Introduction to Traditional Media: Pencils, Charcoal, Erasers and More

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I will introduce you to the types of drawing materials you can use to set you on the path to sketching and doodling, wherever and whenever the mood takes you.
You can draw just about anywhere and with the most basic of materials. Drawing can be one of the most relaxing and pleasurable pastimes, and if you want to take your creative skills further, drawing trains your hand-to-eye coordination, helping you to improve your work with any tool you choose. 
So, pick up a graphite or Conté pencil, or a piece of charcoal, and draw on the train on the way into work, an image that catches your fancy off the television, your husband/wife, your local garden—anything or anywhere.
Graphite pencils are generally wooden with a lead running through them, but you can buy a propelling pencil (an outer case), filling it with the lead you wish. The actual lead we use today is made up of a mixture of graphite and clay, as the original historical lead was poisonous. 
Pencils range in hardness from 9H (the hardest) to 9B (the softest), with F and HB in the middle. I prefer using the softer pencils for drawing—the Bs—and will concentrate on these in this tutorial.

B to 9B Pencils

B pencils have the following characteristics, with B being the hardest and 9B the softest. 
  • The softer the pencil, the darker your lines and shading.
  • The deeper your shadowing, the easier the pencil is to smudge.
  • The thicker your lines, the more difficult it is to keep a pencil sharp, the more difficult it is to rub out your lines cleanly, and the more resistant they are to water-based paints. B is easiest to cover, while 9B is the most difficult (almost impossible), especially if you lay the graphite down thickly.
When I first start to sketch, I tend to use a B. This allows me to draw light lines, which can either be ignored as I work into the drawing or can be drawn over with a softer, darker pencil (see the sketch of the little boy above). If an object is moving—for example, the panda below—the B pencil allows me to make loads of quick corrections without losing what I am drawing.
Sketch of a wandering panda
Working with sharp or blunt pencils is a personal choice, but I wanted to add a small note about sharpening them in the first place. 
Pencil sharpeners do what they are supposed to, but if you are out and about sketching, there may not always be somewhere for you to leave your shavings. So consider buying a tub sharpener, one that has its own reservoir for all your sharpenings until you can dispose of them.
Using a knife instead of a sharpener is a romantic idea, but carrying a knife around for that purpose isn't practical, and is possibly illegal. Although it gives you an unusual squared-off point, sharpening a pencil with a knife eats them at a phenomenally fast rate.
To start with, you should buy a selection of individual pencils: B, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. You will get a feel for what they do, and will be able to decide if certain ones are just a bit too dark for you, or too light. Once you get used to them, you can then buy the harder or softer pencil before or after that.
There are so many makes of pencil out there, but I have a couple of favourites: Derwent and Faber-Castell. That's because they are less likely to break the whole way through if you drop them (something I am prone to do), and the graphite feels smoother when you draw with it, less gritty than others.
You can buy tins of pencils, but be careful of the labelling—make sure they contain a selection of soft and hard pencils, not all the same type. A lot of tins contain a number of H pencils as well as B, so keep an eye out for the contents.
Charcoal is messy. It goes everywhere, especially on your hands, your face, your work surface, your clothes, and the floor. But it is great fun to use, and the effects are really quite different to those of any other material out there.
There are three types of charcoal:
  • Vine, which is normally around the width of a pencil and is the result of burning sticks.
  • Compressed, which is shaped into sticks of varying lengths and thicknesses.
  • Charcoal pencil, which is charcoal through a wooden pencil instead of a lead.

Charcoal pencils and sticks

As you can see from the drawing of the eye, above, you can get a lot of detail from the vine and pencil charcoals, and they can be used as you would a normal pencil. The compressed charcoal, though, is best for taking advantage of smudging and working in large areas. 

Charcoal and putty eraser drawing

In the above drawing, I used a compressed charcoal to fill in the whole area, smudging bits with my finger or leaving the lines the charcoal has made. I then took a putty eraser (more details in section 4) to draw into the charcoal, lifting the black dust off to create the cube. You can scratch into the charcoal with your nails, and add more detail with charcoal vines, pencils or even a small knife. And if you are worried about smudging your finished drawing, a bit of hairspray will fix it in place.
If you want to experiment with charcoal, I would start with two types. 
  1. Willow charcoal of varying thickness allows you to get lovely lines, and is controllable, like a pencil. 
  2. Compressed charcoal will enable you to cover large areas quickly and is darker than willow.
I have included these in this tutorial as they are treated just like pencils, but have a little bit of colour to them. Instead of graphite, Contés contain chalk and are available in black, brown, terracotta red, grey and white. They are great as stand-alone drawing materials, or they can be used alongside charcoal and ordinary pencils to lift your drawing, especially if you are working on coloured paper. 
I have to admit I love using these, and have just spent a few happy hours drawing in a museum with them. They didn't need sharpening the whole time, and when I made a mistake, I could gently smudge it away with a finger.
Conte pencils
This is an easy one. Conté pencils are the make, so you just need to decide which colours you prefer. To start with, you can buy packs of six assorted colours, but I would look for the ones that contain white, as white can have the most uplifting effect on your drawing, and it's well worth playing with.
You can buy erasers just about anywhere, but they are not always the ones you should use when creating art. Below is an image of four erasers, and the top two I would avoid. The blue could colour the paper you are working on, and the black (which could do the same) is also so rough that it could damage the surface of your drawing.
What you are looking for is a smooth white eraser, like the one on the bottom left. 


The one on the bottom right is a putty eraser, and although it is no good at large areas, it is great for creating clear or white spots within your drawing. It can be shaped into a point for precision, but the more you use it, the dirtier it becomes, as you can see below. (The sphere was created using a 9B pencil and a putty eraser.) I tend to use a putty eraser more as a tool than an eraser.

Drawing with a putty eraser

However, I actually try to avoid using an eraser, as going without tends to push me to improve. If I make a mistake, there is nothing I can do about it but draw on, and try not to make that mistake again.
You should buy two erasers: latex and putty. The best latex, I find, hands down, is Staedtler Mars Plastic, because it keeps your work clean and doesn't fall to pieces. The putty eraser you use can be any make, and white. I've never been keen on coloured erasers, as you don't know what the colour is going to do.
There is an endless choice and variety of paper out there, ranging from smooth to textured, whites, creams and every colour you can think of. The one you choose to use affects so many aspects of your drawing. You can buy paper loose or in a sketchbook.

Selection of paper

When you are talking about the weight of paper, you are actually referring to its thickness. I prefer to work on papers that are 120gsm and heavier. They have a luxurious feel to them, and can take a lot more abuse than 80gsm. I can lean heavily without my pencil marks imprinting on the paper below, and I can (if I have succumbed) repeatedly use an eraser without damaging the surface. And on the heavier ones, I can add water-based materials without the paper getting very wrinkly.
Texture is a personal choice. When drawing, I like to work on a slightly textured stock, because smooth can smudge and at times it is difficult to make the lines I want with my chosen materials. A rougher texture also affects the finish of your drawing, as you can see from the sketch of a cat below.

Pencil drawing of a cat

I prefer to draw on whites, creams, muted browns, greys and blacks, and find that any other colour tends to be too overpowering. The darker shades of paper are wonderful for concentrating on light and highlight—Conté pencils are wonderful for this.
Paper comes loose leaf and in a variety of sizes. A4 is the size of printer paper. A3 is double that, A2 double again, and so on. Below are the ones most artists use, but they can go a lot bigger:
  • A1: 59.4 x 84.1cm, 23.4 x 33.1"
  • A2: 42 x 59.4cm, 16.5 x 23.4"
  • A3: 29.7 x 42cm, 11.7 x 16.5"
  • A4: 21 x 29.7cm, 8.3 x 11.7"
  • A5: 14.8 x 21cm, 5.8 x 8.3"
  • A6: 10.5 x 14.8cm, 4.1 x 5.8"
I should mention that paper sizes differ in the US.
For pencil drawing, start with something off-white and very slightly textured. It would be tempting to use printer paper, but it's far too smooth and gives no room for making mistakes. With both charcoal and Conté, use a more textured paper, and go for something with a bit of colour to see what effect it has on your chosen subject, but try and avoid bright shades as they are very overpowering.
And, to keep the costs down, I have also been known to use lining paper (the stuff that goes under wallpaper), which is available at DIY shops. It has a slight texture to it, can take a lot of punishment, is great for most media, including some paints, and can be torn off to the size you want.
The size of paper you choose is a preference, but if you are drawing out and about, taking a selection of A4 sheets on a clipboard works very well, and it can easily be rested in your lap.
Sketchbooks are an artist's diary, notebook and inspiration. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, which can be carried in a bag for convenience, or under your arm if you like something bigger.
Some have their pages permanently stitched in, while others have perforations for tearing paper out. 

Pile of sketchbooks

I tend to avoid the spiral bound ones as I like to work across the two pages that are open in front of me, allowing my conveniently sized A4 to become A3. The spiral can get in the way of my hand when I'm working.
If you are out and about or have little space, look for an A6 or A5 sketchbook as they are easy to store in a bag, and can rest in your other hand while you are drawing.
Larger sketchbooks are great for working on at home, but unless you are happy, and comfortable enough, to sit on the ground or don't mind carrying a portable easel, I would avoid these if drawing elsewhere.
Put your contact details in your sketchbook in case you lose it, and date it. It is wonderful to see how you have improved over time, and the date will help you keep track.
There are no steadfast rules to drawing and sketching, except practice with your materials and use what you like best. Mix graphite pencils with charcoal and Conté, and see what effects you can get. Sketch while you are traveling, and most of all have fun.
All the materials I have mentioned are available from art shops both on your high street and online.


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