The Drawing Tools of the Artist’s Trade

Art is one of the quintessential expressions of humanity. In many ways, it’s what sets us apart from the animals.

Like most things that separate man and beast, art requires tools to be expressed to its fullest potential. If you’re concentrating on drawing the human figure, there are certain drawing tools that you will need to push your talent to its fullest.

If you’re anything like me, your earliest drawing experiences involved nothing more than a pencil and any blank space that you could find. This is great for those who want to do nothing more than to scribble out an idea, but you can do so much more if you have the right tools.

Everything from the surface on which you draw to the eraser that you use to get rid of mistakes can help you to fulfill your promise as an artist.

Using certain drawing tools can help you to more quickly realize your hidden talents.
Using certain drawing tools can help you to more quickly realize your hidden talents.

The Base

If you are serious about your art, you may want to devote a specific space in your home to drawing. Having a perfect base on which to draw your art isn’t a necessity — but it helps.

While there are millions of people who can draw perfectly well without owning any kind of special surface, dedicating a space in your home is a great way to fuel your artistic spirit. The recommended surface upon which you should draw is a drafting table — an elevated table that is usually raised at an angle.

Of all the drawing tools that you can invest in, an empty space is probably the most important. A drafting board is great, but even a clean desk can help you to focus on your task.

The most important quality of the surface is smoothness — you don’t need a strange texture impacting your art. This is usually a given with a drafting board, but even a standard desk should be sufficient for this task. Don’t go broke trying to find the perfect surface, but do pay attention to that on which you draw.

Paper

Bristol board paper is sturdy enough to withstand the smudging and erasing needed for detailed, realistic pencil portraits.
Bristol board paper is sturdy enough to withstand the smudging and erasing needed for detailed, realistic pencil portraits.

If you are going to draw, you need paper. Even if you are a fan of drawing on a tablet, you aren’t going to get far with your technique unless you have a plentiful paper supply.

Ideally, you should have multiple types of paper. You will need paper for sketching, paper for rough work and the paper upon which you will place your finished work. Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks, and each type is vital for a would-be artist.

There are dozens of types of paper available, but I believe an average artist can get away with only using three. Your most important paper products are:

  • A small sketchbook
  • Acid-free drawing pad
  • Two-ply Bristol board

Your sketchbook is going to be used on a daily basis, generally as inspiration strikes. I’ve got several laying around at home, mostly full of ideas that never went anywhere. These books are good for working on new techniques and drawing as you go, but not particularly useful for any kind of professional work.

I tend to keep a drawing pad full of acid-free drawing paper around for my rough work and for practice. Larger than a sketchbook, these pages are great for working on my technique or for rough outlines of pieces that I intend to transfer over to my two-ply Bristol board. Of all my drawing tools, my drawing pad is probably the most used — without it, I can’t improve.

Two-ply Bristol board is the paper that you’ll use for any major final pieces. Reserve this paper for your very best work! This is the paper I use for my detailed, realistic pencil portraits. A bit heavier and smoother than typical paper, it’s the professional quality product that you’ve always wanted. Bristol board is available in all of your typical paper sizes, making it perfect for final drawings of any size.

Pencils

Graphite pencils are available in a range of leads from hard and light to soft and black.
Graphite pencils are available in a range of leads, from hard and light to soft and black.

If you want to draw, you will need pencils. If you’re like me, you already have your favorites — but you will need to step outside of your comfort zone if you really want to master your craft.

The pencil box of an artist is filled with a variety of crazy pencils, most of which are certainly not useful on a standardized test. The pencils that you choose to use are going to reflect not only your drawing style but also your level of expertise. As you learn more about art, you will add and remove pencils from your collection.

You are likely to invest more money in pencils than almost anything else as a pencil portrait artist, so you might as well start building your collection today. If you only concentrate on two types of pencils, they should be:

  • Graphite pencils
  • Mechanical pencils

It’s no secret that there are dozens of different drawing pencils out there. Graphite pencils are usually labeled on a continuum from H (hardness) to B (blackness). 9H pencils have the hardest lead and leave the lightest mark, while 9B pencils have the softest lead and leave the blackest mark. HB pencils, which are your standard No. 2 pencils, fall in the middle of the continuum.

I’m partial to 2B pencils, which are reasonably hard and black. These are the pencils that you will use for most of your sketch work and your final work.

Since there are so many “professional” drawing pencils out there, you’d think that you would never have to use a mechanical pencil. In the real world, though, you will grow to value these versatile pencils.

Use them when you sketch on the go, as you don’t have to worry as much about misplacing mechanical pencils. Mechanical pencils are also great drawing tools for those who don’t want to bring around a kit full of graphite pencils on vacation. Additionally, I use them for my realistic portraits. Mechanical pencils are perfect for adding in those tiny, fine details.

Erasers

A kneaded eraser and blending stump are two invaluable tools in creating realistic images.

Erasers are perhaps your most overlooked drawing tool. You are going to make plenty of mistakes when you sketch — I know I do. A good eraser can save you the hassle of finding more paper in order to restart a piece in progress, giving you the ability to keep your creative flow going.

Even if you’re the type of artist who believes that there is no such thing as a mistake, you still need an eraser. These little lumps help to cover a variety of deficiencies, and they also work well with a number of artistic techniques.

Your basic eraser does the job for which you’ve used it since kindergarten — getting rid of mistakes. I personally prefer a kneaded eraser for the sake of utility. Not only does it erase without leaving the lovely pink residue that we’ve all come to know and loathe from school, but you can pinch it and knead it into whatever shape you like. This makes it particularly useful for getting stray lines, dots, and unwanted graphite tones out of the way without causing new problems.

When one surface on a kneaded eraser gets dirty, you can just fold it over and cover the smudged surface. This eliminates graphite marks and smudges from appearing the next time that you use the eraser.

I also tend to lump tortillons and blending stumps under the category of erasers, if only for simplicity. These items are used for smudging or blending the marks that you make on paper, adding more to the texture and feel of your artwork. It’s easy to conflate tortillon and stumps, but each tool has a slightly different texture — make sure to buy both.

Pink erasers do have their place. I still use them quite often for erasing smudges from large areas of my paper that would take a kneaded eraser too long to accomplish. But wait – don’t brush those little eraser fibers off with your hand and please don’t blow them off! Instead, avoid smudging or accidentally spraying saliva on your artwork by using a dusting brush.

Drawing Accessories

If you like to draw with a grid, a light box can eliminate the need for erasing grid lines.
If you like to draw with a grid, a light box can eliminate the need for erasing grid lines.

There are also plenty of tools that you can use to help with your personal style. From lighting to compasses, there are great art accessories out there than will allow you to change the way that you draw.

Sure, these are absolutely optional — but they can also be a lot of fun. Picking the right accessories might allow you to pull off techniques that you can’t quite manage on your own.

One great accessory is the light box – a useful tool for those who need to transfer rough drawings from their sketchbooks to better paper. The light that shines through the box makes it easier to see the rough figure through a second piece of paper, thus helping you to transfer your lines with ease. Light boxes are also excellent for using the grid method to make more accurate drawings.

If you are going to make multi-layered drawings, it is also a smart idea to invest in a workable fixative. This spray can be used to avoid smudging your lines as you draw new layers, allowing you to keep a clean and professional look. If you prefer, wait until your drawing is complete and spray the final product for easier handling. Fixatives are especially useful for professionals who will present their work to others.

Don’t forget about those accessories that will help you to improve your skills. A circle template will give you the ability to draw circles (think irises and pupils) more cleanly, avoiding those horribly malformed shapes that we are all guilty of drawing.

I’m also partial to keeping a small anatomical figure on my desk, particularly of the sort that you can pose. It always helps me to better envision how my figure would look in different poses, allowing me to better plot out my artwork.

Experiment!

There’s quite a bit listed in the sections above. While I do believe that everything listed has a place in your evolving world of pencil portraiture, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fantastic tools that you can use.

You’re an artist, so don’t feel constrained by lists or by recommendations — figure out new or alternative drawing tools that you can use to perfect your understanding of the human form. I’ve seen fantastic artists who swear by electronic tablets, while others require college-ruled paper to really nail down a figure. You are in charge of your own artistic destiny, so make sure to use the tools that reflect your goals!

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