I’m often asked what materials I use in drawing my pencil portraits. My aim is always to produce the highest quality work possible, and this naturally requires the use of only the finest tools and materials.
I’ve experimented with different brands and grades, as the choice of paper has the most profound impact on how the finished portrait will look. For both graphite and coloured pencil, my current preference is Strathmore Bristol Board. It’s acid-free and a hefty 270gsm. It’s available in Vellum, with a slightly textured surface which enhances animal fur in my dog, cat, and horse portraits. For family and child portraits, the Smooth version enables me to keep skin tones smooth and even.
The trick to rendering those subtle shades of grey in graphite pencil portraits is to use a wide selection of pencil grades with varying degrees of softness – the softest, 9B, provides heavy, black lines and is good for dark shadow detail (the ‘B’ stands for black). As you work up through the grades – 8B, 7B…HB…5H, 6H etc – the lines get finer and paler, a result of the harder grade of lead (the ‘H’ stands for hard). This allows fine details such as individual hairs and animal fur. Pencil manufacturers achieve these varied grades by altering the proportions of graphite and the clay binder that make up the ‘leads’. I’m currently using the Derwent Graphic range for the bulk of my shading work.
I also use a set of Rotring mechanical pencils, with replaceable leads. I like these because the leads are so fine – varying from 0.3-0.9mm in diameter. They’re perfect for fine details such as hair, fur, and eyelashes, and allow fine lines even with a softer, darker lead.
Almost as important as laying down the pencil is removing it where necessary. As well as a broad eraser, used for removing smudges and construction lines, an absolutely invaluable tool is the Mono-Zero eraser which works in the same way as the mechanical pencil. It’s only 2.3mm in diameter, so can be used to pick out very fine detail such as highlights in the eyes, or animals whiskers. I also have a battery-powered eraser – it’s quite thin so, again, great for getting into those detail areas, and it vibrates allowing me to work on smaller areas that I could do by hand.
The process in creating a coloured pencil portrait is quite different to graphite, where you build up the shading in dark and light patches to give shape and texture. Coloured pencil is more akin to painting – requiring accurate colours to be created by applying layers of colour which are then blended together on the paper.
My starting point for coloured pencil work is the Prismacolour Premier range, which are available in a wide variety of smooth, rich colours and have a waxy texture. They have good light-fastness and resist fading quite well, meaning your pencil portrait stays looking crisp and vibrant for longer. Prismacolour Premiers are quite soft, which enables me to blend them and create an even colour over a large area.
For greater detail and intricate work, I use also use Faber Castell Polychromos pencils. These have harder leads enabling them to maintain a sharper point – essential for the animal fur that makes up the majority of my work.
I plan to add Caran D’Ache Luminance pencils to my toolbox shortly (I need to do some more research and experimentation first – so watch this space). They claim to offer superb light-fastness, brightness and they apparently blend very easily, so I’m looking forward to trying them out.
The question I’m asked more than anything else is how I get my pencils so sharp. Keeping a sharp point is essential for working on fine detail such as animal fur, so I use a Helix desktop sharpener which is the best I’ve found – it works with all my pencils and, importantly, stands up to almost constant use.
Graphite pencil can be softened and blended to a large degree with a fingertip, but coloured pencil requires working over with a blending pencil – I use Prismacolour blenders, designed specifically for use with their pencils. Looking just like a pencil, but with no colour, they mix the layers of colour on the paper in much the same way as you might mix paint on a palette to achieve your desired colour.
Pastels have a slightly chalky consistency. I use them when I want to create a patch of uniform, texture-free colour, for example in backgrounds or as a base colour.
Pencil, especially graphite pencil, is a delicate and subtle medium, and its ability to be softened and blended whilst drawing becomes a disadvantage in the finished piece – it’s all too easy to smudge a heavily-worked portrait. To help keep your portrait in pristine condition, I use a clear fixative applied with an aerosol. It’s not absolutely failsafe though, and extreme care must be taken with your portrait prior to framing.
Accuracy is crucial so, day or night, I work under a lamp which uses a specially-calibrated bulb to mimic the colour temperature of natural daylight. This means that what I see when I’m drawing is as close as possible to what you will see when your portrait is hanging in your home.