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Unlock the Power of Your Pencils: A Guide to Drawing With Graphite

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by Darrel Tank

Graphite drawing pencils come in so many different grades that it can be hard for a beginning artist to remember what each pencil grade indicates. Fortunately, graphite pencils are universally coded, making them easier to identify.

The makeup of graphite art pencils is a combination of graphite and clay, usually in a cylindrical wooden case. The percentage of clay versus graphite in the mixture determines the grade of the graphite lead. Harder lead pencils are marked with an "H" to denote a mixture containing more clay than graphite. Pencils containing more graphite than clay are marked with a "B" to indicate the black values that are possible due to the softer lead. The HB pencil is in the middle and has equal amounts of clay and graphite.

You can use a harder lead, such as a 4H, to draw the lightest outlines and the most subtle gradations and then use a softer leads, such as a 4B, for the darkest darkest part of a shadow in your drawings.

There are nearly 20 different grades of graphite pencil, each producing a different range of value. However, I’ve developed what I like to call the 5-Pencil Method, which requires only five pencil values to accomplish nearly any drawing project. These pencil grades will provide you with the full range of value you will need for realistic portraits and drawings—without compromising the quality and texture of your paper.

The 5-Pencil Method uses the 4H, 2H, HB, 2B, and 4B, layering them one on top of the other until the intended value is reached. I’ve found this method to be incredibly helpful when working to create smooth, realistic textures and skin tones in my drawings. By slowly building up values in layers, I manage to stay in control at all times. And even if I do add too much value or make a mistake, I have the ability to remove it easily with a kneaded eraser. 

But there’s more to it than just which pencils you use! Here are three tips for adjusting your stroke, the taper of your lines, and the pressure you apply to your pencil, which will come in handy as you develop your drawing skills.

Stroke

Place the heel of your hand firmly on the drawing surface and hold your pencil at about a 35-degree angle. Your pencil should lightly sweep onto the surface of the paper as you make your stroke. It should land like an airplane and then sweep back off the surface, leaving a gentle transition of values. 

The stroke should only pull in one direction—toward you—as the point of your pencil just grazes the surface of the paper. Be sure to adjust your drawing to accommodate your stroke rather than changing your stroke to accommodate your drawing. To do this, rotate your paper to take advantage of the natural curve and angle of your stroke. This will also help you see the angles and shapes that are so important for creating correct proportions.

Taper

Make sure that the slightly curved and contoured line you make with your stroke has a taper at both ends. This means that the line should be thinner and lighter at the beginning and end of your stroke, with a gradual increase in value at the center as your pencil makes full contact with the drawing surface. This will allow you to seamlessly extend lines of the same value, as tapered end overlaps tapered end. The taper is important to tackle, because it will make it much easier to build up your value without creating “joints,” as the tapered strokes overlap and you will avoid many of the unsightly lines that detract from the realistic quality of your rendering.

Pressure

Instead of applying more pressure to your pencils to make darker lines and values, you should add stroke on top of stroke to gradually build them up. The more pressure you add with a hard (or soft) pencil, the more you increase the possibility of scoring or damaging your paper and the harder it becomes to remove (erase) your mistakes or make modifications.

You can click on the video below to see these principles in action!

So let’s recap:

  • Although there are many different pencil grade options, you can draw just about anything using only five pencils with the right touch and technique.
  • The pencil lineup starts with the 4H (the hardest pencil and one with the highest clay content), and I recommend that you end with the 4B (a much softer pencil that contains less clay and more graphite).
  • Build up value by gradually layering your pencils; you don’t need to press harder to get darker lines. By increasing the pressure of your stroke, you increase the risk of damaging your paper and making it harder to remove mistakes.
  • Taper the ends of your strokes to allow you to connect and extend future strokes seamlessly.
  • Drawing should be fun, so enjoy it!

I hope this helps. Have fun drawing!

Darrel Tank has helped thousands of students learn to draw realistically with his unique 5-Pencil Method. You can learn more about his drawing method and receive free drawing lessons at www.fivepencilmethod.com

Photo Credit: Flickr/Shawn Campbell

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