Painting & Drawing blog
Here are a few tips I’ve discovered to make my drawings better and my life easier. This article contains no paid links, just some independent recommendations for my favourite gadgets.
1. Go electric with your sharpener
I’m not suggesting that an automatic sharpener will change your life, but this is definitely the most useful gadget that I use when I’m drawing! An electric sharpener has three benefits. Firstly, it obviously saves your hand from getting tired if you are sharpening a lot of pencils. Secondly you get a much sharper and longer point than you could achieve with a manual sharpener. The third and most useful benefit I’ve discovered when using an automatic sharpener is that you are much less likely to break your pencil lead either whilst sharpening or whilst drawing afterwards, because the wood is shaved much 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 that the sharpener has given to the wood and how the tip is flaking at the end, making the lead vulnerable to snapping. The pencil on the right was sharpened with the battery sharpener and is much sharper and smoother, meaning that the wood will hold the lead more firmly at the tip.
You can actually buy sharpeners with mains plugs, but I find my battery model perfectly efficient. I use a sharpener called ‘Arpan’ which is made by Clarisworld and has three different settings which allow you to decide how sharp you want your pencil. Therefore if you prefer to have a shorter tip to your pencil, you can select this setting and still get the benefits of the smoothly sharpened wood (you can also achieve this simply by holding your pencil down in the sharpener for a shorter time).
2. Make your pencils last longer with pencil extenders
When you get through as many good quality drawing pencils as I do, you don’t want to be throwing them away when they get a bit short and stubby. However I personally find it difficult to work with very short pencils and use these pencil extenders because they allow me to hold my pencils comfortably even when there is only a stump left! I bought some really nice polished wooden extenders which taper and feel smooth to hold. I think they’ve paid for themselves many times over the years because now I can use my pencils until they are sharpened away to almost nothing. You can buy a good choice of wooden or plastic extenders in a large online art store such as jacksonsart.com.
3. Keep your pencils in ‘grade’ order
If you work with a number of different grades of pencil within one drawing then you’ll probably spend an annoying amount of time searching for the grade that you want. Drawing pencils are graded according to their softness, and usually range from 9H (the H stands for hard) to 9B (very soft, the B stands for black) with the HB grade in the middle of the scale. A good drawing pencil will have its grade printed on at least two or three facets of the casing, which is some help in finding the one that you are looking for.
However I wish that all pencil ranges would take a leaf out of Caran d’Ache’s book and copy their ‘Grafwood’ pencils. Here the lacquer on the casings is coloured differently depending on their softness: from a hard 2H pencil which has a pure white casing to a soft to a dark 9B pencil which is black, and with gradually darkening shades of grey for the intermediate grades. Winsor & Newton’s ‘Studio Collection’ pencils also colour code their range, with a painted tip in graded tones to help you identify it.
Much as I like this clever innovation I generally prefer my favourite Faber-Castell 9000 pencils to the Grafwoods and so I simply try to always keep my pencils in their tin and arranged in the correct order, placing each one back in its place after I’ve used it. This helps me locate the grade I want more quickly and speeds up my work.
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 got a dark mark on your paper that you can’t rub fully out, chances are an electric eraser will get rid of it! That’s not the only benefit though: you can literally draw with a battery eraser by cutting in bright highlights over layers of pencil shading.
Highlights added: before smoothing down
Highlights softened in
Above 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 either with a manual eraser, or by trying to leave parts of my paper bright white in order to represent highlighted strands of hair.
Most battery eraser models use 5mm (1.4″) wide erasers, which are very good for getting rid of dark lines or shading that you don’t want. However I also have a Korean eraser that I bought online which has an attachment for using tiny 2.5mm erasers, and these are the best for creating really fine highlights.
5. Mask off your paper to keep it clean
There are two reasons for doing this. Firstly, you really want to avoid resting your non-drawing hand directly on the paper as the heat and moisture from your hand and the natural oils in your skin can damage it. Secondly, masking off your paper will help you avoid unwanted smudges caused by graphite dust. If you do get a nasty black mark where you don’t want it then this post on cleaning black marks off your paper may help! However it’s much better to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
I keep my drawing paper clean with two thick pieces of paper cut into ‘L’ shapes which I can position and move around as I work. I make them from cheap pad of 300gsm watercolour paper, whose sheets are thick enough to prevent the heat from my hand from buckling the paper underneath. You could also use cartridge paper to make your L shapes, though as this is thinner than watercolour paper you might need a double layer. You could also use regular card, but I prefer to use a paper that’s been treated to make it acid-free.
6. Buy a kneadable putty eraser
This is another very multi-functional type of eraser. I use it to clean up my paper when I’ve finished a drawing, if any graphite dust has found its way under my masking sheets. Putty erasers don’t shed and leave your drawing covered in tiny bits of rubber or vinyl. 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 to lighten something that you’ve made to dark, by pressing them against the paper and lifting off some of the graphite. Another big advantage is that unlike plastic or vinyl erasers, mouldable erasers don’t smear. Therefore although they may not be strong enough to rub out very dark pencil, I use them to first lift off any loose graphite from something I want to rub out before tackling it with a vinyl or battery eraser. This will ensure that I don’t get any nasty smudges.
7. Use a makeup brush to brush away eraser rubbings
Traditional hard erasers are also part of my drawing kit, but they do leave annoying little bits of rubber or polyvinyl all over my drawing. To remove these I use a makeup brush designed for applying blusher. You could buy an expensive ‘dusting brush’ in an art store for this purpose, but for a fraction of the price a makeup brush will do the job just as well! Blusher brushes are the ideal shape and are soft enough not to smudge your drawing.