One of the things I love most about graphite portraits is how fast you can jump right in and start drawing. There are only a few small materials you need and they are all pretty portable. So portable that before I moved to China, I could be often found around Greenville at one of my favorite coffee shops working on a drawing. I love that I can take my work with me and draw when I’m waiting to get my oil changed or sitting at the doctor’s office.
I have just a few tools I need to have handy no matter where I’m working on a portrait.
- Pencils and a Sharpener
- Drafting Brush
- Blending Sticks, Q-tips, and Cotton Balls
- Ruler and Compass
- Drawing Board, Paper, and Reference Photo
Can’t draw a graphite portrait without graphite! I usually use Staedler Mars, but I also have Prismacolor and Derwent that I sometimes use. I have every grade from 8B to 6H but I typically stick to 4H, 2H, HB, 2B, and 4B pencils. If you aren’t familiar, artist pencils have different levels of hardness that determine how much graphite gets laid on the paper with each stroke. They range from the hardest (6H) with gives the lightest line to the softest (8B) which is near to charcoal.
It changed my life when I bought my first electric pencil sharpener. Truly, I’m in love with it. Drives my husband crazy if I’m busy working away because boy, they are loud, but I just love the sharp point mine gives in just a couple seconds. The most important thing in a sharpener is finding one that will put a super sharp point on your pencil. And that won’t eat it! This is the down side of working away from my studio. I use a hand-held sharpener for traveling. Don’t even bother with a battery powered one. I’ve tried all different kinds, and they’re never up to the job.
A good eraser is just as important as the pencil when you’re drawing in graphite. And they aren’t just for mistakes! In fact, they are used much more often for “backwards” drawing as I like to call it.
This is where you lay down a dark shade with your pencil and then lift the color back off to get the shade and gradation that you want. A kneaded eraser is my favorite for this type of work. I also keep an eraser stick around for drawing fly-away hairs and cleaning up edges and highlights.
A drafting brush is a must have item. You can’t touch your paper with your hands. Ever if you can help it. The oils from your hand will stain the paper and, even if you can’t see them right away, they’ll show when you try to lay down shading on top of it. I also draw with a blank sheet of paper laying on top of the drawing paper right from the start. Even laying the side of your hand on the paper can transfer oils from your skin and you can never fix it once it’s there. Believe me, I learned that lesson the hard way.
In a portrait, especially on face and skin tones, smooth transitions are key to getting a realistic look. I use a mixture of cotton swabs, cotton balls, and good ol’ tissue for blending skin tones. They are great for smoothing out pencil strokes and getting a good gradation in a drawing. Especially great because they are cheap and easy to find. Blending sticks are pieces of tightly rolled up paper with a point at one end. They are great for smoothing and blending in tiny places, and I sometimes even use them to draw.
Typically when you see a ruler and compass as a drawing tool you think of straight lines and circles. However, there aren’t very many straight lines or perfect circles in a realistic portrait. These are actually measuring tools.
A true-to-life portrait is all about getting the measurements right. Even a millimeter off in one direction or another and you’ve turned a likeness of one person into someone else. It’s amazing if you think about it. Everyone has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, in mostly the same spot on their face. It’s the tiny details that make everyone look slightly different. I print out a reference photograph that is to scale for all of my portraits so I can precisely measure all of the details that make that person unique.
I use Strathmore Bristol Smooth paper (although sometimes I use Bristol Vellum also by Strathmore depending on my mood and how much is dark in the photo). I print out my edited reference photo to the same scale as the final drawing. Then, I use drafting tape or painter’s tape that I stick to my shirt first to make sure it’s barely sticky to attach my paper to my board.
Once I’ve gathered my materials, then it’s time to get to work sketching the outline of my portrait.