The Pencils, Papers, and Erasers You Need to Start Drawing
Artists Ian Sidaway and Susie Hodge share fundamental drawing techniques and exercises in their new book, How to Draw: A Comprehensive Drawing Course: Still Life, Landscapes, Buildings, People, and Portraits. Below, we share an excerpt from the book’s overview of art materials and tools for getting started and growing your drawing practice.
The materials needed to begin drawing are simple: a tool with which to make a mark and a sheet of paper on which to make it. Pencils and paper are the starting materials for most people.
As you grow as an artist, you will soon find that you want to try out different techniques and new materials. Despite many technological advances, artists’ materials have changed little over the centuries. Nowadays, most materials are easier to use and there is a wider range of pigments available, but essentially, the way we use them remains virtually unchanged.
Fortunately, most drawing materials are relatively inexpensive and capable of producing many drawings before they need to be replaced. It is recommended that to avoid unnecessary expense and disappointment, buy moderately at first. Begin with a medium that appeals to you and phase in others gradually as you feel the need to broaden your range and refresh your approach.
The “lead” pencil is familiar to everyone, however, it is not and never was made from lead but from graphite, a type of carbon that is mixed with clay and baked. Graphite pencils are best sharpened using a sharp craft knife rather than a pencil sharpener. They are graded from hard (H) to soft (B). 9H is the hardest whereas 9B is the softest, with F (for fine) and HB in the middle range. H pencils (2H, 3H, and 4K; they progressively become harder) are good for clear-cut, light lines, but will scratch into the surface of your paper, so B pencils are better for softer, tonal work.
Each grade of pencil will only produce a tone of a given darkness and no amount of pressure will make that tone darker. If you require a darker tone, you will need to switch to a softer grade of pencil. Soft pencils will give a greater range of tones than hard pencils and can be erased without leaving an indent should you make a mistake. It is for this reason that most drawings are made using a pencil which is HB or softer. Aim to use a 2B or 3B to start your drawing and switch to a softer—or blacker—pencil, such as a 6B or a 9B, for deeper tones.
Most mechanical pencils, also known as clutch or propelling pencils, are good for precision work, but the softest grades are not easy to find.
Pastel pencils are made from a strip of hard pastel secured in a wooden barrel. Avoid dropping them since the soft pigment strip breaks easily. These pencils are harder than soft pastels and look like colored pencils, although they have a scratchier, chalkier feel. They are good for detailed line work, as well as shading, as they are non-waxy and can be blended well.
The mark made with a pastel pencil is not permanent and will need to be sprayed with a fixative (see more on fixatives below). These pencils are very easy to work with. There is a wide variety of strong colors available. They are perfect not only for finished drawings, but also for quick sketches and are especially effective when used on a colored paper.
Colored pencils are made in much the same way as graphite pencils. The pigment is mixed with a clay filler and a binder. Wax is added to act as a lubricant and help the pencil slide smoothly over the paper.
These are available in many different colors and forms, such as standard, water-soluble, and thick- and thin-leaded, and they vary in quality and softness. Unlike pastel pencils, colored pencils do not need to be sprayed with a fixative. Some colored pencils make sharp, definite lines, while others are softer and can be blended more easily. Layering colors will produce different shades and unexpected results can be achieved by using the same group of colors in different sequences, so it’s worth experimenting to find out the best order for a particular shade.
Conté Sticks, crayons, and pencils
Conté sticks, crayons, and pencils are natural pigments bound with gum Arabic. Conté sticks (also known as carré sticks) and hard chalks or pastels are ideal for making colored sketches. The most popular colors are earth tones—white, black, grays, browns, and rusts, such as sanguine (a reddish brown) and sepia—but they are also available in a wide range of other colors. They work particularly well on colored paper and can be used with other dry drawing media. While the pencils are more suitable for line work, the sticks can be used to block in larger areas of tone. They can be smudged and blended but are not easily erased.
A wide range of conté pencils are available in the traditional colors of black, white, sepia, sanguine, terra-cotta, and bistre (a grayish brown). Artists’ pencils resemble traditional graphite pencils but are also available with a rectangular profile. Some of the pencils have a wax content that enables them to be used without fixing, but other pencils are chalkier and will require fixative protection.
Charcoal sticks and pencils
These are essentially charred wood and are one of the oldest drawing materials. Made from carbonized wood (usually willow, but beech and vine can also be found), the sticks are graded as soft or hard and come in four thicknesses: thin, medium, thick, and extra thick sticks. (Extra-thick sticks are also known as “scene painters’ charcoal.”) Thin sticks work well for fur, feathers, and other fine detail, while block charcoal works well for large areas.
Compressed charcoal, also known as Siberian charcoal, is made into a pencil with either wooden or rolled paper barrels, and is cleaner to use than traditional stick charcoal. It is graded by hardness and density and can be found with both round and square profiles. They produce darker, sharper lines, which are difficult to smudge or blend.
Sharpen all charcoal by using a sharp utility knife or by using a fine-grade sandpaper. Charcoal dust sits delicately on the support surface and will need fixing to avoid being smudged.
Graphite sticks are a popular alternative to traditional pencils. They lack the wooden casing found in pencils and are basically a thicker version of the graphite strip found in the center or a pencil. Available in HB, 3B, 6B, and 9B grades, they have several advantages over the traditional wooden pencil. The barrel shape is round with some brands coated with a thin layer of plastic paint that is removed as the stick is used, which helps keep the fingers clean.
The shape of the stick means that as the stick is sharpened a large area of graphite is always exposed. This makes it possible to create not only fine lines—which can be made into very thick lines by altering the angle at which the stick comes into contact with the support—but also broad areas of flat tone. Like pencils, they are good for sketching and blending.
Shorter, thicker, hexagonal sticks are also available in a similar range of grades, as are smaller rectangular blocks. Both types of stick are best sharpened using a pencil sharpener or with fine-grade sandpaper. The resulting powder can be rubbed on to drawings to create areas of tone. Larger quantities of dust can be purchased from art stores.
As with traditional pencils, barrels that operate with a clutch mechanism can be found that hold thicker, softer-grade graphite strips. When using very soft, thin graphite sticks, take care when pressing hard as it snaps easily.
This is available as a hard stick for detail and fine marks, or as a soft pastel that can be blended more easily.
A very large range of pen options is available—so much so that it may seem a little overwhelming. Technical pens are convenient to use for fast sketches, but their nibs make unvarying marks. Fountain or cartridge pens, roller-ball, ballpoint, fineliners, and specialist art pens come with a wide range of nibs and can be used for both quick sketches and more detailed drawings. Ballpoint pens can be smooth and satisfying to use and are convenient for sketching. All pens can create fine, flowing lines, with smooth and subtle results.
Although there are so many pen types, most have the same drawback—the size or width of the line from a pen is fixed. It is important when using these pens to experiment in order to find what is or is not possible. The pens deliver essentially linear marks, and tone is only achieved through some form of hatching or cross-hatching. Some pens, however, use water-soluble inks making it possible to pull out tone from the line work by using water. Pens that use water-soluble inks are especially useful as it is possible to rewet areas to lighten the line work and pull out areas of tone.
Brushes and dip pens
The traditional tool for applying ink is a brush. For applying washes of ink or watercolor, good-quality sable brushes are best. They hold a large volume of liquid and, if looked after, keep their points well.
Dip pens are pen-holders with interchangeable, flexible metal nibs. Certain nibs only fit certain pen barrels, so try before you buy. You may sometimes find that a new nib is reluctant to hold ink, but rubbing a little saliva on to the nib can solve this. Pointed nibs are good for drawing the figure, although square, chiseled, and rounded nibs can all produce interesting results.
Alternatives to the steel nib are the traditional feather quill, bamboo pen, and reed pen. Quill pens made from goose feathers are a delight to use and give a wonderfully sympathetic and expressive line (though they will need to be periodically recut) . Pens cut from a length of bamboo will vary in size and thickness; they are durable and ideal for textural work. Reed pens are similar but the cut nib is brittle and tends to break; however, they are easily recut using a sharp craft knife.
Drawing inks, available in a range of colors, are either waterproof or water-soluble. Water-soluble inks are not as widely available as waterproof inks. Both inks can be blended with water to create tones, but whereas waterproof ink will dry fixed, water-soluble ink can be re-wetted and re-worked. Water-soluble inks enable the artist to soften line work.
Perhaps the best-known ink is India ink. This black ink is in fact from China and becomes a warm, deep sepia color when diluted with water. It’s waterproof and dries fast.
Sharpeners come in many different forms. A sharp craft or utility knife is best for sharpening wooden-barreled pencils, Conté chalks, and carré sticks. They allow you to sharpen the point of your medium to suit the type of work you are doing—such as long, short, or angled. They are also excellent for trimming dirty edges from erasers.
Pencil sharpeners make a neat point and are best for graphite sticks, but you need to ensure that the blade is always sharp before use. Fine sandpaper blocks are also a great option for keeping the points on graphite sticks in good order.
Erasers and stumps
Erasers are useful for rubbing out mistakes or for blending. Putty erasers, also known as kneaded erasers, are soft and malleable. They can be shaped to erase precise areas and for “lifting out” highlights in heavy tonal areas. A disadvantage to using putty erasers is that they get dirty quickly when used with charcoal, soft graphite, or carré sticks.
Harder plastic or vinyl erasers pick up less pigment and stay cleaner. They can be used on their edge to make crisp, incised lines in areas of deep tone; alternatively, use the sharp corners to make patterns and describe texture. They also remove stubborn pencil or graphite marks and small errors. Care must be taken when using hard erasers so as to not distress the support surface.
For blending charcoal, chalks, and pastel pencils, you may want to use a paper stump called a torchon or tortillon. This object is used to manipulate and blend loose pigment, pushing it into, and consolidating it on, the paper’s surface. As the stump becomes dirty, it can be cleaned by rubbing it with fine sandpaper.
Fixative is a resin that has been dissolved in a colorless spirit solvent. It prevents drawings made with pencil, charcoal, or other soft-pigment materials from being smudged. When sprayed on to a drawing, the spirit solvent evaporates and a thin coating of resin is left behind, which binds the pigment dust to the support. Once fixed, even an eraser cannot alter a drawing. It is possible, however, to work on top of a fixed drawing and it is common practice to fix a drawing periodically while it is being made. Fixative is best applied using a CFC-free aerosol, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Bottles with a hand-operated spray and a mouth-spray diffuser are also available.
Papers and supports
Certain papers work best with certain media so it pays to match the drawing implement to the support. There are three distinct paper surfaces.
Rough is, as the name suggests, a paper with a pitted, highly textured surface. It is best suited to bolder, expressive work using charcoal, chalks, pastel pencils, and soft graphite.
Papers with a very smooth surface are known as “hot pressed” due to the fact that when being made the drying sheet of pulp is passed through hot steel rollers. These papers are best suited to pen and ink work, wash drawings, and fine pencil work and are less satisfactory when used with softly pigmented drawing tools like charcoal and chalk. This is because the pigment dust needs a textured surface to cling to.
Papers with a medium textured surface are known as “cold pressed” or “NOT” (meaning not hot pressed). Papers in this group work well with most drawing materials and are perhaps the most widely used types of paper.
High-quality paper, usually labeled “acid-free,” is neutralized to counteract acidity and will not become brown or brittle. Cartridge (standard drawing) paper is the type of paper most often used for drawing. It can be white, cream, or colored and is available in various weights, sizes, and qualities. Watercolor paper is available in various weights and is good for all kinds of drawing.
Pastel paper comes in a range of tints and has a “tooth” or grain, which is designed to capture and hold the tiny particles of color. One side of the paper is usually textured, which is the side most people draw on, but you can use the other side if you prefer. Pastel paper comes in two weights; thicker paper can take heavier rubbing and reworking than lighter paper.
Paper can be purchased as loose, single sheets or in sketchbooks and pads. Single sheets enable you to try out several different papers and can be cut or torn to size. When drawing buildings on location, however, you will find using a sketchbook invaluable. They are made with paper of various surfaces, colors, and weights, and come in many sizes and bindings in both portrait and landscape formats. Pocket-sized books can be carried anywhere, but may be restrictive when you’re tackling larger subjects. Big sketchbooks are tiring to hold, but offer adaptable space, with the option of making several studies on one page.
Drawing boards and easels
If you are working on single sheets of paper, you will need to secure it to a drawing board. It might sound obvious, but make sure that the board is large enough for your paper and that its surface is smooth. Rather than use drawing pins to secure the paper to the board, invest in a couple of spring-loaded board clips. You can buy a purpose-made drawing board from a good art shop or use a sheet of plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard).
If using sketchbooks or paper secured to a board, it is not necessary to have an easel. However, if you find yourself working a lot in locations where it is difficult to find somewhere on which to rest a board, you may find it advantageous to invest in a portable sketching easel. Easels come in many sizes, so choose one that you can sit or stand at comfortably. Some easels fold away into a drawing case. The most important consideration here is stability. An easel must be strong enough to hold your drawing board but also to take the pressure and weight you apply as you work. A practical choice is an adjustable table easel or a lightweight sketching easel.