Drawing & Painting blog
MY MATERIALS FOR DRAWING PORTRAITS
In this post I’ll look at my favourite materials and brands for sketching and drawing portraits. There’s no sponsorship or paid links here, just a bit about my own favourite products and why I like them.
My favourite professional quality pencils are Faber-Castell’s 9000 range. Faber-Castell are amongst the oldest pencil making companies in the world and the 9000 range was was launched back in 1905. I love them because they are reliably smooth, consistent, and never have that scratchy feeling you can experience if the graphite hasn’t been mixed well with the clay binder. The lead is glued to the wooden casing all the way along so that the pencils don’t break when you sharpen them.
Pencils are graded from hard H grades (the ‘h’ stands for hard) to very soft B grades (‘b’ stands for black). The darkness of each grade isn’t standard across the industry and some ranges are darker than others, meaning that a B grade pencil from one range might be much darker than a B from another range.
I prefer the Faber-Castell pencils because their tones run very light, which suits my drawing style. I use a range of grades from an H which I use for the lightest shading, up to an 8B, which is the darkest pencil in the 9000 range. If I want to do really dark, deep shadows I supplement the Faber-Castells with some pencils from with Staedtler’s Mars Lumograph range which is much darker and goes all the way to a 12B.
Whilst there are definitely some general qualities you should look for in any pencil (good bonding of the lead to the casing, well mixed graphite, grades that get progressively softer in an even manner) your choice will also come down to whether you prefer a lighter range of tones, or a softer and darker effect. For a light pencil, I think you can’t beat the 9000 range. For a lovely mid-tone range I’d recommend the Mars Lumographs. If you want a really dark and very soft pencil then the best one in my opinion is Tombow’s Mono 100 range which is a pricey Japanese import and harder to find. A good smooth and very dark alternative is Conté à Paris’ Graphite range.
This review of artists’ drawing pencils compares pencil brands in more detail. Above all I’d recommend choosing a good quality professional pencil range if you can, because a better made pencil will make such a difference to your drawing. If your budget is lower there’s a really excellent Czech range made by the Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth company called Toisson d’Or, which is surprisingly inexpensive but doesn’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, 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 metal neck, insert the pencil, and then push the ring up again to clamp it. You can buy extenders in wood or plastic – I found these nicely polished wooden ones which feel smooth to hold. Jacksonsart.com have a good selection
Sometimes called a ‘technical’ or ‘clutch’ pencil, automatic pencils are mainly used by designers and people who do technical drawing. However pencil like this is very useful if you sketch 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.
Paying a bit more for your automatic pencil gets you a one that grasps the lead more securely: I like Pentel’s P200 professional quality range which has different models for different lead thicknesses. The ‘P203’ model takes 0.3mm leads, the ‘P205’ takes 0.5mm leads, and so on up to a maximum thickness of 0.9mm. When you buy the pencil it comes filled with HB grade leads but you can buy refills in all grades between 6H and 3B.
In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, good quality heavyweight drawing paper is known as ‘cartridge’ paper, which is named after the paper traditionally used for making cartridges for firearms. Cartridge paper is made from wood pulp. It will usually be labelled as ‘acid-free’, which means that it has probably been made from pulp that has been chemically treated to remove its ‘lignin’ content. Lignins are the substance within plant cellulose that eventually cause 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’ or ‘acid-neutral’ this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the lignins have been removed. Some very cheap papers are just given a bath of calcium carbonate during the manufacturing process in order to raise the pH of the paper to neutral, but this won’t protect it from yellowing in the long term.
Paying a bit more for your cartridge pad will make it more likely that you’ll be buying properly treated paper. For a reasonably priced but 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. The Daler pads are made from 220 gsm paper, which is more durable than a thinner sheet and less likely to crease. If you want something even thicker there’s a more expensive and cartridge brand called Snowdon which weighs 300 gsm in weight and is sold only by the sheet.
I used to draw onto cartridge paper, but have now switched to a brand of fine art paper called Stonehenge which is made by an American company called Legion. It’s sold in the UK only by Jacksons and is an archival cotton fibre paper. I decided on a cotton paper rather than a typical drawing paper made from wood pulp, because even treated wood pulp will discolour eventually especially if the paper is hung in strong sunlight.
Cotton has no lignins to begin with and so only cotton fibre paper can be described as truly acid-free. Since I sell portraits which my customers want to hand down to the next generation, this is really important to me. The Stonehenge paper is also buffered with calcium carbonate, to create an alkali reserve against exposure to acids in the environment that might cause it to start yellowing. As a cotton paper, it 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 the wood doesn’t flake at the tip and holds the lead more firmly, making it less likely to snap.
Some sharpeners have three settings so you can sharpen your pencil to a shorter point if you want but still get the benefits of a smoothly shaved pencil casing. My sharpener is an Arpan made by Clarisworld. A company called Jakar make a number of popular models and they even sell a sharpener with a mains plug, but I find my battery sharpener quite powerful enough.
These are a really useful drawing tool. Putty erasers are made from rubber and vulcanized oil, and are soft and mouldable so you can shape them to a point for precision erasing. They don’t shed little bits of rubber 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. I like Daler-Rowney putty erasers because they don’t stiffen even if you keep them for quite a while.
Putty erasers aren’t very powerful unless you drag them quite hard over a pencil mark, but they are really good for lightening an area of shading if you want to tone it down a bit. They are ideal for lifting off light smudges caused by graphite dust, so when I’ve finished my drawing I’ll drag the eraser all over the areas of plain paper to clean it.
Because of the way the graphite sticks to them, putty erasers don’t smear at all. If I want to get rid of very dark or large area of shading or an accidental mark I’ll first use a putty eraser to lift off any loose graphite, so that when I then rub out with a harder eraser I won’t end up with unintended smudges.
Vinyl/ plastic eraser
For getting rid of darker marks, I employ a hard eraser. These are made from either rubber or vinyl, in which case they are sometimes referred to as ‘plastic’ erasers. It’s important to buy a good quality eraser from an art store. A cheap eraser intended for rubbing out writing pencil can contain pigments that will mark your paper, and may smear a soft drawing pencil lead. There is some concern over the phthalate plasticizers which are found in vinyl erasers and you can choose one that is ‘PVC-free’ if you’re concerned about this.
I use this Faber-Castell ‘dust free’ eraser which is free of phthalate plasticizers, and is the most effective hard eraser I’ve found. Dust free erasers don’t produce that fine layer of vinyl dust that is difficult to sweep off your paper. They do still shed bits of rubbings, but these clump together in large chunks which you can easily brush away.
Soft eraser pencil
This type of erasers looks just like a pencil, but with a soft rubber extrusion in place of the pencil lead. They are great for precision erasing of tiny areas. I also sometimes use them to soften my hatching lines, by lightly hatching over them again with the pencil eraser to blur them a bit.
I love this soft and very effective Era eraser made by the Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth company, which is the best pencil eraser I’ve tried. I sharpen it with a regular pencil sharpener and then trim the tip with a craft knife or scalpel to get a clean point.
This is the last type of eraser in my large collection! An electric battery powered eraser is strong enough to rub out the darkest of pencil marks. I actually draw with it too, cutting back into layers of pencil shading to create highlights in areas such as the hair and in places such as the corners of the eyes, within the pupils, or on the lips. For a demonstration of how I use it, here’s a tutorial where I use the battery eraser to draw hair.
Most models come with a 5mm wide eraser tip, for which you buy separate refills. Mine is a Skylite eraser by Japanese company Denkeshi which is very good but hard to source. The British company Derwent make a popular model that is sold by most art stores. I’ve recently also bought a brilliant Korean eraser on Amazon, which has an attachment to hold tiny 2.5mm erasers. These fine erasers are even better for doing delicate highlights.
Some people use an expensive ‘dusting brush’ from an art shop to sweep off all those little eraser rubbings. However I find that a cheap makeup brush does the job just as well and is a better size and a bit more gentle. It’s important to get rid of eraser dust because it can get in the way when you are shading, and even create a greasy mark if pressed into your paper. A makeup brush is soft enough that it doesn’t smudge your pencil as you dust off your drawing with it.
Once I’ve finished a drawing and cleaned around all the blank areas with my putty eraser, I then spray it with fixative spray to prevent any graphite from rubbing off. Although these sprays are designed for fixing pastel or chalk drawings they are suitable for graphite pencil and charcoal too. In my experience the best brand is Daler-Rowney’s Perfix Colourless Fixative, closely followed by Winsor & Newton’s Professional Fixative Spray.
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 any graphite comes off.
Fixative spray smells quite strong, so I prefer to wait for dry and still weather so that I can spray my drawing 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 Perfix in a low odor version.