Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics 101

When learning to draw with graphite pencil, knowing the fundamentals is key. Below, Lee Hammond shares expert insight into the basics, excerpted from her book, Lee Hammond’s All New Big Book of Drawing.

Photo of graphite sketch drawing courtesy of Getty Images | Understanding the Fundamentals of Graphite Pencil Drawing with Lee Hammond

Working with Graphite Pencil

Graphite has always been my go-to medium for art. It was my first love when I started learning basic drawing techniques. Because I am self-taught, it was the easiest medium to master. It’s also the most portable and clean medium, so it was convenient when I was raising my children.

In the 80s, I developed the “Lee Hammond Blended Pencil Technique” and started teaching it to small groups. Like me, the students found graphite to be the easiest medium to control. By the 90s I was hooked — and writing books about it. This technique has changed the way people draw.

My book will make you proficient in graphite drawing. Even if you have previous experience, the projects will give you additional skill and understanding. I hope the illustrations will inspire you and prove that graphite pencil is not just a tool to be used for preliminary sketching, but is a fine-art medium in its own right.

Swan by Lee Hammond, graphite on smooth bristol | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics | Artists Network
Swan by Lee Hammond, graphite on smooth bristol

Graphite Tools

You cannot create quality artwork with inadequate art materials. My blended pencil technique requires the right tools to create the look. Don’t scrimp in this department or your art will suffer.

I’ve seen many of my students blame themselves for being untalented when it was their supplies keeping them from doing a good job. The following tools will help you be a better artist.

Graphite pencil

Pencils

Mechanical pencils are great for fine lines and details, and you never have to sharpen them. While a mechanical pencil is my pencil of choice, the lead is the most important part. 2B is a soft lead that offers a smooth blend. You can also use 4B or 6B with similar results.

graphite pencil supplies: paper

Smooth Bristol Board or Paper (Two-Ply or Heavier)

I like a paper that is very smooth (plate finish) and can withstand a good deal of rubbing, scratching and erasing.

Graphite pencil stumps

Blending Tortillions and Stumps

Both are used for blending the graphite pencil. Tortillions are spiralwound pieces of paper that are good for small areas. Stumps are paper pressed and formed into the shape of a pencil. They are pointed on both ends and work well for blending large areas.

graphite pencil supplies kneaded eraser

Kneaded Erasers

These erasers resemble modeling clay and are essential to a blended pencil drawing. They gently lift highlights without ruining the surface of the paper.

Stick Erasers

These erasers resemble mechanical pencils with a click mechanism for advancing them. The erasers in these are made of vinyl, and they erase pencil marks cleanly. The small point of the vinyl eraser can remove precise lines and details within your drawing. They come in a variety of sizes from large tips to micro.

graphite pencil spray fixative from blick

Workable Spray Fixative

This is a spray used to seal your work and to prevent it from smudging when you are finished. Workable means you can spray down an area and continue to draw on top of it. However, I don’t recommend it for the techniques I share in my book. It will change the smoothness of the paper and interrupt your blending.

 

graphite pencil drawing board

Drawing Board

It’s important to tilt your work toward you as you draw. This prevents the distortion that occurs when working flat. Secure your paper and reference photo with a clip.

 

graphite pencil supply ruler

Ruler

Rulers help you measure and graph your drawings.

graphite-pencil-report-covers

Acetate Report Covers

Use these covers for making graphed overlays to place on top of your photo references. They’ll help you accurately grid your drawings.

graphite pencil reference photos; Photo by sarandy westfall on Unsplash

Reference Photos

These are valuable sources of practice material. Collect magazine pictures and categorize them into files for quick reference.

A word of warning: Don’t copy the exact image; just use the images for practice. Many photographers hold the copyright for their work, and any duplication without their express permission is illegal. You can avoid this issue altogether when you use your own reference photos.

Blending Graphite

Back in the 80s when I first started teaching my Lee Hammond Blended Pencil Technique, graphite drawing had a looser, more impressionistic approach. Smooth blending was rarely seen. Over the years, this smooth and realistic approach has been embraced by thousands of people and become one of the most popular styles of drawing.

To create this look, blend your graphite until it appears smooth. It is not as easy as it looks, but with practice you can master this technique.

The following examples show what your blending should and should not look like. The smoothness of your blend will depend on how smoothly you apply the pencil.

It’s important to place your pencil lines down slowly and evenly at the very beginning. If your pencil lines are put down in a fast, scribble-like application, no amount of blending will make them look smooth.

Don’t Scribble

No amount of blending will ever be able to make this scribbled application look smooth.

Don't Scribble when Blending | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

Smooth Lines from Dark to Light

This is what your pencil lines should look like before you begin blending. The individual lines are barely visible. Work from dark to light, going up and down and back and forth at the same time to help the liens fill in as you go.

Smooth Lines from Dark to Light | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

Use a Light Touch for Blending

Apply the tortillion in the same up-and-down, back-and-forth application as you applied your graphite pencil. Do not press down hard as you blend — this will just rough up the paper and make it look choppy. The lighter your touch, the smoother your blend will be.

Use a Light Touch When Blending | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

Pro tip: When blending, always hold your stump or tortillion at a slight angle to get the best results for a smooth finish.

Blending Tools | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

The 5 Elements of Shading

In order to draw realistically, you must first understand how lighting affects form. There are five elements of shading essential to depicting an object’s form realistically.

Without a solid foundation of these elements, everything you draw will look flat. Your subject will look three-dimensional only when the effects of light and shadow are properly placed. Each of the five elements of shading can be seen on the sphere below.

The Five Elements of Shading | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

1.Cast Shadow

This is the shadow the object you are drawing casts onto a surrounding surface. It is often the darkest part of your drawing because this is where the light is completely blocked. It should be drawn in as close to black as possible. As it comes out from the object, it will start to appear lighter. It is No. 1 on the value scale.

2. Shadow Edge

This is also referred to as a turning shadow. It is not the edge of the object, but rather the shadow on the object that shows it’s a rounded surface. This is a dark gray tone that corresponds with No. 2 on the value scale. You will find this shadow where an object has protruded and the surface recedes to the other side.

3. Halftone

This is the true color of your object, unaffected by the light. It has no shadow and is No. 3 on the value scale.

4. Reflected Light

Look at the sphere above, and you’ll see a subtle rim of light along the edge of the shadow side. This is the light bouncing up from the surface and coming from behind. It is the element most often left out of a drawing. Yet without it separating the shadow edge and cast shadow, your object will look flat.

Be sure to study your reference for the reflected light — it is always seen on the edges, rims or lip of an object. While it is lighter than the shadows, it is still seen on the darker side of the object. It should never be left too white, or it will not look realistic. It is a light gray and corresponds with No. 4 on the value scale.

5. Full Light

This is the part of your subject that receives the most light. It’s No. 5 on the value scale, where the tones fade gently into the white of the paper.

Let Lee show you how to turn a photo reference into a gorgeous graphite pencil drawing in this free video demonstration!

Matching Values

It is important to match the values of your subject matter. I always tell my students to analyze and replicate the tones. However, there are times it may be difficult to judge the values in your reference photo and determine whether you are close.

To compare your tones, use this little trick: Take two small pieces of white paper and punch a hole in each. Place one over an area of your reference photo.

Place the other over the same area of your drawing. Look at both of the holes and see if the tones match. By isolating the tones within these holes, you can then compare them to white and see how dark they really are.

Comparing Tones | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network
In this example, you can see how much darker the drawing of the bird needs to be. Study the bird more closely — you will see all five elements of shading.

Here are some helpful tips for blending, shading and achieving even tones:

  • Contrast. Don’t be afraid to get dark in the shadows. Contrast is very important for creating the look of realism.
  • Application of Tone. Always apply your pencil lines according to the contours of your subject. Blend using long vertical strokes, lightening your touch as you get into the light (like a value scale). You cannot control the fade into the light with cross-blending.
  • Edges. Anytime you have to use a line to describe the shape of something, you must get rid of the look of outlining. The darkness of a drawn line belongs to one surface or another. Fade the dark out into the surface it belongs to and create the look of an edge, not an outline.
  • Uneven Tones. Correct uneven tones with a kneaded eraser. Form the eraser into a point and gently “draw” the irregularity out. Use a very light touch. This is called “drawing in reverse.” You can also crisp up edges this way.

Backgrounds and Edges

Graphite is a foundation medium. The gray tones it produces provide you a means for fully exploring and understanding the importance of value and the five elements of shading we have touched on earlier.

One way you can use value to achieve a better sense of depth in your drawings is to add tone to the background. Notice below how the dark backgrounds affect the look of the shapes. If these shapes were set against white backgrounds, their edges would look much different.

When it comes to drawing shapes, there are two distinct types of edges: hard and soft. Hard edges are found where two surfaces come together or overlap. They are quite defined as their tones create the look of an edge by stopping abruptly. Soft edges can be found in areas when an object bends gently. They have a gradual change in tone.

Background Makes a Difference

When the sphere is placed in front of a toned background, its edges look different compared to the previous sphere with the white background. When drawing, always ask yourself if you are blending light over dark or dark over light.

Sphere Drawing | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

Hard and Soft Edges

This cone has two distinct types of edges: hard and soft. The soft edge can be found in the curve of the shadow on the rounded surface of the cone. Hard edges are created were the cone overlaps the background and touches the table.

Cone Drawing | Graphite Pencil Drawing Basics with Lee Hammond | Artists Network

Keep Learning

Now that you have the basics of graphite pencil covered, start practicing! Lee Hammond’s All New Big Book of Drawing is a culmination of the artist’s 40 years of teaching, featuring more the 80 step-by-step projects and tips for both drawing with graphite pencil and colored pencil. Onward, artists!

 

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