Instruction for Charcoal & Graphite Pencil Artists, a Stars Portraits tutorial

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Instruction for Charcoal & Graphite Pencil Artists

by J. D. Hillberry

Instruction for Charcoal & Graphite Pencil Artists

Author : J. D. Hillberry

Tutorial submitted on August 20, 2006

This tutorial contains techniques to create realistic looking artwork. This tutorial will explain the pencils and blending tools I use to render both rough and smooth textures. Once you know how to create realistic looking textures, you're on you way to creating much more realistic looking artwork. The second half of the page shows a step by step tutorial of one of my latest drawings.

To see samples of my drawings so you know what these techniques can do, click Pencil Drawing Galleries

Learn How to Draw - Graphite Pencil and Charcoal Tutorial

This  tutorial contains techniques to create realistic looking artwork.  I will try to update these pages occasionally  to provide fellow charcoal and graphite pencil artists insight into my methods. This half of this page will explain the pencils and blending tools  I use to render both rough and smooth textures. Once you know how to create realistic looking textures, you're on you way to creating much more realistic looking artwork. The second have of the page shows a step by step tutorial of one of my latest drawings. 

#1 Getting Started

Once you have decided on your subject, you need to decide on the best techniques and materials to use. There are so many things to consider. Should the background stay white? Should you use a smooth paper or rough? Should  you use graphite, charcoal, or a maybe a combination of both. It's enough to make you take up sculpting! Don't get discouraged. This tutorial will answer these questions and more. 

The first thing you need to do is analyze the textures in all the areas of your subject. Decide which areas would be considered rough and which are smooth. Notice where contrasting textures and values are adjacent to each other.

Once you have identified the basic textures and values of your subject, you need to decide on the appropriate techniques to use in each area.

#2 Using Charcoal and Graphite Pencil (why I use both in each drawing)

The individual granules of charcoal have an irregular shape. When light strikes a drawing containing these particles, it bounces back in many different directions. That means when it is pushed to its darkest value, charcoal doesn't have the reflective glare that is common with graphite. Usually the darkest values in a drawing are shadows, and, if you are trying to render a subject as realistically as possible, the last thing you want is a shadow that reflects more light than the subject. I use both charcoal and graphite pencil in different areas of my drawings.

Subjects I typically render with charcoal pencils:

  • Wood, Bark, fur, hair, eyelashes, pupil of the eye, dark line between the lips, nostrils, coarse fabrics, - like denim, leather, cast shadows,

Subjects I typically render with graphite pencils:

  • Skin tones, Shading in the white of the eye, Glass, Porcelain, Light values in shiny metal, Smooth fabrics - like silk, Light shading on paper objects- like playing cards.

My favorite brands of charcoal and graphite pencils:

  • Graphite: 
    There are many artist grade graphite pencils to choose from these days. A 2B pencil of one brand may be vastly different than the 2B of another brand. I use Berol Turquoise drawing pencils.

  • Charcoal:
    Many people who are used to the feel of graphite effortlessly gliding across their paper find charcoal too abrasive. Several years ago, I came across Ritmo charcoal pencils. While they aren't as smooth as graphite, they do have less of that feeling of "drag" than many other charcoal pencils. The degrees of hardness ranges from HB (hardest) to 3B (softest). All charcoal smears easily so if you are not familiar with this medium you may consider reading the chapter entitled Keeping Your Drawing Clean on page 18 of my technique book.

  • Carbon Pencils
    I also employ two types of carbon pencils: Wolff's and Conte carbon. The Wolff's carbon pencil has recently been reformulated to give a smoother feel and richer blacks than the old version. The clay in the Conte carbon pencil has a slightly warmer tone to it than the rest of the media I use. When either of these carbon pencils are used in combination with charcoal and graphite, their inherent characteristics make them ideal for separating subjects containing similar values.


I use various tools to blend with also. Each creates a different texture and spreads each medium differently. Using the right blending tool can mean the difference between using a few quick swipes to create the exact look you want, or, re-working an area for hours (or until you rub a hole in the paper) and giving up in frustration. These are some of my blending tools:

  • Blending Stump: These are tightly wound paper sticks with points on both ends. They are available in several diameters. Use them to blend large areas of the medium and also to apply the medium directly to the paper for softer effects.

  • Tortillon: These are generally smaller and not wrapped as tightly as blending stumps. They are not as solid as blending stomps  and they create a slightly different texture. 

  • Felt pad: Purchase 1' x 1' white squares at a craft store. Creates random textural effects for a variety of natural looking textures.

  • Facial Tissue: Good for blurring the edge of shadows and softening unwanted pencil strokes. Paper towels are another choice if you don't want to lighten the area as much.

  • Paper: Blending with paper brings out the texture of the drawing paper. The paper you use to blend with makes a big difference in the texture created. Try wrapping notebook paper around you finger to start with. Good for separating two objects that have similar values by using only textures.

  • Chamois: To imitate smooth textures like skin tones and reflective surfaces like glass. Also use it like an eraser to lighten large masses of dark charcoal or graphite. Creates an extremely smooth texture.

  • NOT FINGERS: I know some people don't have a problem with it but it can be a nightmare. I suggest you even be careful touching important areas of the paper with your bare hands. Your fingertips can transfer oil to the paper. This oil becomes apparent if it is in light areas of blended charcoal or graphite. Graphite and charcoal work exactly like finger print dusting powder, leaving the incriminating imprints of the person responsible for groping your paper. (Probably you, but you can yell at the kids if it makes you feel better.) It is impossible to make a smooth, even tone with charcoal or graphite powder in areas with fingerprints.

  • Experiment: Put those creative thinking caps on! You never know when you might come across something that will produce the perfect texture you are looking for. Try different fabrics - smooth and rough. Just make sure the materials are clean and the color from dyes won't rub off on your paper.

  • One Last Tip: These are some of the materials and techniques I use. I offer these methods as a starting point, to help you achieve a style all your own.  I believe there are as many techniques on how to draw as there are people. Never let any instructor or book make you believe that their way  is the ONLY way. My theory is - if it works, use it. We all need to keep growing and experiment but keep true to your own vision

Work In Progress

Title: "Paper Rose"
Size: 18" x 14"
Medium:  Charcoal, Graphite, Carbon on White Paper

Step One:

I am using charcoal for the background and graphite for the subject. I'm using Arches 140 lbs hot press watercolor paper for this drawing. This is one of my favorite papers. It has enough tooth to create dark values yet is smooth enough for very delicate textures. In this first step, I have cut out the shape of my subject(s) in frisket film and applied it to the paper. Then, I applied 3b soft charcoal to the background to begin creating a wood texture.

Step Two:

Next, I blended the charcoal with a piece of felt and added the beginnings of wood grain. I repeated this several times to build up a solid tone. After pulling out some highlights with a clic eraser, I used a sharp hard charcoal pencil to create shadows to help create slivers and chips in the wood. I also applied masking tape at this point. I will be drawing masking tape in these areas later. Some of the wood texture will show through from the previous step and give my drawn masking tape a little more transparency.

Step Three:

Then, I sprayed the drawing with fixative, Peeled off the frisket and began rendering the subjects. I used a 6h graphite pencil to add tone to the paper and blended with a chamois. In some areas, I applied the graphite with the chamois. For those of you that haven’t tried blending with a chamois, it can produce incredibly subtle tones – almost like an air brush. I use a kneaded eraser to pull out the crinkles in the paper. I am using the same technique to render the rose, applying graphite from dark to light and blending.

The tape on the right shows what it looking like after I removed the real masking tape.  I have begun rendering the tape on the right with Wolffs carbon pencils and blending with a tortillon. Using carbon here for the tape will help separate it from the wood and the paper.

Step Four:

I have started adding the holes and lines of the notebook paper. In case you are wondering, I didn’t darken the background in this step, I had to turn up the contrast on this a bit to show the lines on the paper.

I used charcoal for the holes to match the background. Adding charcoal at this stage always makes me nervous since it isn’t fixed and can easily smear. I also continued to add shading to the rose and added the line drawing of the stem.

The lines on the paper were produced with a .3 mechanical pencil to keep them as sharp and clean as possible. I used a French Curve instead of a ruler because the lines had to follow the bends and crinkles in the paper to keep the perspective correct. The best way to describe a French curve is it’s a bendable rubber straight edge.


Step Five:

Here’s the final. I had a real tough time taking photos of this one. I couldn’t get a picture of the softness of the paper shading without compromising the darker background detail. The original has more punch.

I’ve included some close-ups to give you a little better Idea of the detail. In the original drawing the tape is approximately 3/4" wide. It may appear larger than I drew it on your screen. 

Click Here for another Step by Step Lesson (direct link to J.D. Hillberry's website)

Learn How to Draw!

Technique book 

For complete step by step instructions that include over 150 illustrations order a signed copy of my technique book "Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil". To learn more about  its contents, click the book.

learn to draw technique book

Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil


J. D. Hillberry

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