Beginner Drawing Logic: The Right Drawing Tools for the Job

Carefully choosing the right drawing tools for a given subject gives a draftsman a tremendous advantage.
by Bob Bahr

drawing materials
A bottle of walnut ink
and a bamboo pen, four colors
of Conté crayons (bistre,
sanguine, black, and white), four
colors of colored pencils,
a graphite pencil, and a piece of
vine charcoal.

It's true that a talented artist could make a successful drawing of virtually anything using almost any material. But carefully choosing the right drawing tools for a given subject gives any draftsman a tremendous advantage.

Ask yourself some questions before you choose your drawing device. Are hard edges or soft edges important to this drawing? Does the subject beg for high-contrast treatment? Is color crucial to its depiction? Which mark-making material best suits the proper scale for the drawing? Do you want the image to have a spontaneous feel, or a more finished look?

The surface you choose plays an almost equal role in determining how your completed drawing will look. Smooth surfaces, like hot-pressed paper or Bristol board, will wonderfully showcase highly detailed linework. Heavily textured paper, including pastel boards, will selectively pull off the pigment of your drawing instrument in a possibly charming, possibly distracting fashion. Toned paper should be chosen carefully to suit the overall color temperature and value of the subject.

Here's a quick look at six common drawing materials.

Guercino Beggar Holding a Rosary and a Cap chalk Ingres Madeleine Ingres With the Artist graphite
Beggar Holding a Rosary and a Cap
by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), ca. 1620, oiled black chalk heightened with white on brown paper, 15? x 10?.

The smooth-flowing chalk allowed the artist to work quickly and capture the gesture. The neutral value of the paper let him bring out a few key highlights with some white chalk. Note the texture of the paper showing through in the shaded area on the right. Although chalk is easily smudged, this drawing has survived unscathed for nearly 400 years, which should allay any fears about the medium's archival nature.

Madeleine Ingres With the Artist
by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1830, graphite, 7? x 5¼.

Ingres' portraiture epitomizes the fine lines possible with a graphite pencil.

Graphite-??Fairly reversible with most types of erasers, somewhat difficult for making high-contrast areas, excellent for creating sharp edges and fine details, exhibits a reflective sheen when applied heavily, inexpensive, very archival although slightly susceptible to smudging.

Charcoal-??Very reversible, supplies rich dark tones and high contrast, encourages a spontaneous look and soft edges, extremely inexpensive, very susceptible to smudging-??spray fixative is recommended.

Conté, and other colored, chalklike crayons-Reversible in varying degrees depending on the wax content, offers a traditional look, excellent for both details and quick expressive marks, slightly more expensive. The black, sanguine, sepia, white, and bistre shades of Conté  crayons produced some of the most sublime images in the history of drawing.

Colored pencil-Fairly reversible, especially the water-soluble brands. Some of the waxier pigments are less erasable. Available in a wide range of hues, excellent for detailed work, relatively archival, inexpensive-but collecting all the available colors could add up. Some artists stick to one color, using it as a more controllable substitute for traditional colored or chalklike crayons.

Hunt Child at Water's Edge charcoal 0806drlo5_600x425
Child at Water's Edge
by William Morris Hunt, ca. 1877, charcoal on buff wove paper, 9¾ x 15¾.

Charcoal is excellent for both creating tone and drawing crisp lines.

by Benjamin West, ca. 1771, pen-and-ink, 10¼ x 12½. Collection Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

There's little chance for erasure with ink, so each line must be confidently laid down. The result is an appealing, high-contrast image.


Pen-and-ink-Not particularly reversible, encourages a free and confident hand, produces high-contrast images, allows precision linework, relatively inexpensive.

Choosing the right tool for the job will likely make your drawing better in addition to making the drawing process much easier, so take a moment to consider your materials before you dive in.

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