Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Material Study of Graphite on Paper
I love using pencil. Just me and a stick of graphite. I’m a persistent scribbler but at times I wish I could slow down and capture a bit more. The other day I overheard the artist Michelle Grant talking to a student about using different grades of pencils to achieve different effects and it was very interesting, so I asked her to write down her thoughts. Below is what she came up with. I especially love the idea of a marriage between the type of pencil and the paper you're using…
Depicting Reality by Michelle Grant
Aspiring pencil artists often ask me how I achieve such a ‘photographic' look to my drawings. It took only about a million studio hours drawing still life's and nudes to gain a keen understanding of how light, dark and edges depict form, but there are some important things I can share which will get your drawing on the right track.
We could discuss the many ways to create different styles in drawings but for simplicity's sake I'm going to focus on photographic realism. This style requires many hours painfully hunkered over the table, constantly adjusting the full range of values and edges to convey reality. Your drawing will improve with experience but it helps to know where to begin. The first thing an artist needs is an understanding of the necessary materials.
Paper:To achieve a tightly rendered drawing, you have to choose the correct surface. I have used many papers over the years and have had great success with Strathmore papers. I particularly enjoy the Bristol line. They produce a lovely 400 series paper that is quite smooth and heavy in weight. It is a good utilitarian paper that I frequently used in the past until I fell in love with the Strathmore 500 Smooth Plate Finish, which is more of a board than a sheet of paper. It is 100% cotton, super smooth, and great for detail work, but it can be a little time consuming to build up the darks quickly. It was my favourite surface for a very long time but I have since moved on to the magical Mellotex. A UK product which Swinton's brings in exclusively. It is a lightweight paper (only 90lb), so it requires some care to prevent creases. It is incredibly smooth, and yet it grabs the graphite with gusto. It is a very forgiving paper, putting up with blending, erasing and general abuse. It is virtuous white and acid-free.
Pencils: Tools of the trade! My personal favourites are the blue Staedtler pencils. They have a broad range of degrees, all the way from 8B to 8H. It is important to understand how the different pencils behave when considering how to lay down the values.
Technique: Start with the darks, primarily the darkest of the B series you are choosing for your piece. The higher the number, the darker and softer it is (eg. 2B-6B get progressively softer and darker). The reason for this, is the B series leads have larger graphite molecules and less of the binding clay. As a result, you cover more surface with graphite and the remaining small bits of white paper show through the binding clay. The harder/lighter H series pencils, exhibit less graphite concentration and higher clay. If you lay down a harder lead first, you are effectively covering the paper with a slick surface of clay, which will NOT willingly grab any graphite. It will repel it like water on a duck.
It is far more effective to work lighter/harder pencils into the darker/softer ones. The smaller H series graphite molecules fit nicely between the bold B series chunks of graphite, allowing for subtle visual blending. So lay down your darks first and then get progressively lighter with harder pencils as you work through the piece. Don’t worry about being too rigid with these ‘rules’... remember, rules can be broken in the act of creation.
Blending stumps are great for pushing graphite around to quickly cover the whiteness of your paper, giving a smooth overall tone. Then you can go into this and create textures with either pencil marks, or pull out highlights with an eraser or kneaded eraser. An Erasing Shield is essential when using an eraser. A great tool that allows vigorous erasing to specific areas without compromising hard won rendered areas.
Craftsmanship is of most importance. Why put half a lifetime into a piece, only to have distracting smudges everywhere? I always use a sheet of tracing paper to protect areas I am not working on, to prevent the oils of my hands from greasing it up. Graphite LOVES grease! Once there is a greasy smudge on your paper, there is little hope of salvaging it.
One of my favourite pencil artists is Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt! I love Shoofly’s combination of mark making, values and edges. Combined with his technical skills, his astute personal connection with the subject matter makes for a visual feast.