Graphite versus charcoal and other media : does graphite have specific advantages?

There are a lot of advantages to graphite for drawing that make it a medium of choice for beginners in most contemporary modern ateliers. Fluid and versatile, it has made its way in a few centuries into being one of the artists’ main drawing medium. When I first started figure drawing, the only tool we were allowed was graphite. We just had to show up with one or two 2B pencils, some white sketching paper and a kneaded eraser and we could start drawing the model right away.

Graphite pencils are familiar, widely available in different grades, affordable, easy to use and sharpen, robust, clean and a lot more. So let’s have a look detail. If you’re also interested in the drawbacks of graphite, you can further this article by reading my next one.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°1 : Familiarity with the medium

Most of us are already familiar with graphite for drawing, especially those of you living in North America since we rarely use pencils for writing in Europe. Drawing graphite is basically the same although it is of a different quality (See the article below Difference Between Charcoal and Graphite Explained). But beware : familiarity with the medium might be its worst advantage. Writing doesn’t necessarily imply the same movements than those of drawing where you’ll need more variety and flexibility.

 

Some of the most stunning drawings on graphite have been done by Ingres. He used graphite on Vélin paper. It is worth seeing them in real to get an idea of what can be done with this material.

A few remarks on this useful article. It is not true as it is said that graphite is for detailed exact work and charcoal for expressive work. Charcoal is actually better adapted to exact and very realist work. It just takes more time to master. However, it doesn’t have as much drawbacks than graphite (see next article).

This video teaches us how much effort it takes to make graphite pencils. Imagine the hundreds of years of knowledge necessary to get such machinery working. If there is such a beautiful industry behind pencils, then graphite drawing is certainly a very important art.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°2 : Variety of grades

Graphite drawing pencils come in a variety of different grades from soft to hard allowing you to render dark to light values accordingly. However, when starting as a beginner, it is easy to loose yourself in too much complexity. Therefore I recommend you limit yourself to only a few grades.

For getting a thorough range of values, you can start for instance with the following grades : a 6B, a 2B, a HB and a 3H. You will refine your set of pencils as you go along. Getting acquainted with these pencils is already a difficult task.

Besides, as you will discover, combining these grades will get you through most difficult situations : getting uniform shades, especially dark ones, filling the holes of the paper, making straight lines, reducing shine, and so on.

Rule for efficient learning : start with the smallest number of drawing materials possible

Drawing materials are very difficult to master and each kind of material takes years of practice. So if you’re always running against time and need to be efficient, start small and be humble! It will save you a lot of frustration.

Grades of graphite pencils I recommend for beginners

A video that does a good job at explaining the different grades of graphite and the different systems available in Europe and America. It also features brand recommendations (see the summary at 6:02).

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°3 : Robust lead

In my experience, graphite leads are much more robust than charcoal ones. They break very rarely unless you inadvertently let your pencils fall on the ground. In contrast, charcoal leads are very brittle and sometimes are already broken inside their wooden casings. In any case, you should be careful with your pencils. When not drawing, place them in a tray close to your drawing space so they don’t fall.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°4 : Easy sharpening for detailed work

What is really nice about graphite pencils is that they can be sharpened into a fine point with a professional pencil sharpener (see video below). This will prove invaluable for making detailed work. It will also save you a lot of time compared to charcoal sharpening where getting the same result sometimes proves difficult.

Those seeking a good pencil sharpener should buy this one. It is a little expensive but it will last you a long time. I am not a great fan of sharpening my pencils with a blade because it takes a lot of time and doesn’t really improve the pencil’s possibilities. Other pencil sharpeners might give good results too.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°5 : Less dust and smearing

Graphite is much less messy than charcoal when it comes to sharpening and drawing. This is one of the main reasons beginner drawing courses recommend it. Of course, this is not true when using graphite powder as does the artist Melissa Cooke in the video below.

I haven’t tried working with graphite powder yet but it looks very promising. The artist uses Stonehenge lightweight paper. She uses a brush to pile up many layers of graphite.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°6 : Smooth light gradations are easy with graphite

One of the advantages of hard graphite pencils is that they allow, on adequate lightweight paper, smoother light gradations than what most charcoal or pastel pencils do. A lot of artists agree on the fact that graphite slides more easily on the paper than other media. This might explain why it is so enjoyable to draw smooth gradations with graphite.

That being said, graphite still leaves some undesirable spots of unfilled areas on the paper. This can distract the artist and the viewer. If you want to get rid of this “grainy gritty feel”, there seems to be a solution that works better than the pencil. Have a look at the videos on smooth graphite drawing here below.

This video will give you an idea of how the artist uses light gradations at the beginning of the drawing to fill the shadow shape. These light shadows are then darkened step by step.

The very best video I’ve found on blending graphite and charcoal powder. Not only can you compare the two but you can also compare the results between a wide variety of application methods : Qtip, paper blender, brush, PanPastel. RixCanDoIt seems to get the best results with the paper blender. Cherry on top, he also talks about his best papers for graphite.

I haven’t tried working with PanPastel sponges yet but the technique looks promising for gaining speed and not damaging the paper.

This technique uses brushes and the result for the sphere is great until the artist uses the eraser at mark 3:02. At that moment, she breaks the unity of the sphere. She should have refined the sphere with a hard pencil instead to make it look more realistic. The only downside I see with the brush is damaging the paper if used with too much pressure.

This video is much like video n°3. The art is also very similar in that it is broken and lacking notions of modelling with light. It also lacks concepts of forms blending into one another smoothly.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°7 : Less expensive and more available

You won’t bust the bank by purchasing them and they’re available everywhere which is not the case with other types of pencils. Here in Europe, each graphite pencil costs between 1 and 1,5 euro. For charcoal or pastel pencils, it’s usually twice that price. The difference doesn’t seem much but professional artists buy them by hundreds. So it is worth researching the Internet for inexpensive shops.

This is the cheapest shop I have found yet for Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100. The price per pencil is 0,90 euros instead of 1,65 euros as is usually the case in art supply stores in France.

What are the advantages of graphite for drawing n°8 : Graphite drawing on white paper allows more contrast

Some teachers believe that graphite drawing allows more contrast because it is mostly done on white paper. The scientific explanation is that a white background reveals the darker tones of the graphite better than toned papers. While this is not strictly speaking due to graphite itself,  it might be considered as an advantage as a whole.

Now, if you were to use charcoal on the same white paper, you would get darker tones than graphite. So why recommend graphite? The problem is that charcoal isn’t as easily manageable and doesn’t produce mid-tones easily. That’s why charcoal is usually combined with a white pencil and therefore done on toned paper. If this allows moving the values back and forth to obtain the desired intensity, it reduces the range of contrast due to the use of toned paper.

So you begin to understand why some teachers prefer graphite on white paper : nice handling properties, better contrast range and control of values since all values have to be filled (see Jon DeMartin article here below).

This is a useful article to read for drawing beginners even if it is written by photographers. When drawing objects, the choice of the background of the model on one hand and the choice of the paper on the other (white or toned) will have a deep impact on the values you will be able to perceive.

“For the beginning artist, it’s advisable to learn to draw on white paper and to practice using a full range values from very dark darks to the white of the paper. This educational practice goes back centuries, the reason for it being that if the artist can ably draw with a full value scale, then modelling on toned paper – which requires a more limited value scale – will be that much easier. Artists who have mastered drawing with a full value scale are well-positioned to use toned paper for deliberate artistic purposes rather than be hindered by it.”

In this video, the artist presents a selection of papers for drawing in graphite and other media.

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