Take the confusion out of choosing and using drawing media with top advice from Robert Dutton.
Ancient Hawthorns – Honister Pass, The Lake District, mixed-media drawing with Wallace Seymour Liquid Graphite on Canson Moulin du Roy Not 140lb (300gsm), (51x56cm)
Liquid graphite is an exciting media to use for creating wash-like effects with your drawings. Diluted with water, very effective and beautiful tints can be layered to darken tones. This was created en plein air.
Different types of drawing media explained
- Liquid graphite
- Graphite sticks and blocks
- Carbon pencils
- Ancient drawing materials
- Top tips for successful drawing
Graphite pencils are made in different degrees of hardness by regulating the amount of clay added. The greater the quantity of clay, the harder the lead and the lighter the overall drawn line will appear. The grades available range from H (hard) to 9H (very hard). And B (soft) to 9B (extremely soft). HB and F are intermediate grades.
Discover more about graphite pencils with Ian Sidaway's look at the Derwent Graphic Range.
Particles of liquid graphite are suspended in a water-soluble fluid within each 250ml jar. A little goes a long way. The media in the jars is quite thick but by mixing well, spooning some out into a separate container, mixing well again with water, you have a wonderful liquid graphite you can paint with that is permanent when dry. The tints you can create with this product are unique and beautiful. The available colours work exceptionally well together and with other drawing media too. They are exciting to use and perfect for expressive painting techniques – I’ve used them since they first came onto the market in 2010. Here you can see the tinted wash effects that can be created with this product.
A great favourite are graphite sticks, blocks and solid graphite woodless pencils. They feel really good in the hand and allow plenty of freedom when drawing, especially large-scale drawing, as you don’t have to keep stopping to sharpen them. The first thing I do with any new graphite stick is to snap it into different lengths and peel off all the protective wrapping so that I can use the pieces on their sides like a pastel, as well as the points.
Examples of Robert's usual drawing media.
1. Koh-I-Noor Progresso 4B; 2. Derwent graphite sticks; 3. Wallace Seymour solid graphite; 4. Lyra graphite stick; 5 Faber-Castell graphite stick; 6. Derwent XL Graphite Blocks; 7. Caran d’Ache 9B Grafcube; 8. Koh-I-Noor Progresso water-soluble graphite stick; 9. Derwent soft natural graphite; 10. Derwent XL Coloured Graphite water-soluble block.
Varieties of graphite sticks and blocks
- Koh-I-Noor Jumbo Progresso. Available in soft grades HB, 2B, 4B, 6B, 8B, I choose the softest – I like the deep black lines they create; when I require lighter marks I use less pressure. Tints and wash effects can be created with the water-soluble version, Koh-I-Noor Progresso Aquarelle.
- Derwent Graphitone is a very stylish and pure graphite water-soluble pencil available in 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. I find they dissolve better than other brands to create sumptuous passages of tone. Layering one tint over another is pure joy.
- Derwent XL Blocks are renowned for their purity of colour, versatility and top-quality pigmentation. Available as a set of six graphite blocks and a set of six charcoal blocks in a range of colours they are water-soluble and fabulous to draw and paint with. From sensitive line work and subtle blending to expressive mark making and deep tonal work, Derwent XL Graphite Blocks are smooth and refined. Discover more about Derwent XL Blocks with David Winning and Linda Birch.
- Lyra make chunky hexagonal graphite sticks that don’t roll off the desk as easily as the round ones, which is helpful. I remove sections of the wrapper so that I am not restricted to drawing with the point. Made in a variety of grades, they last for ages.
- Caran d’Ache Grafcube Graphite Sticks offer a different type of mark making and are available as 3B, 6B and 9B. Available as 10mm and 15mm – I choose the larger ones as they are useful for large-scale drawings. Discover more about the Caran d'Ache range with Susie Hodge.
- Faber-Castell make a hexagonal graphite stick that is described as a ‘graphite crayon’. Not as soft as Lyra in my opinion (despite the 2B–9B range), it works well with other brands when I need a harder mark. For example, I like to hold them in the palm of my hand to ‘dig into’ my drawings, thus loading graphite onto the support – lovely!
- Derwent have created a very different type of graphite stick. The results are a grey-type tone and they have a biscuit-like feel to them. The slightly gritty feel adds lots of texture to my drawings and they are superb to use on rough-textured surfaces.
Carbon pencils are made from lampblack, which is purer than charcoal and therefore denser. The consistency of carbon pencils and blocks is generally pretty close to that of compressed charcoal, but a lot heavier with a soft, velvety feel because an oilier binder is used. Wolff carbon pencils and blocks create lovely deep, velvety marks.
Carbon pencils (as with any wooden pencil) have the advantage of keeping your hands clean when working. Precise drawing is effortless with Wolff’s carbon pencils because they are made with the finest quality materials. Carbon pencils are quite rough and very textured so I switch to blocks and sticks of compressed charcoal to create my dramatic deep blacks. This avoids having to stop all the time to sharpen the pencils.
From left to right (shown on watercolour paper) Conté à Paris compressed charcoal; Derwent soft charcoal; Wolff carbon stick; Wolff carbon block; Wolff carbon pencils B, 2B, 4B, 6B; Derwent charcoal pencils dark, medium, light; Conté à Paris pencil; Derwent charcoal blocks.
Watch as Robert combines a variety of drawing media, including Nitram Charcoal, in the video below
- Compressed charcoal is made by mixing charcoal powder with grease and wax binders. It produces dark, bold marks that cannot easily be erased. It varies in texture according to the blend of charcoal, clay and fillers used.
- Derwent XL Charcoal Blocks create the effect of compressed charcoal or carbon blocks but because of their very soft consistency and water-solubility they can be blended very easily. Combining these media is really exciting, and very useful expressive drawing effects can be created.
- Wooden pencils with charcoal-blend cores offer equally great rich, dark blacks. They have a dry, almost abrasive feel but blend easily using a paper stump, a putty rubber or soft eraser, a Pan Pastel Sofft sponge or the good old-fashioned way – with your finger.
- Liquid charcoal (see above). Without doubt one of the most exciting media for artists keen on exploring expressive drawing techniques is liquid charcoal. Wallace Seymour Original Liquid Charcoal (60ml tube) and Nitram Liquid Charcoal (50ml tube) are both excellent. Use to create fantastic expressive drawings and tonal painting effects.
- Charcoal powder. Liquid fixative is especially effective to use with Nitram Charcoal Powder. Apply liquid fixative to a support and then sprinkle the charcoal powder into the media for some great textural effects. There are many more techniques to discover with this exceptional medium.
Discover more on how to use charcoal from Robert.
Fancy making your own charcoal? Read a great demonstration by Tony Swaby and give it a try!
This unique product is in fact a selection of rocks, minerals, chalks and clays obtained from sources worldwide. Available in three sizes: 30ml jar containing small pieces; 100ml jar containing small- to medium-sized pieces; 100gm tub containing large lumps. They are water-soluble too, as shown. I favour the greys – they have a soft, almost waxy feel. When diluted the tints are subtle. The harder-coloured pigments – shown here are burgundy burnt yellow, Oxford ochre and burgundy yellow ochre – work better on supports such as gesso and pumice because when used on even the most robust watercolour paper they tend to scratch the surface a bit too much for my liking.
Expressive drawing is not limited to charcoal or pencils. Soft, hard and Conté pastels are rewarding and exciting to use. Additionally, grey tones can further extend your drawing options. From left to right: Rembrandt pastels in five shades of black, grey and white; Unison Colour pastels in five shades of black, grey and white; Sennelier soft pastel in white; Derwent XL Charcoal Blocks in black and white. Shown on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch pastel paper in 490 light blue.
Fixative should never be frowned on. It is an effective way of further extending your repertoire – to darken passages of pastel and drawing pigments – as well as an effective way to protect your work from smudging. There are two main types of fixative – liquid and aerosol. Hairspray doesn’t even come into the equation! Although hairspray does contain some of the materials of a fixative, the effects only last a short term and ultimately damages the drawing as it yellows over time. If you have respect for your work and your buyer – use the proper stuff!
Extra precision is maintained by keeping the pencils sharp. Derwent’s wonderful lightweight desk sharpener has not disappointed me yet and remains sharp. Since I’ve owned one I find I use far more wooden pencils, of all sorts.
Pennine Showers and Melting Snow, mixed-media drawing with ink and pastel on white Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 350gsm, (50x65cm)
By combining different drawing media you can both draw and paint, keeping your options open and your work progressing in exciting directions. These ruins are in an area of the Pennines I know well and I never tire of them. Returning to the same motif is never boring – connections become deeper, drawings become stronger and emotional responses to the subject are all the better for it.
Ready to give drawing a try? Discover more drawing media and learn to draw a simple still life step-by-step with Mark Bevan.
- Get straight to the point! Keep your pencils sharp with the Derwent Manual Super Point Helical blade sharpener.
- Be accurate – look twice, draw once. Never adopt a ‘that’s about right’ attitude.
- Experiment with different surfaces – think beyond cartridge paper.
- Experiment with different drawing media – think beyond the pencil.
- Get stuck in! Draw as much as you can outdoors and with different media. Nothing is better than first-hand experiences to sharpen your vision.
- When working from photographs make A4 print-outs so that you see all the detail – but don’t copy it all! Add to and subtract from the scene to make more drama. Remember why you took it in the first place. Evoke those feelings in your drawing.
- Sketch, sketch and sketch! The more you draw the more confident you will be as an artist. Good drawing means great painting.
- Draw from life. Join a life-drawing class. There is nothing better to sharpen your creative drawing skills.
- Limit your drawing periods to just one hour (or less). This will force you to focus on the essence of the composition and create freer, looser drawings filled with excitement.
- Use an eraser wisely. There are no mistakes, only your thinking process. Enjoy your explorations and communicate what you see – let all your marks show.
Autumn Woodland, Rydal Hall, Lake District, mixed-media drawing on white Canson Mi-Teintes Touch pastel paper, (50x65cm)
Wallace Seymour Liquid Graphite was used extensively to evoke the subtle tints and brown tones in the woodland. Rocks, trees, shapes and forms intertwine to create visual interest. The board was taken off the easel and tipped at a 45-degree angle to allow the partly diluted media to run to echo the shape of the hillside. Once dry, compressed charcoal, Nitram soft charcoal, Royal Talens Rembrandt pastels and Unison Colour pastels were used to create the rich darks and bright highlights.
Robert Dutton is a UK ambassador for Canson papers and Nitram Charcoal and an associate artist for Unison Colour pastels and Derwent. He has won awards for his work and is a popular tutor, leading a number of creative painting and drawing holidays and short breaks in the UK and Europe. For more information, visit www.rdcreative.co.uk
Robert writes regularly for The Artist.
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Ready to draw more?
Discover more top tips and learn to draw a simple still life with Mark Beaven.
Read David Parfitt's great advice for drawing with pen and ink.
And see our associated drawing articles below.