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 so on. Let’s have a look in more detail.

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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 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 where you’ll find “Everything you need to know about graphite”. 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. And it doesn’t have as much drawbacks than graphite (see here below).

A very inspiring video that teaches us how much effort it takes to make graphite pencils. Imagine the hundreds of years of knowledge it has taken us to get such machinery working. If there is such a beautiful industry behind pencils, then graphite drawing is certainly a very important art. In the potential creativity of every pencil lies all the promises of the future.

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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 : 6B, a 2B and a HB or 3H. You will refine your set of pencils as you go along. Getting acquainted with these pencils is already a difficult task just by itself and will take you months or years.

Besides, as you will discover, combining two or three 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).

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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.

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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.

Drawing Graphite Advantage n°5 : Less dust and smearing

On the whole, graphite is much less messy than charcoal when it comes to sharpening and drawing. I suspect 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.

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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.

Drawing Graphite Advantage 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 that are only found at art supply stores. Here in Europe, each graphite pencil costs between 1 and 1,5 euro on average. For charcoal or pastel pencils, it’s usually twice that price. The difference doesn’t seem much but professional artists buy them by the hundreds. So it is worth researching the Internet for inexpensive shops.

If you live in Europe, 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.

Drawing Graphite Advantage n°8 : Graphite drawing on white paper allows more contrast

Some teachers believe that graphite drawing allows more contrast because most graphite drawing is done on white paper. The scientific explanation is that a white background reveals the darker tones of the graphite pencil 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 massively darker tones than graphite. So why recommend graphite? The problem is that charcoal isn’t as easily manageable as graphite and doesn’t produce mid-tones easily. That’s why charcoal is usually combined with a white pencil and 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 of graphite, better contrast range due to the white of the paper and better 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 very 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.

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing?

In my opinion, it is interesting how the alleged advantages of graphite stated previously can become its potential drawbacks in certain situations. Following that thread, people usually find two drawbacks in graphite : limited range of value and shine. These will usually kick in when you’re an advanced level and try rendering highly realist objects. But there also other disadvantages to graphite. Let’s look at them in more detail.

Drawing Graphite Drawback n°1 : It is difficult to make very dark realistic values

Graphite isn’t as dark and rich black as charcoal even in its softer grades (usually 8B or more). This will prove necessary for getting close to real shadows if you’re drawing from life or from photographies. Otherwise your shadows and dark accents will look pale compared to the original. Let’s not forget that here on earth, some shadows made by the sun can be astoundingly dark.

That being said, there are ways around this and specific techniques that allow getting very dark values with graphite. I have included videos from a realist graphite artist that explains how to get rich background blacks with graphite.

This video is great because there is a comparison between few brands of charcoal and graphite pencils. You will find that the Staedtler pencils is a good choice if you want to get your graphite darker without switching to charcoal. Stardtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencils have some carbon mixed into them.

The artist Jono Dry explains how he prepares 8B graphite powder from graphite sticks. According to him, the paper makes a lot of difference in how much graphite can be absorbed and how dark it shows. He uses Arches Hot Pressed Acrylic paper and rubs the graphite powder with a piece of cotton.

In this video, the artist gives more elaborate techniques to get rich dark blacks with graphite powder. He mixes the graphite powder with solvents or linseed oil.

This video explains at mark 8:43 how the artist uses combines graphite and charcoal :

  • graphite for the light and mid-tones
  • charcoal for the darkest darks.

 

Drawing Graphite Drawback n°2 : Too much pressure will make your drawing shine

Graphite has shine in areas where too many layers were built up with a lot of pressure. To see these areas shine, you usually have to look at your drawing at an angle. Even in almost pure charcoal drawing where a small amount of graphite is used to refine certain areas, these little bits of shine appear. I find this very undesirable as it interferes with our judgment of values and is unpleasant to watch. If you really don’t want any shine in your artwork, I recommend using charcoal pencils rather than graphite or combining the two.

Darrel Tank explains everything you need to know about getting rid of graphite shine. The only things I would add is that this is more difficult than you would think. In fact, a small amount of graphite in excess can create a shine. Also I recommend you be careful with the brush : it should be handled lightly not to damage the paper. Therefore choose the brush carefully.

Drawing Graphite Drawback n°3 : Too much pressure will damage your paper

To test this, try making a uniform shade of a dark gray value on a given piece of paper by pressing hard on the pencil just like Darrel Tank does in the video above. After just one layer, graphite goes deep into the paper and has a tendency to stick into the fabric. At that point,  it can’t be removed. This behaviour can lead you to damage the paper faster than if you were using charcoal. When applying pressure, it seems the crests of the paper get more burnished with graphite. Of course, you can control this by diminishing the pressure. But the problem is that it might take a lot more time to build a given dark value of graphite.

Stephen Bauman is a successful online artist and teacher and he uses graphite in his figure drawings. In an extract from a conversation with Proko, he talks about how graphite can damage the paper.

Drawing Graphite Drawback n°4 : Soft graphite doesn't cover the paper as well as soft charcoal or pastel

Soft charcoal or pastel pencils, brittle and dusty as they are, cover the crests and troughs of the paper more easily than soft graphite pencils. This is especially annoying where you have very dark backgrounds and you have to spend a lot of time layering the graphite over and over. Layering is always tricky with graphite because you also risk damaging the paper and building shine (see previous points).

This is a very important point because artists draw a lot of dark backgrounds. Covering a large black area with graphite is always a challenge. That is not the case with charcoal pencils where it’s a piece of cake.

Drawing Graphite Drawback n°5 : Graphite doesn't mix well with white charcoal or pastel

In my experience, graphite doesn’t mix well with other types of pencils. While most pencils are irrelevant to making black and white drawings, you should consider the case of the white pastel pencil which is traditionally used in combination with graphite on toned paper. Unfortunately, unlike charcoal, graphite doesn’t mix well with white pastel making perfect even gradations difficult to obtain. That’s why artists rarely mix white pastel and graphite in toned drawings : the toned paper serves as an intermediate value between the two. But the use of toned paper is rare among graphite artists who usually favour white paper (see above).

A note about this article on the advantages of graphite for drawing

I have tried to illustrate this article on graphite with the best references : book extracts, Internet articles and videos. I have  selected and ordered them carefully. I’ve also positioned the videos at the marks that deal with the specific subject I’m writing about. Just press play and you’ll see what you need to. Whenever needed, I will post videos myself. It is to be said for all resources that I have selected them for their technical usefulness and not for the quality of the artwork itself which is a judgment you will make on your own. I hope all this will give you a wide range of perspectives on the advantages and drawbacks of graphite.

Other articles you might find interesting after reading this one

If graphite’s use in art seems relatively recent (17th century), charcoal’s seems to be much more deeply ingrained in the past. Look at the beautiful drawing of a bison in the cave of Niaux here below to get an idea of the virtuosity in charcoal of our prehistoric predecessors. Raw, coarse, obscure, velvety, unforgiving, shamanic, spiritual, charcoal is certainly a god of the underground.

In my own experience as an aspiring artist, I have often felt frustrated with not making any progress in my work. After years of practice and struggling with drawing and painting, after years of looking at how others strive in their art, I’ve come to the following conclusion : I don’t think we really understand anything about practice in drawing.

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