For drawing and sketching I prefer a mechanical pencil with .5mm HB (#2) lead. At one time I used “professional” mechanical drafting pencils but realized that they cost way too much, and the metal really hurt my fingers. These days I use a really cheap lead pencil I found at the bottom of a pencil box. Goes to show that more expensive usually doesn’t mean better.
I like the simplicity of pencil, but obviously the sheen of the graphite makes it hard to achieve values beyond three or four steps. While it is possible to get a rich black, it still pales in comparison to charcoal.
The mechanical pencil is still versatile, in that an artist can build up layers slowly to achieve the shadows, or use a slight hatching pattern of lines to simulate gradations of value.
Since graphite has a sheen to it, it does not respond well to smudging and it also reflects light in certain angles, making it somewhat hard to photograph.
I use two types of charcoal, the compressed stick kind, and the kind that comes as a pencil. For live figure drawings, I usually prefer the stick, with its cubic structure combined with the worn down nub, an artist can get different strokes as well as sharp lines by manipulating the stick.
For my realistic renderings, I prefer General’s Charcoal pencils and use them in a methodical way. For the longest time I used one particular pencil until it was down to about an inch long, but couldn’t bear to part with it because the charcoal in it was the perfect balance of hardness/softness with a richness in black values (you can see it appear in many Progression photos).
I use many different kinds, but even from the same manufacturer and same hardness rating (Hard, Medium, Ex Soft, etc.) I just could not find consistencies amongst the charcoal. Some would be higher in glossy material and thus would not interact well with the other charcoal. I enjoy the high key contrast that one gets from using charcoal, but it’s a disciplined medium, that doesn’t respond well to erasing.
About the only thing I erase are the pencil lines after I’ve inked a drawing. For me, I’ve found that erasing with something like a pink hard eraser ruins the texture of the paper, but I always keep a kneaded eraser handy. This is an art class favorite, and the kids like it because it’s like silly putty. Since it’s not tough enough to erase black charcoal marks, I mostly use it for touch ups. I’ve always found it better to draw around something that should be white or a highlight, instead of erasing it afterwards. This takes a little planning ahead on the artist’s part. An example is a stray strand of hair with light hitting it, or the specular highlight in someone’s eyes. It’s better to draw around the light spot and use the eraser to dab it again to get a more natural look.
I’ve used for a couple of drawings, handmade red chalk. These are based on the same formula that the Renaissance masters used. This medium is hard to use as well, as it requires good decision making. It’s tempting to get caught up in mimicking the diagonal hatching of the masters, but it is such a pleasing drawing style that one can’t help but use the medium in that way.
For inking my line drawings, I mostly use Pilot Precise V5’s, which are basically .5mm writing pens you can buy anywhere. I sacrifice the ability for line variation that I would get from a calligraphy pen or a brush, but this is just a simple tool that I prefer. It holds a nice crisp edge, which I need for when I scan the inked drawing in the computer. For large blocks of black, I use a simple marker. On an aesthetic level I like the different designs of markers. Some, like the ones we use to scribble on mailing boxes, look a little too utilitarian. The Japanese markers however look slick and instills a somewhat confidence to the mark making.
To add an uncertainty and randomness to the lines, I still use nibs and quills with India or drafting ink. The level of detail depends on the nib itself, allowing for lines that almost no scanner or camera can adequately capture.
For the pencil drawings and pen and ink drawings, I use the regular old 18×24″ paper from any art store. It is affordable and I use either pure white or off white.
For my realistic black and white charcoal drawings, I’ve been using Stonehenge paper for many years now. It comes in sizes of 30×44″ and 40×50″. It’s a relatively difficult medium to work in (on) due to the paper’s tooth (surface) and also its oversized format. But for some reason I just liked its bright white tone, and how charcoal reacts to it, making some images jump off the page. Like my charcoal pencils, there are variations to this paper, and have found that the back or front of the paper matters. In some drawings, the charcoal responds well to it, and I can carry the momentum from start to finish. Other batches of the paper, it’s hard to work with, and can become a chore when rendering with 3 different charcoal pencils, cotton swabs, and sandpaper.
I also like this paper, because it photographs well. The white point can be set to the white of the paper, and that compresses the levels of the digital file to give it that optimum high contrast look, that I personally like. Charcoal drawings are relative, as you’ll see that drawings take on other forms when moved from different light sources. View a drawing indoors under incandescent light, under a flourescent drafting table light, and outdoors, and you can see if the artist’s intent holds up.
Working on this paper does have its drawbacks. I’ve found it next to impossible to erase. Now I normally don’t erase in any of my drawings, but there does come a time when “CTRL+Z UNDO” is needed in real life. This paper has memory of the physical creases that are caused by the pencil marking the page. If I’ve messed up a drawing, or if it’s headed down the track of “unsuccessful” I usually just tear up the paper and start over.
The sheer physical size of the paper is taxing. In a real drawing (as in the act of drawing) the artist usually moves all over the picture plane, making marks everywhere. This paper, being somewhat expensive, I save for my realistic figure drawings, and have to work on it in a methodical way. Since a person’s head, face, etc, is almost always near the top of the page, using this paper forces a person to hunch over the drawing paper, and then work down slowly to avoid unnecessary marks.
Newsprint has been the bane of all art teachers and art students for many years. Relegated to “practice” drawings, I don’t think many people (professors included) realize its potential. Most of the art elite don’t like newsprint because of its low shelf life, its acidic content, and of course its cheap price. When the warm up figure drawings are done, the student is supposed to pull out the “fancy” paper and do a finalized drawing.
I actually prefer newsprint due to its smooth finish, which is suitable for finger smudging/blending right on the sheet. With a soft charcoal (2B) it’s almost effortless to get a calligraphic stroke for the pose of a model, and then marks and smudges that become the core shadow on something like a muscle, torso, or cheek. When art students switch from practice newsprint to drawing paper, they’ll find that the two are very different, with different types of mark making needed.
I like to use on occasion colored fine art paper with a tooth (grain). Having been through the nonsense that is art school, I’ve tried out all brands and realized that they charge way too much for a single sheet of paper. Granted, an artist can charge 1000 times more than the cost of his materials, but that’s usually after you die, so I digress…
For the many brown paper drawings, I use Canson Mi-Teintes Bisque paper. I’ve found that this paper responds really well to black charcoal pencil and white charcoal for the highlights. Since there is a tooth (vertical grain), I have to employ hatching and other types of mark making to render values. Blending with a finger or stump doesn’t work too well, but the contrast and visual pop make this paper one of my favorites.
I usually draw with a piece of copier paper that goes between my hands and the paper, and for this Canson, it’s a must. For some reason this paper really doesn’t take well with the oils in your skin. I’ve made the mistake of eating potato chips and working on a bisque drawing and realized that the grease always finds a way on to the page.
With this medium, I can work fairly quick and the intermixing of white and dark is engaging for me. It is easy to render form and create images with pop as well as texture. On a technical note, I’m sure some photographers out there notice that every time I post a Bisque drawing, the browns are always a different saturation. Again, just my choice of how I want a physical drawing to be displayed in a digital format. A real photographer would calibrate my shooting area and get the white balance correct, but hey I’m not a real photographer. 😉
For coloring my pen and ink drawings, I’ve used Photoshop for many years now. I scan the large drawings in sections, put them back together and with some brightness and contrast adjustments I can have a pretty clean file in which to do overlayed/multiplied color drawings.
These 3-step drawings take a little while to do, but as a digital artist, one is blessed with the ability to never have to buy paints or mess up your jeans painting.
What few sketchbooks I had in my youth ended up being thrown away. In this modern age, I think it is really nice to have a digital sketchpad, like Sketchbook Pro on the iPad or Mischief on a Surface Pro–unlimited paper and crayons.