How do you get really dark shading in your drawings with graphite?

Most graphite pencils will at best only give us a slightly dark grey value, yet you might have seen some artists achieve some really dark, almost black values in their drawings.

How do they do it?

I’ve recently been putting together some great lessons in the “Master the Art of Drawing Fur” course which deal with that issue, and I wanted to quickly share a great tip for getting darker values in your drawings – and it might surprise you – we’ll do it without pressing harder.

By now you probably already know about the different grades of drawing pencils available.

If not here is a super quick recap…

Hard pencils don’t transfer as much graphite onto the paper, so your lines end up being really light and sometimes barely visible.

Hard pencils are defined by a H in the grade indicator at the end of the pencil. They range from a 9H (that’s the hardest) through to 2H, then HB which I’ll talk about in a minute. The higher the number, the harder the pencil (and therefore the lighter and sharper the line).

Soft pencils are defined by a B in the grade indicator. Ranging from 2B to 9B, the higher the number the softer the pencil and therefore the more graphite will transfer to your paper and the darker your line will be.

And then there’s HB, which is in the middle between hard and soft, it’s a good all-rounder.

Ok, so from that we can work out that darker lines and shading will need the highest number B pencil.

But if you’ve tried to shade with an 8B or 9B, you will know that because it is so soft, the texture of the paper ends up showing through your shading and you end up with a really rough looking texture full of white paper dots, which isn’t always what you want, and not necessarily dark enough because of the texture.

So the natural tendency is to press harder with your pencil to push more graphite down into the texture of the paper to fill the gaps and make it darker.

But this only works up to a certain point where the texture of the paper has been smoothed out by pressing so hard and no more graphite will stick to the surface.

When that happens, the graphite also takes on a very shiny, reflective appearance. When we look at the drawing from certain angles we get light reflected off the surface and those areas can appear to be lighter than surrounding areas because of the extra light being reflected.

So, how can we get darker without pressing harder?

In the “Master the Art of Drawing Fur” lessons, I used a couple of different types of pencils to create dark values. I’ll quickly share them with you now.

In most of my drawings I either use Faber-Castell (9000 series) drawing pencils or Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils (with the blue handle). This isn’t an advertisement for either company, it’s just brands that I’ve liked using and get good results from.

I start with 2H to get really light lines for mapping things out on the page and rendering the first layer of fur, then work my way up through HB and 2B pencils.

When I get to 4B  and upwards however, I’ll switch to a different type of pencil.

Staedtler also have a “Mars Lumograph BLACK” range of pencils (not to be confused with the standard Mars Lumograph pencils, these BLACK ones have a black handle to ensure you’ve got the right type).

These pencils have extra carbon added to give them extra dark intensity, and the carbon doesn’t reflect as much light!

So now we’ve got darker and less reflective pencils – perfect!

That solves part of the equation but will still leave the white paper texture showing through.

I’ve also got a couple of tips to help there;

  1. Work your way up through the grades of pencil. The harder pencils can give us a more even blend of graphite over the textured paper. If you start with getting an even blend with a 2H or HB and work up layers of successive shading with increasingly softer pencils it helps to avoid the white texture popping through. A word of warning though – press lightly with each layer and let the grade of the pencil do the work! Pressing hard will still flatten the paper texture and quickly reach a saturation point where no more graphite will stick to the surface. If that happens your softer pencils will glide over the top without depositing any graphite, so even soft pencils wont get you any darker.
  2. Use tools to smudge or soften the shading. You can use paper stumps (tortillons) to blend the graphite into the white paper texture to “fill” the texture. Press lightly again however! Just like pressing hard with a pencil, pressing hard with a blending stump will also flatten the texture and stop more graphite deposits. It doesn’t need much pressure to soften the texture effect. For broader, bigger areas you can use a cotton wool ball or cotton bud to lightly smudge the shading. Use your eraser then to maintain any sharp edges. After applying the smudge you may need to apply more graphite for extra darkness.

Applying these techniques using the Mars Lumograph Black pencils will give you great results with dark shadows.

If you would like to know more about the “Master the Art of Drawing Fur” course, you can see all the details here.

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