The “Universal” Chisel Pencil Point

Julian emailed to ask:

I’ve always been told to keep my pencil sharp but in your book in the ‘Charlotte-portrait’ chapter you mention in stage 4 using a ‘flat’ tip. I’m not quite sure what ‘flat’ means.

The universal chisel point
The universal chisel point

I always use a chisel point, which has many advantages.

To achieve that point, sharpen your lead as usual and then, holding it at your normal drawing angle, rub the point off on a piece of scrap paper. Now you’ll have a flat face surrounded by a sharp edge.

  • Use the edge whenever you usually use a point – except the edge lasts a lot longer. Unlike a sharp point that wears very quickly, a usable edge extends half way around the flat face. Turn the pencil as you draw to maintain that narrow width of line.
  • Use the flat face for shading. It cannot draw hard edged or thin lines so the coverage is smoother and more even. And there’s an added bonus…
  • Every time you use the flat face you automatically sharpen the edge.

I sharpen my pencils every morning and probably don’t have to do it again for the rest of the day. If you’re not using the flat face and need to sharpen the edge, restore it by quickly scrubbing the face on scrap paper again. It’s almost an ever-lasting “point”; there is no constant pencil sharpening to break your concentration; and there’s one more major benefit…

You can switch from a broad flat face to a sharp point with a half turn of your pencil. Imagine being able to draw sharp linear detail and then applying a layer of tone to create the three-dimensional shaping without having to change pencils or reform the point. It leads to very spontaneous and intuitive drawing.

I’m aware I need to build the layers thru several applications and blending. Any advice?

Use the flat face of your chisel point and I think your problems will disappear. You can seamlessly build up layers of tone and blend at any stage. I would add that I personally work from dark to light. Hard grades tend to quickly fill the tooth with clay so soft grades won’t always successfully layer on top – but a hard grade will layer over a soft one. So, to build up a darker area of skin tone I first lightly apply 2B to the darkest areas and then build up the whole area with HB or, more usually, 2H. The 2H will burnish the 2B; it breaks up the graphite grains, spreads them more evenly and polishes the result. Result: seamless and flawless skin tones.

2B and 2H flat-face shading
2B and 2H flat-face shading

The completed drawing of Charlotte
The completed drawing of Charlotte

Applying Soft Graphite Over Hard?

John emailed to ask:

As I understand it, the layering of graphite is a major part in order to achieve the desired effect of tone and texture. But what I cannot understand is, after reading somewhere that it is almost impossible to build up tone from light to dark and that it must be done from dark to light, I believe it has something to do with hard graphite filling in the hollows of the tooth and then preventing softer grades from staying on the paper. Is this understanding somewhere near the mark, or I am totally way off the mark?

As with all things in Art there are no rules, which means I agree with your understanding and observation but I also know excellent artists who work light to dark. Personally, I belong to the dark to light camp, and here’s why…

First, you must understand the properties of graphite and the manufacture of pencils.

The crystalline structure of graphite is layers of flat plates. That’s why graphite reflects light while the irregular grains of charcoal and carbon don’t, and why graphite is an excellent dry lubricant. It also helps to explain why erasers are usually ineffectual at removing graphite – because once the erasing surface becomes graphite coated it simply slides plates over plates.

Raw graphite produces a black mark. In order to create differing grades – degree of hardness or softness – the graphite is mixed with clay. Imagine that an 8B is almost pure graphite and an 8H contains mainly clay and little graphite. Clay does not possess the plate-like structure of graphite, so the flat-plate structure is diluted as the clay content increases and the grades become harder.

The more clay added to the mix, the harder the grade and the lighter the achievable tones. For example, 6B has a far greater graphite content than 6H, which contains much more clay. This means 6H has a very fine composition and draws smoothly and light, but the softer 6B draws darker with a much grainier appearance.

Of course, this is a general description. In reality, the process varies between manufacturers and the quality they set out to achieve. A manufacturer of cheap pencils, apart from using inferior graphite, might also use inferior clays, which may be ground for less time – possibly just a few hours instead of days. Personally, I use Staedtler leads that are wonderfully consistent and impurities are almost never encountered.

There are more variables to consider too. For example, papers differ greatly, so what works on my ultra-smooth Conqueror Diamond White might not work on a more textured paper, and vice versa. It’s the tooth (the pits and crests in the paper’s surface) that causes the graphite to flake off the pencil’s lead, and some papers possess much more tooth than others.

If you use a soft grade (B to 8B) its minimal clay content means the individual graphite grains are large and won’t fill the pits of the tooth entirely. This leaves flecks of white paper showing through it, but that can be solved by burnishing with a harder grade – HB over 2B, for example – so the harder grade breaks up the softer one and fills the remaining tooth.

Because the soft grades always leave some tooth unfilled, you can always layer a hard grade over a soft one.

Conversely, hard grades (H to 8H) fill the tooth completely with a mix of clay and fine graphite particles, leaving insufficient tooth to accept the soft grades. Their large flat plates simply slide over the top and won’t hold. Remember, graphite is a dry lubricant, so it’s simply doing what it knows best. You can feel this in use, as the soft grade skates effortlessly over the harder grade. It’s much harder to get that soft graphite to stick to the harder underlying layer, and often impossible.

Hard over Soft – HB over 6B
Soft over Hard – 6B over 6H

There is a technique that I’ve sometimes used that turns this problem into a benefit. You can create your own “masks” – like acid resist in etching. It works best in areas of high contrast, such as highlights on hairs within a black coat. Simply draw your highlights first, with a 4H or harder grade applied with some weight, and then apply a layer of soft grade over it, perhaps 2B or 6B. As the soft grade slides over the lines of hard grade, those lines turn from visible, comparatively dark lines into light highlights. It gives quick results but is not entirely controllable.

Minty and Bramble
Highlights drawn first with 4H then layered with 6B

Personally, I feel the often-taught method of building up dark values from a lighter base is simply an admission that no firm decision has been made about the value required. Instead, I advocate the immediate application of the desired value. It produces the freshest drawing and, because it requires a confident approach, the result is sharp and clear. And, perhaps more importantly, as soon as the darkest value is established in a drawing, the entire palette of available greys is known and all midtones automatically fall into place.

If the initial dark value is too light, the entire drawing will be based around a restricted palette of greys. It will lose depth, vitality and impact.

I know I often repeat myself when promoting the use of dense and solid blacks and darks but they really are important. It’s light and shadow that make a drawing, not middle values. If you want your subjects to appear three dimensional, you must have light and shade. Look at the drawings of Ingres or the paintings of Rembrandt for clear lights and darks. And if you work from photographic references, try to find high contrast ones and not ones with almost all middle values – although with practice you should be able to interpret mid-value photos as though they were high contrast.

When someone looks at your drawing their brain will register the darkest value, however small, and then read the white of your paper as being pure white. From those check points it will compare the two extremes and understand all the mid values. The wider the overall tonal range the more three-dimensional information you can impart.

When you’ve completed your drawing, or a completed section of it, lightly shade with a 2H, or 4H, over everything, avoiding only the highlights. That will remove all non-intentional white from your drawing and your highlights will shine with an increased brilliance.

Dog Drawing critique

Molly emailed to ask…

I sent you a few of my pet portraits a few years ago and you were kind enough to give me a free critique. I purchased your book and have studied it, but still am struggling with my drawings. I was wondering if you would have the time to give me a quick critique on my more recent drawings so I can see how I have improved.

I would like to attend your workshop in Yellowstone, hopefully it will work out for me to attend this year.

Molly's livestock drawing

You sent me five images, Molly, but I’m going to concentrate on just one, because I think they all contain the same approach.

Molly's Rottweiler drawing

You’ve developed a good eye, Molly, and you show a good understanding of what you are attempting to draw. The Rottweiler’s nose, for example, is perfectly shaped – and you’ve certainly captured the character of this lovely dog!

However (you could see that coming, couldn’t you 🙂 ), I think you’re too focussed on the reference, and drawing without really being aware of the three-dimensional shape that you’re depicting. You are very accurate with the growth direction of the hair but reacting, I think, to the tones you see before you without asking yourself what they represent. You’re drawing the two-dimensional content very well, but losing sight of the three-dimensionality – and the finer detail that adds that sense of reality.

Eye with tonal range altered

Decide on a lighting direction before you begin. It doesn’t have to be the same one as seen in your reference – in fact, it will benefit you if it is different, because when you are forced to impose your own lighting, you HAVE to understand each element in three-dimensions. It’s this lack of three-dimensional lighting that is making your drawings appear to be flat – as is your shyness in using bold blacks.

For example, you’ve used good solid blacks for the pupils, but then not used them in the shadow beneath the top eyelid. As a result the eyeball and lid appear to be on the same plane. Think about where the structure you’re drawing recedes or protrudes and then light it accordingly. With a little practice you can then begin to manipulate elements of your drawing to bring out or emphasise the three-dimensional nature. I would, for example, be planning to introduce deep shade between the ear and head so the difference in planes was obvious. And I’d darken the neck beneath the chin too for the same reason.

The ear forced to stand away from the head

The ear now stands proud of the face and adds a definite three-dimensional sense for the viewer. Never be afraid of going dark – you can always later reduce the intensity of the tone with Blu-Tack or similar.

Now you are much more comfortable with your pencils begin to look deeper into the reference. Understand the exact make-up in greater detail and then build that into your work. The Rottie’s nose, for instance, looks good but in reality it has a leathery texture of pits and islands. You have a good idea of its construction – now slow down, focus more on that single element and add the texture. Treat it as a drawing in its own right so you’re not tempted to move on to other areas too quickly.

You’re definitely heading in the right direction! I do hope you can make it to the Yellowstone workshop in June. There’s so much I can show you more easily – and I can look over your shoulder too 🙂

Drawing Skies

Gary posed another question:

Can you offer any advice on how you tackle skies? Skies can sometimes make or break a drawing, especially if you want the focus to be on the scene but need to add some degree of the sky as well – be it understated. Would you apply a cross-hatched technique here and if so, is there a particular method that works well for blending and creating a natural looking sky?

Skies are more important than I once realised! I used to leave the areas white but I soon discovered that adding even a light tone to skies immediately increased the brilliance of highlights within the drawing. In other words, removing all white from a drawing, except where they are intended, forces the viewer’s eye to read highlights as pure, brilliant white.

Applying an overall, smooth tone to skies can present technical problems; there should be a total absence of line and smoothly graduated changes of value. Any marks that don’t conform to Nature immediately reduce your carefully rendered realism to mere “drawing”.

I almost always hold my pencil in a normal “writing” position, but for skies, and other large areas of light tone, I use an underhand grip.

Underhand shading hold

Here I use only the weight of my clutch pencil to apply the tone, and usually with a 2H pencil. Of course, I cannot shade a large area from side to side with a single set of lines, and shading the area in sections leads to two potential problems. First, stopping a line to shade back in the other direction leaves blunt ends. And an overlap of blunt ends when shading adjacent areas will result in a very obvious double layer of graphite.

Banding caused by overlapping blunt ends
Banding caused by overlapping blunt ends

Over the years I’ve developed a technique to overcome both faults. Try this: practice drawing a line that drops gently onto the paper, continues with the required weight and then is as gently lifted clear. This will produce a line with tapers at both ends. Think of it as drawing an arc – a swing down onto the paper followed by a swing up from it. You can extend such a line at will with no evidence of a join, as a taper over a taper is simply a full strength line.

Feathered ends overlap seamlessly

Once you get a feeling for drawing this way you can begin to shade large areas – with a taper at the end of each line, which you should also stagger to prevent the eye detecting an edge. Each shaded area will now have a feathered edge that you can overlap with adjacent areas – a feathered edge layered over a feathered equates to a solid, matching tone.

Once the area is completely shaded you will need to blend it. Incidentally, blending is a technique I rarely use, except for skies or skin tones. Knowing beforehand that you intend to blend, you can make allowances for this when applying your graphite. That’s why I use the pencil-weight, underhand method, because the graphite sits on the top of the paper and not deep in the tooth. I usually blend very lightly with tissue wrapped around my finger. As the tooth of the paper is still available, I can apply additional layers, if required, to build up the tone.

I don’t customarily produce dark skies or include more than a hint of clouds. For good advice on drawing those I can recommend Diane Wright’s “Drawing Skies” tutorial.

I describe the techniques I’ve mentioned here in much more detail in chapter four of my book “Drawing from Line to Life”.