Here are some of my top tips for drawing portraits and improving your drawing technique
BUYING ART MATERIALS
If you are a beginner who’d like to try drawing portraits or other kinds of art, which materials should you buy? Here’s a list of everything I use for drawing pencil portraits, and why I prefer the particular brands I use.
We’re all aware that the price of a product is not always an indication of its quality – all too often we are paying for a brand name which may contain exactly the same ingredients as a cheaper product. That’s certainly true of a lot of the things we buy in a supermarket.
However with art materials, I usually find that price is indeed THE most reliable guide to a product’s quality. Of course if you are drawing for pleasure rather than for your profession you will probably want to strike a balance between cost and quality. Even if you are a complete beginner however, it’s safe to say that investing a little more in your materials will really help to improve your end result. Art materials are often labelled as either ‘professional’ grade or ‘student’ grade, and those student grade items may sometimes hamper your drawing.
If there’s one perfect example of how buying a cheaper product may prove to be a false economy, it’s definitely drawing pencils. The graphite in a cheaper pencil is not fixed so well within the wood as in a better ‘professional grade’ pencil and so it will snap much more, resulting in you constantly having to resharpen it until there’s no pencil less! This is particularly a problem when using very soft pencils which are more prone to snapping anyway. Furthermore in a cheaper pencil the lead may be mixed inconsistently with the glue that binds it, os that your pencil may sometimes feel ‘scratchy’ and too hard as if you are pressing away but not making much of a mark. So, the more expensive pencils will be more consistent and reliable and will actually last longer.
I always use either Derwent’s ‘Graphic’ drawing pencils, or Faber-Castel’s ‘9000’ pencils. These are two very old companies who specialise in pencils and their products are great (Derwent also do a ‘student’ range if you need something cheaper, and both companies do all sorts of types of sketching pencils and charcoals) I like to use quite a wide range of ‘grades’ – from 2H, which is very hard, right down to 8B which is a very soft, dark pencil. Below is a diagram showing the full range of available pencil grades. The very hardest grades (9H to 2H) are really more for illustrators or graphic artists and you wouldn’t want to use them for sketching.
Sometimes if I’m wanting to work with really dark pencils, I also like these Cretacolor ‘Monolith’ graphite pencils, which are made without a wooden casing – just pure graphite, with a protective lacquer coating so you don’t get the graphite on your hands. They are very soft and a good choice if you want to work with thicker lines (although you can also sharpen them to a thin point too – they sharpen extremely well because the graphite is so thick) It’s a clever idea – graphite shaped into a pencil, so that the graphite is much thicker (7mm) than a traditional encased pencil ‘lead’ (we still call them leads but of course they are all now made of graphite). Creatcolor pencils also come in a wide range of grades from HB to 9B either singly or in boxed sets.
making your pencils go further: pencil holders and battery-powered sharpeners
I realise I’m advising you to try to buy professional grade pencils, and this can get expensive. I get through a LOT of pencils, so this is a concern for me too! One trick to make your pencils go further if you do a lot of drawing is to invest in these pencil holders which you can buy in art stores – Derwent do a version. When your pencil gets too short you place it into the holder and push the little metal ring up to secure it there, making the pencil much easier to hold. Obviously they will involve an initial outlay, but once you have them you can put your pencils in them when they get a bit stubby and difficult to hold, and then you can use those pencils until they are literally almost sharpened right away. Below is a photo of my pencil stubs when removed from their holders after a busy Christmas rush! You can see that I was able to use them almost to nothing. Over time you will definitely save quite a bit of money this way. My other tip is to buy an battery-powered pencil sharpener. I only got one from Daler-Rowney recently and it really changed my drawing experience! It gives a very fine point that you’d never get with a manual sharpener (perfect for detail) and your leads won’t snap half as much even when sharpening softer pencils.
It’s definitely worth using cartridge paper pads, from an art store. Paper should be ‘acid free’ if you want your drawings to last well, and the better quality brands will be made from thicker, better quality cartridge paper that can take rubbing out better. This is important to me as I really use erasers as another ‘drawing tool’ and like to use them to create highlights in hair. It occured to me recently to wonder what how cartridge paper got it’s name and I learned that ‘Paper of this type was originally used for making paper cartridges for firearms’!
To return to the topic in hand, whatever paper you choose I’d suggest buying something of at least 96 ‘gsm’ so you can rub out without destroying the paper surface. I use a heavyweight cartridge paper which is extra thick and strong: Daler-Rowney’s Smooth-Heavyweight Cartridge Paper, (below) which has a weight of 220 gsm. It’s also less likely to crease than a thinner paper. Daler-Rowney make pads in all sizes from A5 up to A1. They also sell a slightly thinner drawing paper (their 96 gsm ‘Smooth Cartridge Pad’), and for a bit more texture try their ‘Fine Grain’ drawing pad, which come in regular or heavyweight. ‘Fine Grain’ will give your drawings more softness due to the textured surface – I find that the smooth paper suits my drawing style better though.
You might think that one’s choice of eraser just for rubbing out areas you aren’t happy with isn’t that important, but I actually use erasers for quite a range of purposes. In terms of rubbing out your mistakes you only need to find one that doesn’t smudge – you can buy art erasers of course but a cheap one will often be fine.
Firstly I use a small hard eraser for rubbing out little mistakes or lightening small areas, or for cross-hatching back against my shading in order to soften it. I like the control of a thin and round eraser rather than the normal chunky square-shaped one. For a fine eraser like this you can buy a ‘pen’ eraser in a plastic case. I like to use an eraser on the end of a pencil, and Faber-Castell make a version of my favourite ‘9000’ pencil range with erasers on the end.
Secondly I use is called a putty eraser. These are a type of malleable eraser with a putty-like texture – you can knead them into a point or into any shape you like, and pull them apart. They quickly turn a bit black (as they don’t work by giving off little bits of rubber) so I tend to trim them with scissors now and then. I use putty erasers for two purposes – if I feel I’ve made my shading or hatching too dark then I’ll almost ‘dab’ at it with the putty eraser to lighten it. When I’m finished with the portrait, I use one to clean the smudges off my paper. You’re only really like to come across putty erasers in an art shop, and any brand will be fine though usually you’ll find two types, made by either Faber-Castell or Windsor And Newton.
Lastly, I use an electric battery powered eraser to work in highlights to areas which I’ve already shaded so I can work in a sort of ‘layered’ way almost as if I was painting. In this Drawing Tips article you can read more about how I like to use the battery eraser to actually draw with and you can view examples of the technique on my Pencil Drawings page. This type of eraser can rub out even really dark pencil, so it’s ideal for erasing back into dark areas of pencil or for removing accidental dark marks on your paper. Derwent make a good battery eraser. A cheaper option is a Jakar eraser which you can buy in a stationer’s store like Rymans, although I found that this didn’t last very long.
And finally – once your drawing is completed, how to you how do you stop the pencil from rubbing off the paper every time it’s touched? Buy some Daler-Rowney ‘Perfix’ spray or Windsor and Newton fixative spray for pencil & pastels and give your drawing a good coating, holding the paper at least a foot away so that you get a fine mist of the spray and not a big wet blotch that might stain your drawing. Spray evenly and lightly back and forward over the drawing – then let it dry for a couple of minutes and give it another coat. It’s better to have several light coats than to over-saturate your paper and risk staining it. Fixative is somewhat toxic and smells very strongly so use it outside if it’s not wet or windy. If using it inside open a window, and definitely don’t use it in a room that you are going to carry on working in because you’re likely to get a headache! If you find it’s too much of a problem then Daler-Rowney make a low-odour version. Once you can touch the paper and you don’t see any graphite on your finger, then you’ve applied enough fixative and your pencil drawing is fully fixed.