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Many artists use graphite to create preliminary sketches for paintings or artwork in other media. But you can also sketch with graphite for its own sake. And, if you learn a few advanced techniques, your graphite pencil sketching can go from rough and preliminary to refined.
But first, the basics! What are graphite pencils? What can you draw with graphite? And what supplies do you need to draw with this media? Read on to find out and check out some inspiring examples that prove graphite is definitely not boring!
Graphite is a material made from crystallized carbon mixed with wax. It makes a mark when pressed or rubbed onto and dragged over paper or another surface. It’s usually encased within wood to create a pencil—in fact, what you think of as a regular, standard-issue pencil is made from graphite. Graphite always produces a silver-gray color, but it can range from light gray when rubbed lightly to almost black when pressed harder.
Graphite drawing is, essentially, drawing with graphite pencils rather than colored pencils. Blending is usually done with an eraser or a tool like a tortillon or stump to blur individual lines and create gradations and soft shadows.
Sketch Pencils vs. Graphite Drawing Pencils
Sketch pencils and graphite drawing pencils are often the same thing. However, “sketch pencil” may refer to any kind of pencil that you sketch with, including colored pencils that aren’t made from graphite. Graphite pencils always make a silver-gray mark.
You can’t do graphite drawing without graphite! This usually comes in the form of a pencil. Graphite pencils range from very soft (B) to very hard (H). In the middle is HB, which you’ll usually see on a regular pencil. This means it’s hard enough to write and sketch with but not too soft that it smudges easily. HB pencils are fine for some kinds of drawing, but if you want to create shadows and sharp lines, you’ll need a wider set. B9 is the softest and darkest kind of graphite pencil, and H9 is the hardest.
Many standard sketching pencil sets come with 6H, 4H, 2H, HB, 2B, 4B, and 6B, and some include the full range. The best graphite drawing pencils are high-quality and provide enough range of color and texture for your project.
While graphite sketching pencils most often come in the form of wooden pencils that you sharpen with a pencil sharpener or craft knife, you can also get mechanical pencils (the plastic or metal kind with very fine, replaceable leads) for drawing. These are best for creating sharp lines because the leads are finer, although you can get very soft mechanical pencil leads.
Smooth paper is the best paper for graphite drawing. Higher quality paper will generally withstand scratching and rubbing better than cheaper, lower quality paper.
Bottles of powdered graphite are sold in hardware stores as a general-purpose lubricant. You can use powdered graphite in drawings to create a hazy, smudged look over a larger area without the fine directional lines that pencils tend to leave. To use it, dab an old paintbrush into the powdered graphite, and then apply it on paper. (Note: It’s toxic when breathed in, so avoid making large clouds of graphite dust—and wear a mask if you’re using it for an extended amount of time.)
Other tools you’ll need or want when drawing with graphite are:
- Pencil sharpener
- Erasers: Kneaded erasers made from modeling clay are ideal for blending, but you can also use regular stick erasers for general erasing.
- Spray fixative: Particularly when you’re working with soft B pencils, fixing spray will keep your finished drawing from smudging further.
- Tortillons/stumps: These coiled rolls of paper look a bit like a pencil, with a tapered end. They’re used for smudging and blending your graphite drawing.
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Realistic Graphite Drawings
Graphite is an ideal medium for creating realistic-looking drawings because it can be blended, softened, and darkened where necessary.
Charcoal and Graphite Drawings
Charcoal is blacker than graphite and can be used alongside it for darker, smudgier effects. Take care, though, because charcoal is potentially messier than graphite!
Many beginner graphite drawing classes will have you practice drawing a sphere, as this is an ideal way to learn about shading and blending.
Reverse drawing is the process of covering the paper in dark pigment (graphite and/or charcoal, in this case), then lifting parts with an eraser to create your image.
Blending graphite and charcoal in a drawing is a good way to make the most of the qualities of each medium: Sketch with graphite and then fill in the darkest shapes and shades with charcoal.
Graphite Drawing Techniques
Use an eraser to lighten darker patches, create tone, and give the impression of light and shine.
One way of shading when drawing with graphic pencils is to draw little spirals close together, called the circulism technique. You can smudge them further with a tortillon later.
Powdered graphite can be used with a brush to create subtle, smudged effects that are harder to create with graphite pencil.
Graphite Drawing Tips
Follow these tips to create next-level drawings.
To create a realistic drawing, you’ll want to ensure you get the proportions right. To sketch from a reference photo or image, draw a grid in pencil over the reference picture and another on your blank paper. This will make it easier to copy the components to the correct size and place on the page. Erase the grid once you’ve finished.
An alternative to using a grid is to use the transfer method, either with carbon paper or your own homemade carbon paper. Place the carbon paper between the reference picture and the blank paper, and carefully draw over the reference picture to transfer the main lines and shapes onto your paper. Skillshare drawing instructor Matheus Macedo teaches how to do this with your own version of carbon paper.
Of course, you don’t have to use realistic reference photos when sketching with graphite if you don’t want to. Skillshare instructor Faith Newman teaches a class on drawing an illustration from a prompt. (The prompt she uses here is “herbal remedies”!)
Now you’ve seen the potential of graphite pencil, we hope you agree that it’s much more than just a basic tool for jotting notes or sketching rough outlines! Whether you’re drawing from your imagination or want to realistically recreate a scene from a reference photo, graphic pencils and graphic powder are up to the task. Have fun experimenting and trying out some new techniques.
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