Drawing I - What's Inside Your Drawing Toolbox?
Updated: May 8, 2021
Welcome back to the 3T Art Blog. We’re starting a new month and our theme for it is going to be drawing!
Over the next four blog posts, we’ll have a look at drawing materials, how to set up a drawing and how to get it done from start to finish. If we have time, we’ll touch briefly on model drawing and perspective drawing too. It’s going to be a busy month so let’s get started!
Today, we’re going to have a look at some of the different drawing tools you can use to create your next drawing. As with all the materials we’ve discussed in the 3T Art Blog so far, the quality of your drawing materials will make a huge difference on the quality of the artwork that you produce. Keep in mind, these are suggestions to guide you in buying the materials that are right for you.
Drawing is the easiest of all art forms when it comes to materials. All you really need is something to draw with and something to draw on. A stick and sand come to mind, or when the mood strikes you to doodle, a pen and paper napkin will do. And that’s great for a bit of doodling to pass the time, but if you want to get more serious about your drawing, you’ll need to pick up some supplies that’ll help you create really good artwork.
Before you run out and buy all kinds of drawing materials, something you might want to pick up first is a dedicated box for all of your drawing supplies. My drawing toolbox is a simple tackle box made for fishing. I’ve had mine for years (decades actually). What I love is that it has dividers which make separating all of my drawing tools really easy. It has space to hold everything I need for drawing. It’s also compact enough to just grab and take with me wherever I go. There are a lot of tackle boxes available at stores and online so you can get the one that best works for you.
Your Drawing Toolbox
Where to begin! There's so much to choose from when it comes to drawing materials and equipment. So, what should be in your drawing toolbox?
The best place to start is with pencils. We’re all familiar with HB pencils. They’re usually yellow/orange and have a pink eraser on top. It’s most likely the instrument we all learned to write with. HB is a grade and there are actually many other grades of pencil to choose from. For your artwork, you’ll need to know about them so you can use the right pencil for the right application.
When considering what grade of graphite to use, it’s good to first know what HB stands for. The H stands for hardness, while the B stands for blackness. These letters, with a number, make up the grading system. They go from 9H to 9B. The HB grade has no number attached to it because it is considered to be the middle of the road. H and F are slightly harder while B is slightly softer than HB.
When I was learning to draft (yes, by hand using a T-square and a setsquare, on a drafting table) I was taught to start each drawing with a 2H pencil. The 2H was hard enough that all you’d get was a very light construction line no matter how hard you press on the paper. After getting the construction lines in, I’d move to a B, then to a 2B, which I needed to learn to control. A 2B is soft enough to leave a nice black line but when pressed down too hard, it made a thicker, hard line that I didn’t necessarily want.
I still use a 2H pencil for construction lines when I start a drawing, then move to a 2B to firm up the drawing. From here, I definitely want to pick softer pencils for shading and detailing, anything from a 4B and up. Once you get to the 8B range, you’ll be working with a pencil that has similarities to charcoal. It’s very soft and black.
Grades will vary between brands, but you should aim to have a selection of pencils that range from 2H to 6B. I’d suggest investing in a decent set of drawing pencils. A tin of 6 or 12 drawing pencils will give you everything you need. You can buy singles of any grade of graphite any time to replace the ones you’ve used up.
As for brands, pick a quality over quantity. My go-to since those early drafting days has been Staedtler Mars Lumograph Graphite pencils. You can also try a set of Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils, they have a good rating, or Faber Castell whose 12 pencil set contains grades from 2H to 8B, which is preferable to the 4H to 6B you get with Staedtler and Derwent. Either way, these are excellent pencils from companies that have a long history of producing quality drawing materials.
There are also a good selection of woodless graphite pencils available at your local art supply store. You can find them in sets or singles, just like wood pencils, and in grades ranging from HB to 9B. You won’t find any 2H or harder here. These are made for drawing and nothing else. I prefer to work with them, especially when model drawing because they just seem to glide across the paper. They’re also easy to sharpen to a long point by hand or with an electric pencil sharpener.
When you think of erasers, what comes to mind? Probably pink rectangles with a chiseled end and how they’d smudge pencil marks around instead of actually erasing them. Those erasers are still around, but if you’ve been trying to use them to erase lines or parts of your drawing, you’ve most likely ended up with a big mess on your hands. Am I right?
For your drawn artwork, just like with the HB pencil, you’ll need to look at some erasers that are made especially for you to use when drawing your next masterpiece. You should actually have two types of erasers in your drawing toolbox: white plastic erasers and kneaded erasers.
Try a soft, white plastic eraser on large or small areas of your drawing. These are great erasers to have around. They work with little effort and erase areas cleanly. To clean graphite off the eraser, you can try what I do, which is to rub it on fabric like denim. You can find many varieties of white erasers at your local art store but they’re not all the same just because they’re white. Make sure the one you pick is soft. If it’s not, you’ll end up having the same problem with it that you’d have with a pink eraser.
You’ll also want to have a kneaded eraser handy. These, if you’re not familiar with them, are kind of like a square of grey plasticine. You should knead them before and during use and form it into any shape you want. This is the best tool you’ll ever have to get into little areas that need to be erased. You can also lighten an area of your drawing by just dabbing the eraser on to it and lifting the graphite off your paper. To clean this eraser, all you have to do is knead it.
There are also erasers made of microporous plastic foam. Not something I’ve tried yet, but I’m interested in them. They seem to have very good ratings, come in white and black, and are recommended for use with any paper. Worth checking out, don’t you think?
Here’s another must have item you need in your drawing toolbox. There are a lot of sharpeners to choose from. Remember those little metal ones you used to manually sharpen pencils? Those may not be the best choice when it comes to sharpening art pencils. Instead, make sure you get a good one made just for art pencils. A low-end sharpener will waste your time and materials making their low price a bad bargain.
Many artists prefer a hand-held, manual sharpener. Many of them are small and don’t take up much room in your drawing box. When using hand-held sharpeners, be extra careful how you hold the pencil. It’s easy to break the sharp tip you’ve just made. A tip: rotate the sharpener and not the pencil. Primsacolor’s hand-held sharpener was designed to sharpen coloured pencils but works well with softer art pencils 2B and up as well.
Electric and Rechargeable Sharpeners
There are also a good variety of electric sharpeners available just for art pencils. Oh, don’t cringe at the thought of using an electric sharpener on your art pencils. They do a great job and I prefer them, especially for my coloured pencils and woodless graphite.
The AFMAT sharpeners are made specifically for sharpening your art pencils. It’ll sharpen up a long point that’s exactly what you need when you’re drawing. The AFMATs are also rechargeable so you can toss one in your drawing toolbox before you head out the door. Yes, I’ve added this one to my ‘wish list’.
Another way artists like to sharpen their pencils is using an Olfa or utility knife. They feel it gives them the most control, and it does. Hand-held and electric sharpeners will give you only what they were made to do, but you can give your pencils any length or point you want using a utility knife. One thing to keep in mind is that this way of sharpening needs patience and a lot of practice. You’ll more than likely be slicing off a lot of graphite before you get the hang of it, but it’s a skill that every artist who draws should have.
These are handy to have in your drawing toolbox. You can use it to sharpen up woodless graphite pencils or to hone a nice sharp point on an art pencil you just sharpened with your utility knife. They’re inexpensive, have about 10 sheets per pad and can be found at any art supply store.
Coloured pencils are definitely not just for kids anymore. When most of us think of coloured pencils, colouring books automatically come to mind. They’re really popular right now among adults and I’ve seen some beautifully coloured and shaded work from my friends who enjoy adult colouring books. But don’t count them out! They can be a part of your artwork and your drawings so make a space for them in your drawing toolbox.
I’ve seen a lot of creative ideas come to life using coloured pencils. What I like best about them is there’re easy to work with. I like to use them for drawing in general and they work really well when you’re adding areas of colour to a graphite drawing. Today’s coloured pencils are available in lots of vibrant colours and there are so many brands to choose from!
Prismacolor is probably the most popular professional brand of coloured pencil you can buy. Their Premier and Scholar coloured pencils can be purchased as single pencils or in sets that range from 12 to 150 colours! Wow! Can you imagine having 150 colours at your fingertips?
Faber Castell also makes exceptional coloured pencils called Polychromos. They can be purchased in singles or in sets of up to 120 colours.
Colour is the most important thing when it comes to coloured pencils. As with other art supplies, professional and artist grades are of a higher quality so look for that on the package before buying them. They’ll have richer hues that are more vibrant on paper. This is because they have a higher load of pigment (colour) than student or economy brand coloured pencils which have very little in the way of pigment in them at all. They're mostly filler. You’ll also find them to be softer which means they’ll glide effortlessly across your work surface unlike cheaper brands which tend to be so hard at times they actually dent the paper or board you're working on.
Look for a coloured pencil that is oil-based. My two recommended brands, Prismacolor and Polychromos, are both oil-based. This makes them softer and allows you to easily blend colours together. Lower quality coloured pencils are made with wax. It makes them hard, brittle and it’s impossible to blend colours.
Charcoal is one of the first drawing tools used by artists. It dates back 28,000 years to cave paintings. Since then, artists have continued to use it for their artwork, but lucky for us we don’t need to burn branches anymore to make charcoal to draw with.
Charcoal Sticks are made by finely grinding charcoal and mixing it with binders such as gums and waxes, then shaping them into sticks. The amount and type of binder added during manufacturing effects the hardness and softness of a charcoal stick, similar to the grades of graphite we looked at earlier. A hard charcoal will leave light marks on your paper while a soft charcoal will leave very dark marks.
Source: Kings Framing and Art Gallery
Charcoal pencils are compressed charcoal sticks encased in wood. They’re just like graphite pencils but keep the same properties of charcoal while keeping your hands clean. Because charcoal is brittle, you won’t be able to use a hand-held or electric sharpen on these, you’ll need a utility knife and sanding pad for best results.
Vine and Willow charcoal are not compressed or manufactured, they're the exception. Both are available as long, thin charcoal sticks and are the result of burning their branches in a kiln without air. They’re most suited for preliminary sketching and creating the basic composition of your drawing project.
Conté was invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, (Conté à Paris brand) who interestingly enough was the inventor of the modern day lead pencil. During this time in history, graphite was in short supply because of the Napoleonic wars. Conté used a combination of clay with a little graphite and charcoal and was able to produce a cost-effective product. He could consistently press them into sticks that ranged from soft to hard.
When compared to charcoal, Conté produces less dust, is easier to control because it isn’t as brittle and you can create much finer lines with it. They look similar to hard pastels, but they’re harder, oilier and thinner. Because of the ingredients used to make them, they’re not considered pastels.
Conté is still produced today using powdered graphite and/or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base and natural pigments. The original Conté à Paris is best known for its range of neutral colours such as shades of grey, sanguine, dark browns, black and white, but if you like colour, you’ll be pleased to know they offer 70 colours in all for you to choose from!
By Just plain Bill - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
And finally, your drawing box wouldn’t be compete without some kind of pastel in it. The three types are oil pastels, soft and hard pastels, and pastels pencils.
Oil pastels are actually a more recent invention. The Sakura Cray-Pas Company was founded in 1921 and by 1927 began producing oil pastels to replace the black Indian ink Japanese children spent hours drawing ideograms with at school. The idea was to add as much colour as possible to this task, making it more enjoyable for the children while they were learning.
Other companies, like Dutch art supply manufacturer Talens, picked it up quickly and began producing their own line of oil pastels. At this point, oil pastels were geared to be used by only school children. It wasn’t until 1949, urged on by Pablo Picasso, that French art material manufacturer Henri Sennelier produced the first oil pastels that were intended to be used by professional artists. They were superior, in that they used a quality pigment, had texture, and the wax used in them had a thickness to it all working together to make a better grade of oil pastel.
Today’s oil pastels offer artists a soft, butter consistency and intense colour. You have many good brands to choose from. Sennelier remains a high quality oil pastel, as does Sakura Cray-Pas, and they’re available in a wide range of colours with some manufacturers like Holbein offering up to 225 colours.
One thing to keep in mind about oil pastels is that they never completely dry.
Soft and Hard Pastels
Soft pastels have been around for centuries. They originated in Italy in the 16th century and were originally produced using powdered pigments mixed with either gum arabic, fish glue, or some type of animal glue as the binder. The only colours you had to choose from were red, black and white.
Soft pastels have become the most widely used by artists working in pastels. They have a higher ratio of powdered pigment to binder which gives
them pure colour and makes them easy to smudge and blend. It also makes for a higher proportion of dust. Finished artwork created using soft pastel, referred to as a painting, must be fixed using a protection spray to prevent it from unwanted smudging or damage.
Hard pastels are the opposite of soft pastels when it comes to how they’re manufactured. In this case, there’s a much lower percentage of pigment to binder which is what makes them so hard.
Hard pastels don’t have the same wide colour range as soft pastels do, nor do they produce the same vibrant colours, but they’re a pastel drawing tool that works well for preliminary sketches and composition outlines. They’re also perfect for adding fine details to your drawing that you can’t add with soft pastels.
If you’re like Goldilocks, you might be looking for a pastel that’s somewhere between a soft and a hard pastel when it comes to its firmness. Soft is too dusty but hard won’t blended easily enough.
Have you considered trying out a few pastel pencils? They could be exactly what you're looking for when it comes to pastels. They’re available from more than a few manufacturers and come in a great variety of colours. The best part is they’re encased in a wood sleeve so your hands will stay clean, well, if you want them to.
I use Faber Castell PITT Pastels. They’re not too soft or too hard. They can be sharpened to a nice, long point (by hand or electric) and blending them is easy using your finger or with a blender such as a stump or tortillon (these are also things you should have in your drawing toolbox). I keep a few basic colours of pastel pencil in my drawing toolbox and have a full set of colours in a round tin in my studio ready to use.
One More Pastel
But wait, you can also create awesome pastel artwork using Water-Soluble Pastels!
Did you know about these? Water-soluble pastels are manufactured with an additional ingredient, polyethylene glycol, which allows them to be thinned out. They can be taken as far as a semi-transparent wash. These pastels aren’t available in as wide a range of colours as you might like, but all the colours you can get are strong and unbelievably vibrant so you’ll have a lot to work with.
You can buy water-soluble oil pastels, pastels and chalk pastels (pastels with chalk in their formulation) that are available in sticks, crayons and pencils.
In the end, the materials you have in your drawing toolbox will come down to you and how you work. As always, try out a variety drawing materials from different manufacturers. You never know what you’ll find if you don’t give it a go and you’ll be amazed at the artwork you can create!
Next week, we’re going to talk a bit about drawing papers and we’ll set up a still life for drawing. I’ll show you how to place objects and light them so you have lights, mid-tones and darks to work with. Hope you’ll join me!
Until then, happy creating,
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