Monday, September 25, 2017

Muddling Through Graphite

9/21/17 graphite on Canson bristol (photo reference)

I’ve had two sessions in graphite drawing so far, and it feels like slogging through mud. I thought it would be similar to everything I learned in my colored pencil class, with the only difference being an adjustment to monochrome. In fact, graphite is a very different animal.

I mentioned last time that I learned immediately how much grades can vary from brand to brand. In general, Japanese Tombow and Mitsubishi Hi-Uni are much softer, grade for grade, than Staedtler and Faber-Castell (I’m having déjà vu of when I discovered years ago that Japanese fountain pen nibs tend to be finer than their western counterparts). Learning something new each time I pick up a pencil is daunting. And as much as I love my Hi-Unis in the velvety softer grades, I’m not so sure about the harder ones. My instructor uses Staedtler exclusively, but I’m not sold on those, either. For now, I’m using a somewhat haphazard mix of both Japanese brands plus Staedtler to see which I like working with. (This is where it pays off to hoard lots of different types of pencils! I bought a few new Staedtlers in the harder grades, but other than those, I already owned everything I’m using in class so far.)

Another basic principle I’m learning is that, in general, graphite grades must be applied from one grade to the next to build value without skipping grades. For example, if I’m beginning to work on an area of medium tone, I can’t begin with a B or 2B or some other soft grade that I think will match the value. If I do, that first soft grade will expose too much of the paper’s texture, which will be much more difficult to cover later. So I have to start with a much harder grade to initially cover the tooth, then move up one grade, then another, until I eventually get to the value I want. In other words, value is built in two ways simultaneously: Each softer grade darkens the value, and each additional layer of graphite also darkens the value. (Edited 9/30: I expand on this more completely in my Sept. 30 post.

The gradual building of hue and value with multiple layers of colored pencil is similar to graphite, but with colored pencil I dont have to worry about the grade – only the hue. Who would have thought monochrome would be more complex than color, at least in this respect? 

Shown above is my work in progress (I think – not sure if it’s done); below is my source photo.

Reference photo by Suzanne Brooker


  1. Doesn't some of the complexity you're seeing come from your choice to use multiple pencil grades to provide value? Not saying it's wrong but identifying this as the cause can help.

    With colored pencils you build tone by repeatedly using a soft pencil to build that tone, with fewer layers generating a lighter tone and more layers a darker tone. And, just like graphite there's a finite 'darkest' and 'lightest' you can get from any pencil. But a skilled pencil artist can take a 2B pencil and achieve the tonal range you have in your sketch.

    Have you watched the 5-pencil method guy on YouTube? More detailed than you're after but the videos where he outlines his method may prove useful to you.

    1. Eventually I would like to get to the point where I could use only one or two grades and still achieve any value I want. But for now I'm just following instructions. ;-) My instructor has us start with 2H and go from there with almost every tone.

  2. Sounds like a long process to get the correct value. Good for you for keeping after this.

  3. Hi Tina,

    There are many different ways to approach drawing with graphite. I'm not a fan of the harder pencil to softer pencil method because it makes things more complicated than they need to be. Also, hard pencils "etch" lines into your paper if you press too hard with them and then you can't get rid of them. You could probably do everything with a B/2B, 4B, and 6/8B. Or even just a 2B or 4B.

    In the drawing above, I think you should push your darks way more. I don't see enough contrast between dark and light. If you don't want to experiment on what you've got, make a photocopy (or several) and experiment on them.

    YMMV, of course. :)

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Janine! For now, I'm following my instructor's methods, and we'll see where I go with them! Or not. ;-)

      - Tina

  4. It seems a medium that requires lots of patience to get to the right value!


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