Quick & Bold Graphite Studies

   by Lisa Larrabee

Graphite is a staple for any artist.  It can be used for a variety of purposes from doodles to stunning finished works of art.  It is stable, easy to transport and very forgiving.  It is also inexpensive and convenient. There's a good chance you are near a graphite pencil as you read this, so you can join in with the Art Challenge!  
Graphite can be used in a variety of ways.  For the purpose of creating quick studies, I will stick with a medium hardness HB pencil. You can also use a classic #2 yellow pencil with the pink eraser.  Nothing fancy is needed.

Read Become a Pencil Connoisseur by Christy Olsen to learn more about graphite pencils.  

Graphite Techniques

Graphite is an excellent medium for practicing essential drawing skills.  You can use a pencil to create lines, marks and values that range from delicate to bold.  Graphite also blends well and can be easily erased.  

People commonly follow a linear drawing process when using pencils.  They gradually build up values one mark at a time from light to dark.  This process can create beautiful results, but it takes time to build up enough marks to begin working with a full range of values.  With this method, drawing errors can be missed until the drawing is pretty far along and the darker values make mistakes more easily visible.

It can be helpful to establish some general value relationships early to provide context before adding detail.  I recommend developing your artwork from general to specific to build shapes and values in relationship to each other. 

Graphite demo by Lisa Larrabee

I used a graphite pencil on white paper for this small study.  Rather than building up values gradually through a time-intensive process, I quickly blocked in the major shadow shapes with little attention to detail.  I smudged the graphite from the shadows across the surface of the face and neck using a paper blending stump with haste and no attention to the form or details. Once there were some general value relationships established, I erased out highlights, refined the shadows and added detail.

This technique is useful in a variety of ways.  
  • It allows you to practice dividing the form into light and dark shapes for a quick block-in.  
  • You can establish value relationships right from the start in order to develop the drawing as a whole.  
  • Starting with bold marks is less intimidating when you realize that you can still blend and refine subtle elements of your subject.  
  • For those interested in portraits, it is excellent practice to draw small faces as simple planes and values rather than as a collection of tiny features.
  • It's fast and the results are immediate.

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject to draw that has a clear light source and shadows.
  • Keep the sketch small. 3" to 5" is a nice size for practice studies.
  • Draw or transfer simple light and dark values/shadow shapes.
  • Boldly sketch in the dark shadow shapes without detail.
  • Use a blending stump (or Q-tip) to smudge the graphite to create a mid-value.
  • Erase lighter values and highlights.
  • Add values and details. 
~ Lisa