I often feel we take the humble pencil for granted. Once you master how to draw in pencil you have cracked the code to building your artistic talent.

I found myself looking at an old pencil sketch I completed of leaves in autumn.  I always think that pencil sketching is great for getting down the finite detail of a subject as well as staying in control of your drawing. The skeletal bones of an autumnal leaf juxtaposed to a fully coloured leaf. I recall using my watercolour pencils for that image.

Over the past few days I have concentrated solely on sketching with a leaded pencil – and that’s it.  No addition of colour or ink. Just pencil. The temptation to use colour to accentuate and “improve” my drawings has been overruled. I always think that sketching in pencil is like going commando. (In the artistic sense that is!)

The lesson learnt?

How to improve the foundation of my sketching skills and not be tempted to take shortcuts. (Although there is nothing wrong with taking a shortcut when it comes to drawing!)

Since starting as a sketching artist a few years ago I have always been driven by the need to improve my technique by loading my drawings down with a variety of mediums. Even more so, has been the desire to understand how to break down the process of drawing further and use it to build my own personal technique, especially as the sketching technique is often completed relatively quickly.

In Jake Spicer’s book “How to Draw” he encapsulates it perfectly when he cites, “A drawing technique is like a recipe, and just like cooking up a new dish, you can make a particular kind of drawing by following the appropriate technique to achieve the desired outcome.”

If you are new to sketching, learning some basic techniques using pencil as your principal ingredient will stand you in good stead. Very quickly you will find that you can swap out the pencil for other types of medium.

Taking the time to use this happy, very forgiving and, often, underrated medium will force you to improve your drawing technique.

Where to start when drawing in pencil? 

The B Range Pencil

Always aim for a B range pencil. The more “B” it is, the softer, more malleable and forgiving the lead is on paper.  You can also buy a full range of H and B pencils. I briefly touch on what these are in another post (Building a Sketching Kit) which you can read here.  I’m going to be touching on basic pencil drawing techniques in this post.

Equipped with your B pencil, (I personally like using the Dixon Ticonderoga brand) start by getting a feel for it on paper. Use it to explore mark making. Scribble with it, pretend you are shading or “colouring in,” press down hard and then softly with it, draw straight lines and jaggedy ones, mark the paper with dots. You get the idea. I always like how I am able to wear down the nib of the pencil and create edges to the lead.

How to Hold your Pencil

Notice too how you hold the pencil.  Do you grip it at the bottom? Or do you hold it closer to the top so that you are able to use a broader sweep of your hand across the page? This particular technique comes with time.  I remember one of the first exercises I was asked to try.

My pencil was attached to a long stick. I stood above the paper, holding the stick (the pencil at a long distance from my hand) and proceeded to draw an object.  A pointless exercise I thought, especially when I surveyed the scrawled picture I’d produced.  I was unable to control the very detailed movements I had been accustomed to making when simply holding a pencil pressed close to the paper. However, given time I noticed that holding the pencil as far from the “nib” as possible has improved my technique.  If anything this learning process has enabled me to draw edges more confidently.

The pencil it seems is a fantastic tool for getting the edges of a subject down on paper.

Here comes the second part to my pencil lesson and it goes hand in hand with how we view what we are drawing.

Pay Attention to the Subject you are Drawing

Kimon Nicolaides “The Natural Way to Draw – A Working Plan for Art Study,” in the first exercise he takes students through, uses a pencil. A 3B one to be exact.  As he opens section 1 of his book on contour and gesture he states “the first function of an art student is to observe, to study nature. The artist’s job in the beginning is not unlike the job of a writer. He must first reach out for raw material. He must spend much time making contact with actual objects.” Our drawing success comes from how successfully we observe the subject we are drawing.

He proceeds to describe the lesson.

“Focus your eyes on some point (i.e the object that you are drawing) – any point will do – along the contour of the model. (The contour approximates what is usually spoken of as the outline or edge.) Place the point of your pencil on the paper. Imagine that your pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced  that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.”

When you first start to learn to draw you will find that your pencil markings on paper are faint.  You will find yourself looking more at the paper, considering your pencil strokes which will be shy as well as short and lifted off the page regularly in tentative brush stroke movements. We are creatures of habit us humans when it comes to being more concerned with the end result as opposed to the process we undergo in order to learn a new technique.

As you improve you will find that you will find your pencil strokes getting more confident as well as stronger and longer on the paper. This is inevitably because you will find yourself looking more at your object than at your paper.

Co-ordinating the pencil with the eye is the key lesson to learn here.

As you refine your sketching practise the pencil is a most forgiving medium to enable you to succeed.

…And I’ve not yet covered other techniques that the pencil is good for too!

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