Drawing & Painting blog
MY MATERIALS FOR DRAWING PORTRAITS
In this post I’ll look at my favourite materials and brands, and some choices to be aware of when buying materials for sketching and drawing portraits. There’s no sponsorship or paid links here, just my own opinions and suggestions.
My favourite pencils are Faber-Castell’s ‘9000′ range. Faber-Castell are amongst the oldest pencil making companies in the world and the 9000 range, which was launched in in 1905, is one of the very best professional pencils. I love them because they are reliably smooth, consistent, and never feel scratchy in the way that pencils can do if their clay and graphite haven’t been well mixed. They are incredibly well bonded (meaning the way that the lead has been glued to the wooden casing) and don’t break whilst I am sharpening them. I like the famous fact that the dark green and gold colour scheme of the casing was chosen by Count Alexander von Faber-Castell to match his military uniform!
Pencils are graded from hard ‘H’ grades to very soft ‘B’ grades. The darkness of each grade isn’t standard across the industry and some ranges are darker than others, meaning that a ‘B’ grade pencil in one range might be much darker than the same grade within another range. I personally like the Faber-Castell pencils because they are a very light range and suit my drawing style. I usually use a range of grades from H up to 8B, and for even softer, darker pencil for deep shadows I supplement with a Staedtler ‘Mars Lumograph’ pencil which is much darker.
Whilst there are definitely some general qualities you should look for in any pencil (good bonding, well mixed leads, grades that get progressively softer in an even manner) your choice will also come down to whether or not you prefer the look of a harder, lighter pencil or a softer, darker one. For a light pencil, I think you can’t beat the 9000. For a lovely mid-tone pencil I’d suggest the Mars Lumograph range. If you want a really dark soft pencil then the best one in my opinion – and if you can afford it – is Tombow’s ‘Mono 100’ range which is a fantastic Japanese import. Another good smooth and dark alternative is Conté à Paris’ ‘Graphite’ pencil range.
This review of artists’ drawing pencils looks at them in more detail. Above all I’d recommend choosing a good quality professional pencil range because it will make such a difference to your drawing. If your budget is lower there’s a really excellent Czech pencil made by the Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth company called the ‘Toisson d’Or’ range which is surprisingly inexpensive and won’t compromise on quality.
Good quality pencils are a considerable expense if you get through as many as I do! I personally find it uncomfortable to draw with stubby little pencils once I’ve sharpened them beyond a certain point, and so I invested in some pencil extenders which securely hold my pencil stubs. This way I can use my pencils until I’ve literally sharpened them away.
To secure your pencil in the holder you pull down the little ring around the neck, insert the pencil, and then push the ring up again. You can buy extenders in wood or plastic – I found some nicely polished wooden ones which feel smooth to hold. Jacksonsart.com have a good selection
Sometimes called a ‘technical’ pencil and commonly used by designers and people who do technical drawing, a clutch pencil like this is very useful if you draw in a very fine, detailed way. I use it for doing the tiniest details in places like the eyes, or for fine hairs such as eyebrow hairs and eyelashes. You can buy automatic ‘clutch’ pencils in a selection of thicknesses.
Paying a bit more gets you a pencil that grasps the lead more firmly: I like Pentel’s ‘P200’ professional quality range which comes in lead thicknesses between 0.3mm and 0.7mm. The ‘P203’ uses 0.3mm leads, the ‘P205’ has 0.5mm leads, and so on. When you buy a pencil it will come filled with HB leads but you can buy refills in various pencil grades between 6H and 3B.
I draw onto ‘Stonehenge’ fine art paper which is made by an American company called Legion. It’s sold in the UK only through Jacksons and is an archival cotton fibre paper. Generally most paper sold as ‘drawing paper’ is made from wood pulp and in the UK, Australia and New Zealand good quality, heavyweight wood pulp paper is known as ‘cartridge’ paper (the name comes from the paper traditionally used for making paper cartridges for firearms). Cartridge paper is usually labelled as ‘acid-free’ which means that it has probably been chemically treated to remove ‘lignins’. These are the substances within cellulose that eventually causes paper to turn yellow.
If the archival quality of your paper is important to you, be aware that just because a cartridge paper says it is ‘acid-free’, ‘acid-neutral’ or ‘pH-neutral’ it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the lignins have been treated. Some very cheap papers may just have had an alkalizing treatment added to the paper pulp which may not protect it in the long term. A more expensive pad is therefore more reliable. For a reasonably priced, good quality cartridge I’d recommend Daler-Rowney’s ‘Heavyweight Cartridge’ pads which are available in fine, medium or coarse grain. They are internally sized and can take a great deal of rubbing out without damaging the paper surface. There’s also a more expensive, thicker cartridge called Snowdon which is 300gsm in weight.
I now choose to work on a cotton paper rather than a wood pulp-based cartridge, because even treated wood-pulp paper will discolour eventually, especially if hung in strong sunlight. Cotton has no lignins to begin with and so only cotton fibre paper can really be described as truly acid-free. ‘Stonehenge’ paper is also buffered with calcium carbonate to create an alkali reserve against exposure to acids in the environment. Since I sell portraits which my customers want to hand down to the next generation, this is really important to me. Cotton paper is also very strong and can take a great deal of erasing and layering.
Battery operated sharpener
This is a surprisingly useful gadget! It’s not just that it makes sharpening your pencils quicker and easier, it also gives you a long and strong point to the lead that you couldn’t achieve with a manual sharpener. Best of all, because it shaves the wood of the pencil so smoothly it protects the leads from snapping. Some sharpeners have three settings so you can choose a shorter point if you want but still get the benefits of the smoothly sharpened wood.
My sharpener is an ‘Arpan’ sharpener made by Clarisworld. Jakar are a popular make sold by many art stores and even sell a sharpener with a mains plug, but I find my battery sharpener if powerful enough.
These are a really useful drawing tool. Putty erasers are soft and mouldable (made from rubber and vulcanized oil) and you can shape them to a point. They don’t shed little bits of rubber as you erase but instead the graphite lifts off the paper and sticks to the eraser as you drag it over your drawing. When your eraser gets completely covered in graphite you can trim it with scissors to remove the graphite-covered bits. I like Daler Rowney putty erasers because they don’t seem to stiffen if you keep them for a while.
Putty erasers are great for precision erasing, for pressing against an area of shading to lighten its tone, or for dragging around your paper when you’ve finished a drawing to remove any smudges. Because of the way they lift the graphite off, mouldable erasers do not smear and so I use them to remove loose graphite from any accidental mark I want to get rid of, before tackling it with a harder eraser.
Vinyl/ plastic eraser
For getting rid of darker marks, I employ a harder eraser. These are made from either rubber or vinyl (when made from the latter they are often referred to as ‘plastic’ erasers). It’s important to buy a good quality one because a cheap eraser can contain pigment that marks your paper, or may smear a mark rather than erasing it. Putty erasers are great but they don’t have the power of a hard eraser, and vinyl erasers are the hardest of all. There is some concern over the phthalate plasticizers which are found in plastic erasers and you can choose one that is PVC-free if you’re concerned about it.
I use this Faber-Castell ‘Dust free’ eraser which is also free of phthalate plasticizers and which is the best hard eraser I’ve tried. Dust free erasers still leave bits of rubbings but these clump together in large chunks that you can easily brush away rather than producing that very fine dust that’s left by a traditional eraser which is more difficult to sweep off your page.
Soft eraser pencil
These erasers are just like pencils, but with a soft rubber extrusion in place of the pencil lead. They are great for precision erasing of very small areas, and sometimes I use them to lighten an area of tone that I’ve shaded by gently hatching back across it with them.
I love this soft and very effective ‘Era’ eraser that’s made by Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth. It’s the best one I’ve tried. I sharpen it with a regular pencil sharpener and then sometimes trim the tip a bit with a craft knife or scalpel.
The last of my large eraser collection! As well as being powerful enough to erase the darkest of pencil marks in a way that a manual eraser couldn’t, a battery powered electric eraser is something I actually use to draw with. I use it to cut highlights back into layers of dark pencil in areas such as the hair, or just anywhere that I introduce a bright highlight such as the corners of the eyes or the pupils: here’s a tutorial on using eraser to draw hair. You can buy many different models which come with a 5mm eraser tip: mine is a ‘Skylite’ eraser by Japanese company Denkeshi which is very good, but Derwent also make a popular one that’s easier to acquire. I’ve recently also bought a brilliant Chinese eraser via Amazon, which has an attachment for 2.5mm erasers. This tiny eraser is even better for doing delicate highlights.
Some people use an expensive, soft squirrel hair mop brush to sweep eraser rubbings off their paper, but I find that a cheap makeup brush does the job just as well! If left on your paper these tiny rubbings can get in the way when you are shading, or even create a greasy smudge if they get accidentally pressed into the paper. The makeup brush is soft enough that it won’t smudge to my pencil marks when I use it to brush off bits of rubber.
Once I’ve finished a drawing I clean all the white areas of my paper with a putty eraser to remove any smudges and then I spray it with fixative spray to prevent any of the pencil from rubbing off. These are designed to fix either graphite pencil or pastels and in my experience the best brand is Daler-Rowney’s ‘Perfix’ spray, closely followed by Winsor & Newton’s ‘Professional Fixative Spray’. Fixative sprays sometimes just say that they are ‘for pastels’ but they are appropriate for spraying graphite drawings too.
To give your drawing a good coating, hold the spray at least a foot away so that you get a fine mist – it’s better to give several lighter coats than to over-saturate the paper and risk staining it with blotches. Spray back and forth across your drawing for a few seconds and allow this layer to begin to dry for a few minutes, and then give another quick spray. Then leave it to dry for 20 minutes before testing it by lightly touching an area of graphite with your finger to see if anything sticks to it. Fixative spray smells quite strong, so I prefer to wait for a dry and not too windy day and spray my drawings out of doors. If you have to use the spray indoors be sure to open a window and avoid using it in a room you are going to carry on working in because it may give you a headache! If you find this a problem, Daler-Rowney also produce a low odor version of Perfix.