Using different surfaces with graphite pencils

August 9, 2022
5 min read
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Lucy Swinburne
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Trying out graphite pencils on different surfaces

You may be just starting out with graphite pencils and be wondering what surface to use, or you might already be using pencils but looking for other surfaces to test them out on. Most people start out by using some sort of cartridge paper or bond paper which is most typically found in drawing pads but there really are a myriad of options available.  Which surface option you prefer to use will come down to ease of use and the style of drawing you are looking to achieve.

Personally, I am always looking to create a clean, crisp outline to my pencil drawings, whether this is using graphite or pastel pencils.  This ‘look’ just suits my style because I have developed a very controlled drawing technique.  If you have a looser way of working, you might prefer a more textured surface to work on, or maybe you would prefer to use a smoother surface to help tame your pencils marks!

In this short article, I have completed the same otter portrait on three different surfaces to show you what a huge difference surface texture can make to the finished drawing.

a) For the first portrait, I have used my firm favourite which is a 270gsm smooth white card, similar to the weight of a typical birthday card.  There are a couple of makes which I use, one is Canford Card and the other, which I now use all the time, is Clairefontaine Maya card.  Both makes of card are very similar and have almost the same range of colours to choose from.  I have used white for this exercise.


Otter portrait on smooth white card

You can see how much detail has been maintained in this pencil drawing and how crisp the lines are.  All of these drawings were completed in the same way. The outline was first sketched with a 2H pencil, then I created the first layer of fur with the same 2H and the undercoat for the eyes.  Next, I used a 2B pencil to deepen the fur layers and darken the eyes, ears, and mouth. Finally, I used a sharp 4B pencil to add more depth all over, but this was done slowly, in gradual layers. Pressing too hard with a 4B pencil will result in a shine on the surface and the inability to add more depth to that area. So although progress may feel a little slow, the results will be much more rewarding in the long run.

Personally, for the second option, I wouldn’t ever have considered using pencil on canvas.  However, a client asked me to produce a commission of his dog in graphite on canvas, so being slightly intrigued I gave it a go and it worked!  


Otter portrait on stretched canvas

So, now I had used canvas successfully with graphite pencils, I thought I would show you the same otter drawing produced on a stretched canvas.  This surface is extremely rough, with many bumps and dips, making it very difficult to control the pencil as you are working. It does respond quite well to a kneadable putty rubber when lifting off unwanted pencil.  However, you cannot rub with a standard rubber, as this smudges the graphite and leaves a dirty mark.  Unfortunately, it is quite hard to get the depth to the coat on canvas, compared to card, as this surface starts to resist the graphite after a while.


Otter portrait on cream watercolour paper

This final study was produced on a cream coloured rough watercolour paper, which although not as textured as the canvas still had quite a rough surface. This paper accepts graphite pencil much more readily and more detail can be achieved by gradually building up slowly.  Again, a putty rubber can be used to lift off excess pencil and an ordinary rubber will also work, as long as it is clean and used gently.

Do take some time to try out a few different surfaces before you settle on your favourite and have some fun in the process!

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