What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing?

In a previous article, I gave a list of all the major advantages of drawing with graphite. In this article, I will push the subject further and describe how the alleged advantages of graphite can become its potential drawbacks in certain situations. We will see how people usually find two drawbacks to graphite : a limited range of value and shine of heavy graphite layers. These will usually kick in when you’re at an advanced level and try rendering realistically. But there also other disadvantages to graphite. Let’s look at them in more detail.

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing 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 realistic shadows if you’re drawing from life or from photographies. Otherwise your 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 : some specific techniques allow getting very dark values with graphite. I have therefore included videos from a realist graphite artist that explain how to get rich background blacks with graphite.

This video is great because there is a comparison between several 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. Staedtler 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 using graphite powder. He mixes the graphite powder with solvents or linseed oil.

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

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

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing 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 a small amount of graphite added to refine certain areas of an otherwise charcoal drawing will produce graphite shine. I find this very undesirable as it interferes with my 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.

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing 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. 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 value of graphite.

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

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing n°4 : Soft graphite doesn't cover the paper as well as soft charcoal or pastel

Soft graphite pencils don’t cover the crests and troughs of the paper as well as charcoal or pastel pencils. This is especially annoying where you have a very dark background and you have to spend a lot of time layering the graphite over and over. Layering is also tricky 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.

What are the drawbacks of graphite for drawing 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 charcoal on toned paper. Unfortunately, unlike charcoal, graphite doesn’t mix well with white pastel. This makes perfect even gradations difficult to obtain. What I mean by “perfect” is completely smooth without white spots of unfilled paper.

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 in general, 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *