Category Archives: pencil/graphite/charcoal

black and white


Charcoal and white Conté pencil on Strathmore toned charcoal paper, roughly 15 x 10 inches.

The process for this drawing was a little different in that I started with an image in my head and then went in search of the subject, rather than starting with the reference then deciding to draw. I still need to draw from something I can see — I can invent forms and lighting from my imagination to some degree, but all the detailed forms and textures of the subject and the many unexpected quirks of the scene just don’t appear clearly in my mind’s eye. In fact I find it hard to visualise anything with any clarity in my imagination — it’s more like a fleeting collection of fragments. I can get a mood, an appearance, but not a solid image which I can transfer.

So I went out with my camera, hunting for withered leaves. The photo this is based on was full of strong russets and oranges, but I took it in to Photoshop to make it easier to see it in black and white. I used vine charcoal, charcoal pencil, charcoal dust rubbed with paper and white Conté pencil. It was tempting to use sanguine and bistre Conté crayons as their colours were similar to the original leaf, but I decided that monochrome would be less distracting. Even the white pencil clashed with the other tones and I had to fade it back with a kneaded eraser. Just as with paints, I find it useful to think of white as being on the blue side of the colour wheel, and to be aware that sometimes it can cool and deaden, as well as lighten, the warmer tones.

vine charcoal


Trying out vine charcoal and a PITT soft charcoal pencil on Strathmore toned paper, model courtesy of On Air Video.

Vine charcoal is so soft it will darken to pure black and as there are no waxy binders it will erase back to plain paper with a kneaded eraser making it unexpectedly versatile to play with. It can be also be lifted with a soft dry brush or a chamois leather. I haven’t tried the chamois yet though I’ve heard it’s good for the wipe out technique on a ground of charcoal dust. Charcoal paper has a tooth which holds on to the grains; smooth papers run the risk of the line disappearing into a cloud of black dust though there are beautiful and delicate drawings made on hot pressed paper.

The toned paper makes a satisfying mid tone, though the lightest light can only be the light grey of the paper (white chalk or pencil will be future experiments), so all the values are compressed into a small range and the success of the drawing is going to depend on whether I’ve pitched those halftones right. Some license can be taken with reflected light, but getting the values right is key, (along with anatomy, proportion, composition, gesture… ) — it’s like being addicted to spinning plates.

bare arms


An oil painting of a pencil copy of a drawing found in Risunok: Osnovy uchebnogo akademicheskogo risunka (Figure: Basic educational academic drawing) — a book full of beautiful drawings but with Russian text. I can’t read the words, but at least I can learn something from copying the drawings.

I’m trying to develop the ability to see things in terms of their three-dimensional form, as an object in space, as recommended by Robert Beverley Hale in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters. He suggests visualising forms in terms of very simple mass:

…the block, the cylinder, the sphere; occasionally the cone; as well as simple combinations and modifications of these forms, principally the egg.

When we wish to create the illusion of reality on the surface of a piece of paper or canvas, nothing is more helpful than the ability to visualise in terms of simple mass. Troublesome problems connected with general shape, proportion, direction, planes, detail, light and shade, and line can all be solved by thinking in terms of simple geometrical masses.

In this painting, many liberties were taken with the lighting, which was developed and invented from the original line drawing. For instance, the light catching the muscle in the top left coming from the shoulder blade is lit too strongly, but I liked it as a centre of interest. I took a picture of the half-finished painting into Photoshop to experiment with the background glow and highlights, and then used that mock-up as a guide for finishing the painting. And the anatomy has no doubt become distorted through the multiple copies (final year students of Medicine & Surgery take note). I recommend as a great site to learn how to visualise and draw anatomy.

This was also an exercise in developing a method of creating a final painting. I quite like this process of starting with a pencil drawing then transferring it to the canvas, or in this case the usual gessoed paper. A scan of the original pencil copy was enlarged to the final size and printed out on normal office paper. The back of the printout was rubbed with charcoal then taped in place and the outline traced with a red ballpoint pen (red ink makes it easier to see which parts have been traced). I found it helpful to trace not only the outlines but also areas of shade. With the charcoal transfer in place I could quickly build up a tonal underpainting. After that, the experiments could begin with building up layers of paint, blending (or deliberately not blending) the tiles of adjacent colour, making many mistakes, and trying to correct them.

basic values


Juliette Aristides talks about the importance of rendering accurate values in Lessons in Classical Drawing, an excellent book full of practical advice and illustrated with exquisite graphite and charcoal drawings. Of course there are many elements which go towards creating a successful drawing, but if the values don’t work the chances are the whole picture will fall. A white plaster cast takes local colour out of the equation and armed only with a pencil you’re left with the challenge of rendering the whole thing in values alone.

Some of the advice in the book is direct and practical. For instance, if your initial lay-in tends to become a dense dark mass of lines she advises to switch to a harder lead. It sounds so simple and obvious, but already I’ve seen how using a 2H instead of a 2B prevents an incoherent bird’s nest of lines forming before the sketch has really begun.

There is also much more subtle advice which only made sense when I was trying to make what I thought would be a simple drawing of a plaster face, such as paying close attention to the halftones, which can often seem invisible.

I was once invited by a friend to pick chanterelle mushrooms in a forest in the Northwest. When we arrived, all I saw were trees and a carpet of leaves. Yet after some time, my eyes acclimated. As I learned where to look, sure enough, there were mushrooms. Although I had walked through those woods many times, I had never seen half of what was there.

Halftones are a critical element for creating the appearance of believable volume yet, like the chanterelle, they are hidden in plain sight. They are everywhere, yet it often helps to have a guide to see them….

From Lessons in Classical Drawing by Juliette Aristides

skull shading


Trying out a clutch pencil and new graphite leads on Bristol board.

The advantage of using a clutch pencil is that there’s no need to whittle down a normal woodcase pencil to expose a long lead for shading on the flat side. It also stays a consistent weight and size in the hand as the lead wears down. I also like that it’s possible to get a more expressive line by using the side of the lead as well as the tip. The Staedtler range of leads seemed to get the thumbs-up in various online forums so I tried some of their Mars carbon 2B 2mm leads in a Koh-I-Noor lead holder (I prefer the weight and feel of the Koh-I-Noor compared to the Staedtler lead holders). Cult Pens had a special offer on a set of 6 Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils ranging from 6B to 2H, so they had to be added to the basket.

The Staedtler leads are buttery smooth, especially on the toothless Bristol board. The smooth board surface also means that any graphite can be easily taken back to white with a kneaded eraser. I had to tape down the Bristol board (which is more like thin card) as it was bought as a large sheet and had been stored rolled up in a tube. In the future I think I’ll opt for pads instead of loose sheets.

Drawn from a photo found on the internet, taken by Anastasia at the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, the perspective shows off the wide looping zygomatic process (the thin bone connecting the cheek bone to the side of the skull). As the skull is a museum exhibit I couldn’t tell if this bone structure was unusual or just natural individual variation.

I didn’t use a grid this time, but I found it helpful to lightly shade in the main dark shapes right at the beginning of the lay-in to check the general proportions rather than use outlines alone. With the shading, establishing the darkest darks early on made it easier to assess how light to make the other tones. I couldn’t decide on the background: Leaving it white would hide the shape of the top of the skull. I took a mock-up into Photoshop to play around with various background options and decided that a bit of tone around the right edge would emphasise the skull shape and cheekbone. After adding this light shading I tried to blend it into a smooth tone using a paper stump but just made a smudgy mess (I’m not sure why), and in the end used a hard 2H lead to lightly scumble the graphite around.

This is an example of the limitations of working from a photo. It would have been so useful to have examined the skull as a three dimensional object rather than try and work out the structure from patches of light and dark – the back of the jaw bone was especially hard to decipher. I’ll keep my eye out for a junk shop skull.



Bertrand Russell


Richard Feynman


Alex Salmond


Pan troglodytes


A copy of Derren Brown’s sketch of Maggie Smith


Maggie Smith


Tom Jones

Drawing portraits has been described as making a picture of someone where the eyes aren’t quite right and the nose is in the wrong place. Well, if I’m going to get it wrong, why not really get it wrong and turn the face in to a caricature: find the features which make a person recognisable and exaggerate them.

I was inspired by seeing Derren Brown’s preliminary sketch of Maggie Smith, which I copied (above) as I found it very instructive in the way that he takes a feature, such as a cheekbone or a chin, and then sculpts and magnifies that form independently of what is really there.

I tried to do the same thing with a number of photos found on the web. Other than Alex Salmond’s enormous jowl and Bertrand Russell’s oversized collar, I found it surprisingly hard to exaggerate most features. As I was drawing, I thought I was overstating Richard Feynman’s distinctive high forehead and quizzical smiling frown, but I quickly slipped back into attempting an accurate copy. Perhaps this is a good way to draw a face: aim for an exaggeration then let the natural instinct to draw accurately tone down the caricature into a more lively portrait.



This is a copy of a painting by James Gurney which he made while waiting for his breakfast to arrive. He painted the man at the bar in about 10 minutes with the rest of the scene completed later.

It took me over an hour to do this pencil copy, sat on a sofa in the evening with the TV on in the background, enough time for half a dozen Gurney paintings. But I think I need to stop being so concerned about speed as I think that comes naturally with regular practice and knowledge of materials.

I do find myself falling back to pencil much of the time as it’s the only medium where I can quickly render large areas of tone together with areas of precision. If only it didn’t look like pencil! For a painting I still need (for now) a table, a couple of tubs of water with access to a tap for refills, kitchen roll, space for the paper, brushes and materials, and lots of time.


After reading Color and Light by James Gurney, I’ve been trying to track down a copy of The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, an earlier book he co-wrote with Thomas Kinkade. Unfortunately it is out of print and the second-hand prices have gone crazy. Then I remembered we still have public libraries in this country and reserved a copy for a humble pound.

One of the tips he gives is to spend some time drawing small thumbnail sketches of the scene instead of beginning the drawing right away. This gives the chance to try out different compositions and experiment with areas of focus. But for me the most useful result of making these thumbnails is that it creates enough time to look at the subject before committing to a drawing. Once I’ve decided on a subject, the urge to start sketching right away is near irresistible, with the result that the composition often suffers. Just looking at the scene without drawing anything I find very hard, so scribbling thumbnails satisfies the need to be making marks immediately. By creating a number of empty rectangles you’re forced to reassess the scene a number of times, giving the eye a chance to discover the important features while giving the impatient hand something to do.

In the sketch above, I was drawn to the shapes between the three trees in the foreground, but only after the time spent drawing thumbnails did I realise that the empty sunlit space in the middle distance to the left, with the path leading off through the avenue of trees, is what attracted me to the tree shapes to begin with.

hard hands


Copy of a Leonard Starr panel.

Copy of a Leonard Starr panel.






Hands are hard to draw, aren’t they? One slip of the pencil and a finger turns into a misshapen sausage, a thumb develops an extra joint. More than once have I tried to sketch a hand from memory only to find I’ve drawn five fingers and a thumb.

Andrew Loomis tells us to ‘get rid of the idea that hands are hard to draw. They are simply confusing to draw unless you know how they operate. Once understood, hands become fascinating.’

It’s helpful to keep the rules of proportion in the back of the mind while drawing, but the most useful advice from Loomis is more practical and vivid:

‘The most important fact to remember about the hand is that it is hollow on the palm side and convex on top. The pads are so arranged around the palm that even liquid can be held in the hand. The hand served primitive man as a cup…’

‘In the drawings above, note how the hollow of the hand has been carefully defined. Also note the resulting curve of the back of the hand. Hands never look natural or capable of grasping until the artist understands this feature of the hand. All these hands look as if they could take hold of an object. … A hand that does not look capable of clasping is badly drawn. Study your own hands.’

So, continuing the philosophy of ‘if you can’t draw noses, draw lots of noses’, I’m going through the process of copying drawings and photos of hands, hoping that something will stick.


walk on





Sketches from photographs.

Walking involves all sorts of subtle shifts of balance: the heel tends to land towards the midline; the top of the foot splays outwards; even if there isn’t an obvious arm movement, the weight of the opposite side of the body provides a counter-swing.

I don’t know of any other way to practice sketching these poses other than from photographs. It’s hard enough to sketch someone unless they remain quite still; the slightest change in position throws off the remembered line. But it must be possible as there are plenty of artists who create scenes including action poses completely from imagination. Perhaps they made many sketches from life (or photos), and that, combined with knowledge of anatomy and human proportions, is enough to create a novel scene.

Photo credits: Mark AllisonFelix LupaMichael Reichmann.