Here are some of my top tips for drawing portraits and improving your drawing technique
REVIEW OF THE BEST ARTISTS’ PENCILS FOR DRAWING AND SKETCHING
When buying pencils for drawing and sketching, it really is worth buying good quality pencils from one of the main artists’ suppliers. Stay away from what they call ‘student grade’ ranges as the quality of these pencils really won’t be very good compared to the ‘professional’ grade. Good art materials really will make a big difference to the quality of work you can produce.
There are two key things I look for in a drawing pencil: the lead should be strong and well-enough secured in its casing so that it doesn’t constantly break, and the leads should have been well-processed when mixed with their binder so they don’t ‘squeak’ and scratch your paper. With a cheap pencil, you will often find it suddenly stops making a mark on the paper if you hit a bit of the clay ‘binder’ which hasn’t been well mixed in with the graphite. The best makes of pencil will be well-mixed to give a smooth and consistent feel to the lead.
DERWENT ‘GRAPHIC’ PENCILS
These are an excellent brand of pencils from the Derwent, which come in an extremely wide range of grades from 9H (extremely light, and hard) all the way through to 9B (very soft, and dark). You can find an explanation of the different pencil grades in this article. Derwent and Faber-Castell make the most reliable pencils in my experience, with strong leads even in the softer grades which rarely break, sharpen well and are never scratchy. Derwent’s ‘leads’ (they are really made of graphite of course) are a little bit thicker than Faber-Castell’s, giving a broader coverage with each stroke – so probably better for loose sketching. Derwent Graphic pencils are extremely consistent in their tones and are perhaps just a tiny bit darker than Faber-Castell’s 9000 range ( see below) so I use them particularly for the darker grades, when drawing very softly and/or darkly. You can buy Derwent pencils singly, or in boxes of ‘soft’, ‘medium’ or ‘hard’ grades. Derwent are a British brand which specialises in art pencils and pencil accessories and have many decades of expertise.
FABER-CASTELL ‘9000’ PENCILS
The 9000 range is Faber-Castell’s main drawing pencil brand, and these are also excellent pencils which never break or scratch – in fact, they break less than all the other brands in my experience. Faber-Castell 9000’s are a little lighter than Derwent, and I tend to use a mixture of both Derwent and Faber-Castell pencils depending on what I am drawing. They are great for highly delicate work and come in grades from 6H to 8B ranges, although unlike Derwent they don’t make the very dark 9B (It’s worth noting that grades 9H to 2H are really for graphic design work – they are so light that I can’t imagine sketching with them) Faber-Castell are also a great and very old brand and the 9000 pencil range was apparently launched by Count Alexander von Faber-Castell in 1905! You can also buy a version of these pencils with erasers on the end which might be useful, though I suspect I would use up the eraser before the pencil was finished too.
MARS LUMOGRAPH PENCILS
The Mars Lumograph range are made by German company Staedler who are pencil specialists. They come in a range from 6H to 8B. I tried these pencils recently and can’t deny that they are very good – Staedler boasts that they have an ‘unbelievably break-resistant through special lead formulation and super-bonded lead’ which is certainly important. They are noticably softer than Faber-Castell or even Derwent and for this reason I didn’t get on with them very well as they are considerably darker than I’m used to and harder to rub out completely. Since my technique involves a lot of ‘rubbing in’ of layers on top of layers, this didn’t suit me terribly. However they are lovely rich dark pencils to handle and if you have a strong and fast technique and don’t rub out too much, they’d be ideal.
CARAN D’ACHE ‘GRAFWOOD’ PENCILS
Caran d’Ache’s Grafwood range have an excellent innovation, which is that they are painted in gradated tones, depending on the grade of the individual pencil so that the softest pencil (9B) has a black painted casing, and the hardest (4H) is painted white. This is such an obvious but clever idea that I wish Derwent and Faber-Castell would copy it! If, like me, you use quite a range of different grades when you are drawing then it really saves you time constantly looking for the pencil you want. Grafwood are a wider pencil than most brands and I find them just a little too large and chunky for my hands and for the detailed drawings that I do, but they’d be perfect for sketching in a looser style. They are good quality pencils, fairly dark and good for darker tones or covering large areas. They give a really dark colour in the softest grades – a dense black that seems darker than other brands. So if you like to draw quite darkly then these are worth investing in. No complaints about scratchiness, or breaking.
DALER-ROWNEY ‘ARTISTS’ GRAPHIC’ PENCILS
These Daler-Rowney pencils are a the darkest and softest pencils of all the brands I have tried apart from the Mars Lumograph, and are a little too soft for my style. Whilst they do have a nice velvety feel, I found that the leads broke a lot in the softer grades which is very frustrating as you can sharpen away a whole pencil trying to get a firm lead! Another problem was that because the leads are so soft, whenever I sharpened the softer grades to a point it would simply crumble as I drew with them. They are cheaper than Derwent and Faber-Castell but not quite as good quality. However they would still count as ‘artist grade’ pencils – just about – and would be a good compromise if you want a slightly more professional pencil for less.
Finally….I know that professional grade pencils aren’t cheap. Whether you’re a beginner who doesn’t want to spend to much or a pencil portrait artist like me who gets through a lot of pencils, try this article on drawing materials for tips on how to use pencil holders to make your pencil stubs go a lot further!