For a pencil that can create both broad strokes and precise lines, go with Cretacolor’s Monolith woodless pencil (included in this Cretacolor Silver Box Graphite Drawing Set). These pencils have a protective lacquer coating, are easy to sharpen and range in hardness from HB (medium) to 9B (extra soft).
Try to get a wide array of tones on your drawing ranging from very light to very dark. A true black is difficult to obtain with graphite because when the paper is saturated with graphite, it will glare. You can use charcoal in your pencil drawings to obtain a real black.
Beyond pencils, make sure you have these supplies handy
Invest in an eraser. Even if your pencil has an eraser on the end, it will be worn down in no time. A soft gum eraser or a “big pink” eraser (like a pencil eraser but larger) are both good choices, and typically retail for $1 or less.
If you’re just getting started with pencil drawing, you probably don’t want to be drawing on expensive paper from the get-go. It’s a good idea to invest in two types of paper: sketch paper, which is cheap and ideal for testing out ideas and refining pencil techniques; and higher-quality archival drawing paper, which is thicker and has a gentle “tooth” ideal for graphite, for when you’re ready to work on a final piece.
Get yourself a good pencil sharpener. A great choice for beginners is a manual pencil sharpener with two openings. Each cavity is suitable for sharpening the pencil to a different type of tip; this means that every pencil can be sharpened to multiple points, making one more versatile.
Essential pencil drawing techniques to try
Hatching is simply drawing parallel lines to fill a space with value. This is one of the most common forms of shading and mark making.
Crosshatching is simply two directions of hatching layered atop one another. The more strokes you layer, the finer and darker the area is going to be.
3. Soft shading
This involves is applying the pigment using the side of a pencil tip. Such soft shading is necessary around the highlights for a realistic appearance.
4. Varied outline
Some artists produce energetic, rough lines, while others make deliberate, careful contours. The quality of the line determines how interesting your subject looks.
5. Zig-zag lines
These come in handy when you draw uneven surfaces, like a leafy bush or a tree.
This technique is a very time-consuming type of shading, but it’s sometimes necessary to describe a specific texture. Some artists have the patience to do a complete drawing using the dots only. The more dots you place, the darker the value is — the fewer dots create a lighter value. By varying the strength, size, and number of dots, you can make a range of values in a picture.
7. Crosshatching over a raised surface
For this approach, you’re only creating texture in a particular area. The type of paper you select (rough, with a bit of a tooth) is important.
8. Lifting highlights with a kneaded eraser
A kneaded eraser very effectively removes graphite from the page, allowing you to define highlights in your work.
9. Lifting highlights with a gum eraser
A gum eraser removes less pigment than a kneaded eraser, so you can produce depth.
1o. Masking fluid
Apply a masking fluid to your paper before drawing; the masking fluid will essentially block your graphite from reaching the paper. Then you can remove the masking fluid to reveal clean paper around your shading
Produce unique textures by placing the paper over an object and rubbing your pencil back and forth.
12. Impressing the surface
Use a sharp tool to make small indentations in your paper; when you draw over the area, the graphite will not reach the indented areas. This is a great method to make whiskers, blades of grass or to draw any other super fine lines.
13. Linear soft shading
To make the soft shading shown in #3, you would move your pencil in a circular motion. By moving it back and forth with a light touch, you create a slightly different texture.
14. Making waves
Use defining strokes to mimic the ocean.
Steps for creating a simple pencil drawingOnce you’ve practiced the various techniques and mark-making, you can implement them into a single drawing.
1. Sketch your subject
Every drawing begins with a sketch. There are three main methods for getting the sketch just right which all involve extrapolating the information in front of you and using only what’s necessary, to relate objects to one another, understand the linear perspective and develop accurate forms.
In the sight method, you’ll set up your drawing pad right next to the subject itself, so you can transfer the object to the paper at an accurate size by measuring your object with a pencil.
Comparative measurement involves seeing the ratios between the objects and using the negative space as a measuring device. For instance, an apple might be two times smaller than a vase placed next to it; a child could be three times shorter than an adult. In other words, you relate one object to the next by placing invisible comparative lines to demonstrate the relationships.
The negative space helps to find distances between the shapes. In the photo below, the negative space is the background around the cat, which helps you find the distances between the cat’s ears or toes.
The grid method is often used to enlarge the drawing for a mural painting or a large artwork. This old method involves dividing the drawing into equal squares. Then, you compare and transfer abstracted shapes from the squares to the enlarged surface. This technique helps to see the comparative relationships between the objects.
2. Block in and shade
To block in the subject, make a simplified division between the light and the dark parts of a composition. Observe the light, how it travels across the form and where it turns to shadow. Sketch in the shadows first, as you can see in the sketch above on the left.
3. Combine tones by blending them together
The blending of graphite works best with a paper stump or a small piece of sketch paper. Don’t rub the surface, however, because it ends up looking smudged. Strive for a nice and even application of pigment, which requires just a bit of blending. Blending tends to make all tones (values) look as the middle tone. Thus, it’s important to re-establish the darkest areas and to work on the highlights afterward.
Remember, keep your drawings clean
Graphite drawings can easily get messy, so it’s always a good idea to use something, like a sheet of paper under your hand, to avoid smudging your drawing. You can also try to work from left to right if you are right-handed or right to left if you are left-handed to minimize the risk of having your hand going over an already drawn area.
Even if you just washed your hands, there is always a tiny residue of oil on your skin that might go onto the paper and make the graphite more difficult to remove. For that reason, you might want to avoid blending with your finger. Experiment with different materials — tissue paper or cotton swabs works well for that purpose as well as stumps. Don’t throw away your stumps when they are dirty, as they can be used to apply a light layer of graphite.