Drawing & Painting blog

BUYING ART MATERIALS

If you are a beginner who’d like to try drawing portraits or any other type of sketching, 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 the quality of the product. 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.

PENCILS

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 left! This is particularly a problem when using very softer grade 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, so that your pencil may sometimes feel ‘scratchy’ and too hard when you hit a bit of the glue (I’m describing it as a lead, but of course all pencil leads are really made of graphite) All in all, the more expensive pencils will be more consistent and reliable and will actually last longer.

Faber Castell pencils
Derwent pencils

My favourite pencil brands are Derwent’s ‘Graphic’ range of drawing pencils and Faber-Castell’s ‘9000’ range. These are two very old companies who specialize in pencils and their products are great. I like to use quite a wide range of ‘grades’ when drawing a portrait – from 2H, which is very hard and which I’ll use for very light shading on areas of skin tone, right down to 8B which is a very soft, dark pencil suitable for darker hair, eye pupils and shadows.

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 be likely to want to use them for sketching. Faber-Castell make a version of the 9000 range with pencils on the end, which are very handy.

Pencil grade chart

If I’m wanting to work with really dark pencils or cover wider areas, I’ll sometimes use these Cretacolor ‘Monolith’ graphite pencils, which are made without a wooden casing. They are 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) Creatacolor pencils also come in a wide range of grades from HB to 9B either singly or in boxed sets.

Cretacolor monolith pencil

Lastly for extremely fine detail I like to use an automatic pencil. Pentel make a particularly good range called the ‘P200’ series. This one below is a P205, meaning that the lead is only 0.5mm thick. You can also buy a P203 with a 0.3mm lead, a P207 with a 0.7mm lead and a P209 which is 0.9mm. I use this pencil when I need to draw very small or fine areas, for example the reflected detail within someone’s eye or their eyelashes or eyebrow hairs.

Making your pencils go further: pencil holders and battery-powered sharpeners

I realise the the professional grade pencils I’m advising you to buy are more 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, such as this one made by Derwent. 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 bought one by 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 which is perfect for fine details and your leads won’t snap half as much even when sharpening softer pencils.

Pencil stubs
Pencil extenders

PAPER

It’s definitely worth using proper cartridge paper pads from an art store to draw on. ‘Cartridge’ simply denotes a high quality heavyweight paper, and interestingly the paper was originally used for making paper cartridges for firearms, hence the name!

Make sure your cartridge paper is ‘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 more rubbing out without damaging the surface. This is important to me as I really use erasers as another ‘drawing tool’ and like to use them to create highlights. The thicker the paper the less likely it is to start to warp from the heat of your hand if you draw. I try to avoid this problem entirely by resting my hand on a small square of the very thickest cartridge paper as I draw.

Whatever paper you choose I’d suggest buying something of at least 96 ‘gsm’ so you can rub out pencil marks 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. This is an optimum thickness for me and makes it unlikely that my drawing will become accidentally creased. 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 if you want more texture so that the grain softens your pencil lines, try their Fine Grain drawing pad, which come in regular or heavyweight. I find that the smoother paper suits my detailed drawing style better however.

Smooth cartridge paper
Smooth heavyweight cartridge paper
Fine grain cartridge paper

ERASERS

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 when drawing.  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. Just make sure to check it before trying it out on your drawing in case it smudges or leaves a colour stain. I use a large, soft makeup brush like this one to safely remove the little rubbings without smudging.

Makeup brush

I use three other types of eraser for my portraits. Firstly I use a small hard eraser for rubbing out little mistakes or lightening small areas and also for softening my lines. I will often shade with hatched pencil lines and then hatch back in the opposite direction with my eraser in order to soften my original hatching. I like the control of a very small eraser for this and use the one the comes on the end of an automatic pencil, or the one on the end of a Faber-Castell ‘9000′ pencil.

Automatic pencil
9000 Pencil with eraser

The next type of eraser I’ll use is called a  ‘putty eraser’ or ‘putty rubber’. These are a type of malleable eraser with a putty-like texture which you can knead them into a point or into any shape you like. They don’t shed little bits of rubber when you use them and so they quickly turn rather black and I trim them with a pair of scissors when this happens.

I use putty erasers for two main purposes. Firstly when I feel I’ve made my shading or hatching too dark then I’ll gently dab at the pencil marks with my putty eraser to lighten them simply by pressing them with the eraser. The eraser will just lift off some of the graphite without actually rubbing it out. Then when I’m finished with the portrait, I’ll use the putty eraser to clean any smudges off my paper because it’s less likely than any other type of eraser to smudge or to damage the paper. You’re only really like to come across putty erasers in an art shop, and any brand will be fine because they are a specialist piece of drawing kit although the types you usually find on sale are made by Faber-Castell or Windsor And Newton.

Putty eraser
Battery eraser

The last type of eraser I use is an electric battery powered eraser not only to erase really dark areas of pencil when I’ve made a mistake and want to get rid of dark pencil marks, but also as an actual drawing instrument to work in highlights to areas which I’ve already shaded. This allows me to create a ‘layered’ effect almost as if I was painting which is particularly effective when drawing hair, or for creating highlights.

By holding your eraser against a piece of paper on an angle when it’s turned on you can ‘sharpen’ the edge into quite a fine point. In this article on drawing tips you can read more about how I like to use the battery eraser to actually draw with. Derwent make a good one which is relatively inexpensive and comes with a number of refits. A cheaper option is made by a company called Jakar which you can buy in a stationer’s store like Rymans, although I found that this broke within a few months.

FIXING YOUR DRAWING

And finally – once your drawing is completed, how to you how do you stop the pencil from rubbing off every time you handle it? Buy some Daler-Rowney ‘Perfix’ spray or Windsor and Newton’s fixative spray for pencil and 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 this is a problem then Daler-Rowney also 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.

Perfix fixative spray
Windor and Newton fixative spray

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