I also sharpen my pencils with a scalpel as opposed to a pencil sharpener, it maybe takes slightly longer, but this way I find I can get exactly the profile of lead that I want - impossible with a pencil sharpener. This is certainly not necessarily the best way to work and I wouldn't dream of suggesting to anyone else that they should do the same, it's just what I personally have gotten used to doing.
What paper you draw on will also largely become a matter of personal preferance as you progress with your drawing practice. Obviously you can draw on pretty much most types of paper, but, the results that you will achieve will obviously vary according to the type, weight and quality of the paper you use. Over time, you will find the paper/papers that work best for you for different types of drawing, and your own particular style and techniques will develop accordingly. Both go hand in hand.
I have always preferred to draw on fairly heavy weight cartridge papers, these days typically 220 gsm Windsor and Newton or Daler Rowney paper. Personally, I prefer these papers , probably because these are the types of papers that I have gotten used to drawing on over the years and that my own drawing style has developed around. I like the fact that with thicker, moderately grained paper, I can really work the surface where required, creating negative lines, almost score marks in the paper that can then be shaded over to create negative detail texture in the shading. This is particularly useful when rendering details such as the weave in material, but can also be very useful when rendering grasses, leaves and anything where subtle detail in heavier shaded areas is called for. Heavier paper also allows me to work and rework quite heavy dark tones into the darker area's of a drawing. The slightly textured surface, for me, works better very much 'grabbing' the graphite in the shading, without being so likely or quite so easy to smudge. I also feel that the heavier papers are more forgiving in 'big' detailed drawings where corrections are almost inevitably going to be necassary for me. But this is just my personal preferance.
But of course, there are a great many different papers out there, thinner thicker, whiter, creamier, smooth or more textured surfaced. It all really very much comes down to personal preferance and the kind of pencil work you want to achieve. Many top graphite pencil artists prefer to work on very smooth white papers. There are a great many superb drawings out there done on very smooth white papers. Many of the almost photographic renderings of portraits and scenes that can be found on the internet are often done on these smooth white papers like 'Bristol Board'. The advantages of these papers being the almost brilliant white and very smooth surface, lending them very well to the necessarily fine and subtle shading found in pencil portrait work.
The brilliant white surface of papers like 'Bristol Board' also giving a much broader pallette of available shading tones than creamier coloured cartridge papers. Obviously, the whiter your paper originally, the more contrast you can achieve with your darker tones.
Other Useful 'Bits'
As well as the pencils and whatever paper or board I'm using when drawing, there are a few other items that I always try to have at hand before I start. By far the most used pieces of kit that I have are my trusty 'wet and dry' boards. These are simply pieces of wood or hardboard with 'wet and dry' fine grit paper glued onto them. These file boards are used to maintain a needle sharp point on my pencils, this being essential for really fine work. Another useful byproduct of my 'frantic filing' is the build up of graphite powder on these boards - very useful for rendering clouds, or large areas of smooth shading like the sky or background tones. I usually apply this graphite dust with either cotton wool, a soft bristled watercolour paint brushe, or applied with the tip of a cotton bud for shading smaller areas. Cotton wool and cotton buds also work very well on graphite applied with a pencil for smoothing or fading the edges of previously shaded areas. Obviously different tones being achieved by using different grades of graphite dust, just the same as using the pencils.
My fileboard - basically, just a bit of wood with with a piece of wet and dry paper glued onto it! Note the graphite dust - useful for clouds and large areas of shading. A little blob of Blu Tack in each corner keeps the board from moving about - yet another blob of Blu Tack is used here for cleaning excess graphite off of the pencil tip after filing.
Applying a lump of Blu Tack to graphite actually lifts the graphite off the paper without damaging the papers' surface at all. This is very useful, not only for removing general mistakes, but also for creating highlights on already shaded areas. Blu Tack is an invaluable 'get out of jail free card' when drawing and certainly worth a play if you're not already familiar with it.
Here again, most people having used pencils to draw for any time will already have developed their own personal techniques and ideas. But here are the most valuable lessons regarding pencil drawing, that I personally, have learnt over the years.
Always draw out 'light' to start with. I tend to use an HB pencil to draw out my initial, very light outlines. Use minimal pressure and make your lines just heavy enough so that you can see them - that way if you make a mistake or have to adjust something - you can, without leaving deep indentations in your paper.
Wherever possible avoid 'outlining' the various parts of your drawing with hard drawn edges (unless of course they actually are hard edges!). Once you have roughed out your drawing and you are starting to fill in the details, erase your initial lightly drawn outlines (obviously only on the part you are directly working on) and then try and re-create your outline by contrasts of light and shade, textures, or different styles of applied shading - without where possible, resorting to a hard pencil line (that in reality probably isn't actually there anyway). A classic example of this is when drawing the feathered outline of birds, or the fur on the outline of animals. When you have your initial outline and you are then filling in the detail on your animal or bird, use lots of smaller lighter lines running in the natural direction of the fur, or feather on the animal or bird - as opposed to one continuous drawn outline - it gives a far more realistic, softer and natural outline.
Never use your finger to smooth out shaded areas on your paper. Always use something dry to work applied graphite. You can buy proper tools for this purpose, but I tend to use cotton wool for larger areas of smoothing and cotton buds for smaller areas. Never use your fingers!
Always try to avoid resting your hand on areas already worked. Being right handed I try to work from left to right and top to bottom on my drawings. Whilst this is not always practical - using this principle as far as possible will help keep your drawing smudge free. On occasions however, resting on already worked areas is unavoidable. By using your second piece of paper, or a piece of OHP transparency as a rest for your hand however, you can get away with overworking previously drawn or shaded areas. Just ensure that once your 'rest' paper is laid on your work, you don't then, inadvertently drag it over the surface of your drawing. Lay it down, rest on it, lift it when necessary, then lay it down again, work on it again and so on - never drag it, as this can smudge any soft graphite applied underneath the paper across your drawing surface, just as your hand would.
Never use a 'hard' rubber on your paper if you can avoid it. All a hard rubber does is effectively 'rip' off the top layer of your drawing paper, taking your mistake with it. This ruins the smooth surface of your paper and whilst you may have removed your mistake - you've also removed your drawing surface. Redrawing or shading over that damaged surface will be very difficult. If you must use a rubber - use a putty rubber, but better by far is to use Blu Tack. Blu Tack lifts the graphite off the surface of the paper without damaging it. The more times Blu Tack is applied to a graphite line, or area of shading, the lighter that line will get.
Always clean up your work once it's finished. Once your drawing is complete clean any smudges on the paper around your work using either a putty rubber or Blu Tack, but do take the time to clean up your page before sealing your work with fixative. By removing any unintentional smudges off of your drawing, it makes it look cleaner, better defined and generally more professional.
Always seal your finished pencil drawing. Once you're certain that your drawing is complete - seal it. Graphite pencil and charcoal will smudge if rubbed or touched, so seal it in with a sealing or fixative spray (Available at art shops). A possible alternative if you don't have any fixative spray is a 'perfume free' firm hold hairspray. I always used to use hairspray to seal my pencil drawings, hairspray basically doing exactly the same thing as purpose made fixative sprays. However, I would these days recommend you use a 'proper' purpose designed fixative spray like 'Winsor Newton Artists' Fixative'. Through experience over the years, I have found that the alchohol in hairspray can over time slightly 'yellow' the paper. Not a huge problem for me as I tend to work on slightly off white heavy watercolour and cartridge papers anyway, but for those of you working on brilliant white papers and boards, it could 'potentially' be an issue over time. Whatever fixative you do use though, always spray these 'fixatives' on lightly. Too heavy an application can cause a slight loss of really fine detail with graphite work. Several light applications generally work best. Be aware though - once your work is sealed you will be unable erase any mistakes. So make sure it is right before you seal it!
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