This comprehensive video covers the techniques of Layering graphite grades, Burnishing with harder grades, and compares layering to blending. Mike explains, in easy to understand ways, how patchy shading is harming your drawings. Two exercises help you explore the way layering can greatly increase the solidity and intensity of your dark values, and smooth lighter values.


Why low contrast drawings look flat

Low v High contrast drawings

An introduction to Layering that shows the difference between weak, low contrast, darks and strong contrast. Solid and intense darks add impact and increased three-dimensionality to your work.
Why gaps in pencil shading weaken the intended values

The effect of gaps in shading

Mike explains why and how gaps and holes in your shading will decrease the perceived strength of the values you intended to create.
Mixing soft and hard grades of pencil

Mixing soft and hard grades

How your paper accepts soft and hard grades, and why they behave differently. Knowing this will help you layer different grades successfully.
Layering hard pencil over soft to increase its strength

Layering - Exercise 1

An exercise to help you understand how layering a hard grade over a soft grade smooths and solidifies the softer grade. Strong darks are important to the success of your drawings and layering increases the strength of your darks.
Why you should layer hard pencil leads over soft leads

Soft/hard layering order

Why you should always layer hard grades over soft, and the drawbacks of reversing that order.
Burnishing and Layering with hard pencil grades to smooth softer grades

Burnishing and Layering

Another exercise to help you explore the full benefits of Layering, and the Burnishing effect hard grades have on softer grades. They will smooth the shading and visually darken the perceived strength of the overall value.
Blending pencil compared to Layering

Blending compared to Layering

Mike compares Blending with Layering, noting the benefits and drawbacks of both methods. Both have very useful features but one can harm the realism of your drawing if used inappropriately.

Watch the 2-minute PREVIEW:

Layer and Burnish
Duration :
10½ mins
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Wonderful stuff, Mike!
Maggie Stull
Not only can I now make my darks, darker using layering but I can do it without smoothing away details. Love it!!


Have you noticed, when you compare the work of different artists, that one might appear flat and lifeless, but the other has an attention grabbing presence? The difference is usually due to values and contrast. So, broaden the tonal range as far as you can in your drawings. Really strong darks offset and brighten the highlights - your brightest whites.

We only have one white - our paper - so the only influence we can have on the contrast is to adjust the darks and blacks. If the darkest value is dark grey you have to work between that grey and the white of your paper. When the darkest value is near-black, you immediately have far more values available - another third in this case. And, if you use contrast intelligently, you can give the illusion of the paper being whiter than it actually is.

Of course, all this depends on strong dark values. So, let's have a look at ways of achieving that.

This is part of an offset-litho print, and the reason it looks grey and grainy is due to the offset-litho's 80% black problem. The system cannot produce solid blacks. Why? Because it uses a series of round dots to create values, and four round dots will always contain a white core. Our eyes see it as there being a 20% white content, so it reads the overall black as a dark grey. This is why newspaper photos always look grey and washed out. And so will your shading if you leave any gaps or holes. They will dilute - lighten - the dark value you intended.

Strong and solid blacks are important. Soft grades (the Bs) are coarse and grainy, and their flat graphite plates sit on top of the tooth, leaving white pits. The hard grades (the Hs) contain more fine clay, so it can get into those pits.

To achieve the best darks, combine the two. You'll have the dark value of the soft grade with the smoothness and solidity of the hard grade. This technique is known as Layering.

Draw a box, about 3 by 2 inches (8 x 5 cm). Make a mark one-third down, and another two-thirds down. Begin shading at the top with a 4B, using the flat face, so the lines merge into each other. Work horizontally, so you only have to adjust the weight as you shade down to white at the one-third mark. No need to be tidy! Just shade. Use lots of weight to produce the black. Go over it a few times if that helps to eliminate gaps - up and/or down. And if you're trying to remove a gap, don't look at your pencil - look at the gap. You'll just watch it disappear, because your concentration will be on the gap and not what you're drawing.

Now begin again right from the top, and work your way down to the two-thirds mark, using an HB. But before you start, look at the 4B black, Now, as you begin to shade the HB over it, have a look to see what effect it has. The harder HB will:
  • Break up the 4B grains
  • Work the 4B into the tooth
  • Fill the holes in the tooth that dilute the dark value
  • Smooth and solidify the 4B
Now, working right from the top again, use your 4H, and gradually decrease the value to white at the base. Your top section will have 4B, HB, and 4H layers. The mid-section will have HB and 4H layers. And the base will have only 4H. Notice that the 4H has very little effect in the top part, but it will have smoothed the HB and made it more solid by filling in the pits in the tooth. Layering different grades gives you:
  • Full control over the result
  • It combats weak darks by removing the holes and gaps
  • It increases the contrast, so your drawing pops. It has a real presence
  • It darkens the value of the soft grades, because it removes the holes that dilute its intensity
  • Smooths the finish of the harder grades
You might have noticed in this exercise that the grades were progressively harder. There;s a good reason for that: Remember I explained the clay of the hard grades fills the tooth? It's the tooth that scrapes the graphite off the pencil's tip. If it's full of clay, there's little left to scrape off the grainier soft grades. Also, graphite is made up of flat plates, and soft grades have a bigger graphite content, so the flat plates can just skate over the surface and not be deposited.

This is a horizontal layer of 6H with a vertical layer of 6B overlapping it. Soft over Hard. When the 6B met the 6H there was nothing to grab hold of, so it just skated right over it. This is 6B with a horizontal band of HB layered over it. Hard over Soft. The harder HB found plenty of usable tooth within the soft 6B, which tends to sit on top of the paper. And notice also how the HB has darkened the 6B by filling in many of the holes. Bear that in mind - always hard over soft, or you might have problems later if you wish to darken an area that you shaded with a hard grade.

Now let's repeat the first exercise but using more practical grades. As previously, draw a 3 by 2 box (8 x 5cm) - that's so you can see the whole box without having to shift your gaze - and, again, we'll use hard grades over soft. Begin at the top with a 2B, as dark as you can. Then fade it to white about half the way down. Now use your HB. Start again right at the top and shade down about three-quarters of the way. And, as you do it, watch the effect it has on the 2B.

Finally, starting again at the top, use you 2H and shade almost down to the base. This is called burnishing - that's the polishing of the soft grades with the harder grades. Usually the best choice is to use two grades harder to burnish. So, your 2H won't have had much effect on the 2B, but it will work its magic on the HB, in the same way the HB worked its magic on the 2B. But never use hard grades with excessive weight - you will indent and will probably damage your paper. Any grade harder than 2H is best used lightly.

You can layer and burnish whenever you want to smooth a darker value, or want it to look more solid. Because it preserves the sharpness of you drawing, it's particularly useful for foreground use. And successive layers give really fine control.

The alternative to Layering is Blending. First, blending is not a cure-all. It won't fix poor drawing, and it's often over-used. Blending will:
  • Not be a shortcut - either as a way filling areas quickly, or using vague suggestion for something you don't understand.
  • It won't fill gaps or holes in your shading - it will soften them, but they'll always be visible.
  • Medium to hard blending will flatten the tooth and make additional drawing very difficult.
  • It will smooth shading. This is its principal use - removing all signs of line, So, for example, it's an excellent technique to use for skies and flawless skin.
  • It will soften all sharp edges - and if you over-use it, it can turn your lively drawing into mud!
  • It will lighten darks - because it removes graphite.
Logically, blending works best in midground and background areas, where soft edges and a lack of sharp detail are expected.

Layering, however, is ideal in all situations, especially for foreground use. Because, layering will:
  • Preserve sharp edges. All sharp edges remain sharp, which is essential in many situations, such as drawing hair or buildings.
  • It will darken dark values, by removing the white holes and gaps.
  • It will accept additional drawing. As long as you follow the two-grades-harder advice - HB over 2B for example, or 2H over HB - you should be able to use a soft grade again over the result.
  • It will maintain the freshness and vitality of your drawing. It doesn't knock the life out of it in the way that blending can.
  • It gives you fine control of the values - the three-dimensional shaping and overall appearance.
Blending has many excellent uses but think twice before you use it. Layering takes longer and requires more care, but the result is often well worth the effort. And burnishing is the ideal way to produce rich solid values.

Finally, never be afraid to use intense darks. In a later video I'll show you how you can reverse them - almost back to white.

© copyright: Mike Sibley 2018

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