Painting & Drawing blog
Here are a few things suggestions of things that I do to make my life easier, and my drawings better! This page contains no paid links, just my independent recommendations.
1. Go electric with your sharpener
I’m not suggesting that an automatic sharpener will change your life, but this is definitely the most satisfying gadget I’ve bought to improve the drawing process! An electric sharpener has three benefits. Firstly, it obviously saves your hand from getting tired when sharpening a lot of pencils. Secondly you get a much, much sharper point than you would with a manual sharpener – as sharp as they are when they leave the factory or even more so. The third and maybe the best benefit I’ve discovered is that using an automatic sharpener you are much less likely to break your pencil lead whilst sharpening it or afterwards, because the wood is shaved more smoothly and doesn’t splinter off at the tip.
Compare the tips on these pencils: the one on the left was sharpened manually and you can see the rough texture it’s left on the wood and how the wood is flaking around the graphite, making it vulnerable to snapping. On the right the pencil sharpened with the battery sharpener is much sharper much smoother, and the wood holds the graphite much better at the tip. I use a really good sharpener called ‘Arpan’ made by Clarisworld, which has three different settings depending on how sharp you want your pencil, so if you actually want a shorter tip for drawing more softly you can select this setting and still get the benefits of a smoothly sharpened pencil that shouldn’t break (although you can also achieve this simply by holding your pencil down in the sharpener for a shorter time) You can actually buy sharpeners with mains plugs, but I find my battery model perfectly efficient.
2. Make your pencils last longer with pencil extenders
If you get through as many pencils as I do you don’t want to be throwing them away when they get too stubby, and personally I find it difficult to work with too short pencils. I love these pencil extenders because they allow me to use my pencils right down to their stumps! I bought some really nice polished wooden ones which taper and feel smooth to hold. I think they’ve paid for themselves many times over the years because now I use my pencils until they are almost all gone.
3. Keep your pencils in ‘grade’ order
If like me you work with a large number of different grades of pencil within one drawing then you’ll spend an annoying amount of time searching for the pencil you want to use next. Drawing pencils are graded according to their softness, from 9H (the H stands for hard) to 9B (very soft, the B stands for black) with HB in the middle. A good drawing pencil like my favourite Faber-Castell ‘9000’ range will print the grade of the pencil on at least two or more facets of the hexagonal pencil barrel, which is some help in finding the one you are looking for
However I wish they’d take a leaf out of Caran d’Ache’s book and in particular their ‘Grafwood’ pencil range as the lacquer on these pencils is differently coloured depending on their softness: from a hard 2H pencil which is white to a soft and dark 9B pencil which is painted black, with shades of grey in between for the intermediate grades. Winsor & Newton’s ‘Studio Collection’ pencils also colour code their range, with a different shade of grey for a small section just at the end of each pencil to help you identify it.
Since I won’t be swayed away from my favourite Faber pencil range I have to improvise and when I’m working I keep my pencils in a pencil tin arranged in the correct order, so that I can find the one I want more quickly. This really speeds me up a lot.
4. Buy a battery eraser
People really underestimate what you can do with erasers – they aren’t just for rubbing out mistakes. The most multi-functional type of eraser is a battery powered electric eraser, which will erase more powerfully than a manual one ever could. If you’ve accidentally got a mark on your paper that you can’t rub out, chances are an electric eraser will get rid of it even if it’s quite a dark line. That’s not the only benefit though: you can literally draw with your eraser, working in layers of pencil and then and cutting back in with an electric eraser, rubbing out the graphite to create highlights.
Highlights added: before smoothing down
Highlights softened back
Here you can see how I’ve shaded in my subject’s hair and then erased highlights back into it – this would have been very difficult to achieve just by trying to leave strands of white paper to represent those bright parts of the hair. Most battery erasers are 5mm (1.4″) wide – Derwent make a very popular one – but recently I also bought a Korean eraser online which gives me a choice of 5mm or 2.5mm wide erasers, and these tiny ones are excellent for doing really fine highlights, or those little spots of light reflected in your subject’s eyes
5. Mask off your paper to keep it clean
There are two reasons for doing this. Firstly, you really want to keep your non-drawing hand away from the surface of the paper so that the heat and moisture from your hand and the natural oils in your skin don’t damage it. Secondly, it will prevent black marks on your paper where graphite dust has gotten rubbed in. If this latter problem happens to you, this post on cleaning black marks off your paper may help! However it’s far better to prevent them happening in the first place.
I keep my paper clean by covering the area around the part I’m actually drawing onto with two thick pieces of paper cut into ‘L’ shapes which I can position and move around as I work. I use paper that I cut from a very cheap pad of 300gsm watercolour paper – I wouldn’t use it to paint onto (nor would I want to waste very good paper for this) but it’s thick enough that it should stop the heat from my hand from buckling the paper underneath. You could always use cartridge paper to make your L shapes, though as this is thinner than watercolour paper you might need to double a couple up to go underneath where your non-drawing hand might rest. You could of course use regular card if you can find some large enough, but I prefer to use a paper that’s been treated to make it acid-free.
6. Buy a kneadable putty eraser
These are another very multi-functional type of eraser and I use one to clean up my paper when I’ve finished my drawing because even if you take precautions to mask it off as described above you’ll still probably find a little bit of graphite dust has found its way underneath, settling on your paper and creating a slight shadow. Gently dragging a large flat putty eraser over all the areas of blank paper will clean this off well and without leaving your drawing covered in tiny bits of rubber or plastic, since putty erasers don’t shed. Instead the graphite sticks to them, and once they’ve become covered in graphite you trim them with scissors or a craft knife.
Putty erasers are soft and malleable and you can pinch them to a point to erase a small area or simply to lighten an area you’ve made too dark, by pressing them against it and lifting off some of the graphite. One great quality about them is that they don’t smear, unlike a rubber or plastic eraser.
7. Use a makeup brush to brush away eraser rubbings
Traditional rubber or polyvinyl erasers are also part of my drawing kit, and they leave annoying little bits of rubber all over my drawing. To remove them I use a makeup brush designed for applying blusher. You could buy a soft squirrel hair mop brush in an art store for this purpose but for a fraction of the price a makeup brush like this will be soft enough not to smudge your pencil and wide enough to gently brush away little bits of rubber. As an alternative various companies like Faber-Castell now make a non-shedding hard eraser which creates no eraser dust and is free of the plasticiser ‘Phthalate’.