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How to Choose the Right Drawing Media

Step 3 in the Drawing Process in Art: Use the right tools for a successful drawing

Here’s how to choose the right drawing media for expressive and compelling artwork. This article discusses the pros, cons, and characteristics of various drawing media including graphite pencils, charcoal, colored pencils, oil pastels, and hard and soft pastels.

Pencil and Charcoal Drawing Media

Graphite Pencils and How They’re Used

how to choose the right graphite pencils fro drawing
Graphite pencils of varying hardness, 6H, 2B, 4B, 6B, 8B Photo © 2023 Rhonda Roth,

Graphite pencils come in hard and soft varieties with the designation of B for black, or H for hard. A hard pencil leaves a lighter mark on the paper, whereas a soft pencil leaves a darker mark. According to Faber-Castell, a manufacturer graphite pencils, there are sixteen variations of pencil hardness: 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, and 6H. Most artists don’t utilize this entire range of hardness.  For the beginning artist, five pencils types are sufficient: 6H (very light), 2H (medium light), 2B (medium dark), 4B (dark), 8B (very dark).

Graphite Pencil Characteristics

Beginning artists typically use graphite pencils because they are easy to draw with and easy to erase. A graphite pencil sharpens to a fine point, great for small drawings or detailed work. Conversely, the side of the pencil is great for shading small to medium size areas. Derwent, a manufacturer of artist pencils, makes what they call sketching pencils in addition to their regular drawing pencils. The sketching pencil, made with a larger diameter core, produces a thicker line and makes makes shading large areas easier. Quickly and easily shade very large areas of a drawing with graphite sticks, or powdered graphite.

Best Subjects for Graphite Pencil Drawing

Value study drawing of trees, hills, and lake.
Value study drawing of trees, hills, and lake. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Graphite pencils are very useful for value studies before drawing in color. Most pencils are suitable for drawing still life and landscapes. Line hatching with the pencil point makes drawing landscape textures easy. The side of both hard and soft pencils produces shading with lots of tonal variety.

Pencil landscape by Cornelis van Poelenburch how to choose drawing media example
Pencil landscape by Cornelis van Poelenburch,
1609-1667, Dutch, Public Domain
Still life of a bottle, tea-pot, and onions in pencil, how to choose the right drawing media example
Still life of a bottle, tea-pot, and onions in pencil
by Yvonne Paul, 1911, American, Public Domain

Pencils make beautiful portraits when the hardness or softness of the pencil is right for the subject. Soft pencils (2B and softer), produce darker values and strong contrasts, making a man’s portrait look very ‘masculine’. However, the portrait of a woman or child using these same pencils appears harsh. For female and children’s portraits, use hard pencils (2H to 6H), which make lighter and softer marks.

Choose the right drawing media for a man's portrait. Pencil portrait of a man
Pencil portrait of a man,
Image by Макс from Pixabay
Choose the right drawing media for a woman's pencil portrait.
Woman’s portrait, pencil, Image by Colleen ODell from Pixabay

On the left, the portrait of the man shows strong, dark directional lines. Hatched pencil marks give texture to his hair and beard. Light and delicate strokes characterize the woman’s portrait on the right.

Problems with Using Graphite Pencils

A drawback to drawing with pencils is the problematic graphite shine that results from continued rubbing over an area of the paper. Dark, heavily shaded areas appear shiny when viewed from an angle. This typically occurs when a beginning artist pushes down on the pencil to produce a darker value. This is called ‘burnishing’, and the shine that results is a natural characteristic of graphite.

To lessen graphite shine, choose the right pencil for the task. Rather than rubbing back and forth with a pencil that won’t leave a dark enough mark, select a softer pencil, Another way to reduce graphite shine is to use harder pencils throughout the drawing. A hard pencil has less graphite and more clay mixed into the medium.

The best part about using graphite pencils is that it’s easy to correct small mistakes. Use a kneaded eraser to lighten areas that are too dark. A softer pencil darkens areas that are too light. A pencil drawing doesn’t need a mat when framing, although artists sometimes mat artwork for esthetics. This is why the simple graphite pencil is great for a beginning artist.

Pros and Cons of Drawing with Graphite Pencils:

Pros: produces fine detail, shading small to medium areas, textures, portraits (choose the proper hardness for the subject), easy to correct mistakes, frame matting is optional.

Cons: graphite shine, tedious to shade large areas, doesn’t produce a pure black.

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Artist’s Charcoal and How It’s Used

Charcoal stick, charcoal pencils, and vine charcoal drawing media
Charcoal stick, charcoal pencils, and vine charcoal,, Photo © 2023 Rhonda Roth,

There are several types of charcoal used for drawing – vine, pencils, and sticks.

Vine charcoal is thin, brittle, soft, and makes lighter marks on the paper than other types of charcoal. It’s also easier to erase, although not completely. Artists typically use vine charcoal to make their first rough sketch on paper before proceeding to a more detailed drawing. A beginning artist who is unfamiliar drawing with charcoal should use vine charcoal first to get a feel for the medium.

Charcoal pencils are harder than vine charcoal and, like graphite pencils, come in varying degrees of hardness. The compressed medium is encased in wood so one’s hands remain clean. It’s easy to sharpen the point for use in fine detail. 

Compressed charcoal sticks are pretty much the same as charcoal pencils in that, they too, come in hard and soft varieties, but one’s hands get dirty handling the sticks. Rubbing the side of the charcoal stick on the paper quickly shades large areas. The disadvantage to charcoal sticks is that it’s hard to draw fine details. 

One of the reasons drawing with charcoal is difficult for a beginning artist to master is because it’s hard to correct mistakes. Charcoal also smudges easily, so drawings require a mat and glass when framing.

Best Subjects For Charcoal Drawing

Landscapes, still life, and portraits with high contrasts are excellent subjects to draw in charcoal. Because the color of soft charcoal is very close to absolute black, contrasts between highlights and shadows are stunning. Charcoal pencils and sticks used together produce fine detail with broad swatches of tonality. Use paper stumps, paper towels, or fingers to easily blend charcoal and move it around the paper. If an artist is drawing a subject with very dark tones and high contrast, charcoal is a good choice of medium.

Moonlit landscape in charcoal media, drawing by Henri-Joseph Harpignies
Moonlit landscape in charcoal by Henri-Joseph Harpignies,
French, Public Domain
Charcoal media drawing portrait of William Butler Yeats
Charcoal portrait of William Butler Yeats
by J.S.Sargent, American, Public Domain
Old car, charcoal drawing media
Old car, charcoal, Image by Hans Benn from Pixabay

Drawing with Charcoal Pros and Cons:

Pros: Good for value studies, quick sketches, high contrast drawings, produces very dark tones

Cons: Messy (except charcoal pencils), easily smudged, hard to correct mistakes, drawings need a mat and glass when framing

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Colored Pencil Drawing Media

A Brief History of Colored Pencils

Unlike graphite pencils and artist charcoal, colored pencils are a relatively new medium for artists. It wasn’t till the early 20th century that colored pencils were manufactured for drawing. The first colored pencils for fine art were made in 1924 by Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache.

Types of Colored Pencils

Colored pencils, how to choose drawing media
Colored pencils. Photo by Ramakant Sharda on Unsplash

Here we discuss three types of colored pencils for drawing – wax based, oil based, and water soluble. 

Wax based colored pencils are composed of a pigment (color) with a wax binder (holds the pigment together). Because wax based pencils are so soft, they break easily when sharpening. A phenomenon known as ‘wax bloom’ sometimes appears after continued rubbing with a wax based pencil. Wax bloom is a whitish, hazy glaze caused by the waxy binder rising through the pigment and settling on the surface of the paper. The big advantage to wax pencils is that they blend and layer well, and produce vibrant color. These features make wax pencils the favorite of many colored pencil artists.

Oil based colored pencils are made with a pigment and an oily binder. They are harder than wax based colored pencils, retain a point longer, and seldom break when sharpened. Oil based pencils also blend well (some artists feel not quite as well as wax based because of their hardness), produce beautiful color, and don’t produce wax bloom.

Water soluble pencils, also known as watercolor pencils, contain a pigment and a water soluble binder. These pencils are harder than the wax or oil based types and do not layer well. However, applying water over the pencil marks spreads the color around creating a beautiful watercolor effect. 

All three types of colored pencils come in student grade and artist grade. An artist grade pencil has a higher pigment to binder ratio than its student counterpart, and is softer, making it easier to blend. Artist grade pencils also produce brighter, more vibrant colors, but they are more expensive.

Colored Pencil Portraits

Below are examples of lovely colored pencil drawings.

On the left is The Turkish Girl of Constantinople by Miner Kilbourne Kellogg. The artist uses graphite pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor to create a beautiful portrait. Large blocks of color (the woman’s clothing) together with fine detail (her facial features and hair) make an interesting and intriguing work of art.

Shown on the right is a colored pencil drawing by French impressionist artist Berthe Morisot entitled Seated Girl (Julie Manet). The artist uses loose, broad strokes which elicit a light, vibrant feeling,

Turkish Girl of Constantinople, drawing media with pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor,
by Miner Kilbourne Kellogg
Turkish Girl of Constantinople,
pencil, colored pencil and watercolor,
by Miner Kilbourne Kellogg, 1800’s, American, Public Domain
Colored pencil drawing of seated girl (Julie Manet) by Berthe Morisot
Colored pencil drawing of seated girl (Julie Manet)
by Berthe Morisot, Late 1800’s, French, Public Domain

Both wax and oil based colored pencils are great for drawing fine details and layered blending of colors. Like their graphite counterpart, shading large areas is tedious, although water soluble pencils cover large areas when combined with water. Colored pencils don’t erase easily. Render the initial stages of a drawing lightly, then apply more color as the artwork develops. Colored pencils make mark making easier than using charcoal or pastel sticks. If a beginning artist wishes to start drawing in color, colored pencils is a good choice of media.

Drawing with Colored Pencils Pros and Cons:

Pros: Great for a beginning artist transitioning from graphite to color, colors blend well for nice transparency effects, clean and easy to use, won’t smudge, frame matting optional

Cons: Hard to erase, shading large areas is tedious

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Oil Pastel Drawing Media

Sennelier oil pastel sticks drawing media
Sennelier oil pastel sticks. Photo © 2023 Rhonda Roth,

A Brief History of Oil Pastels

Oil pastels are a recent drawing media, invented around 1925 by the Sakura company in Japan. In 1949, the artist Pablo Picasso was interested in this new media, but was unable to acquire it because of world war two and its aftermath. Picasso approached Henri Sennelier to create an artists quality oil drawing media with vibrant color that was suitable outside the studio for quick sketching. 

Characteristics of Oil Pastels

Oil pastels, sometimes called oil pastel crayons, are sticks composed of pigment and a binder. The binder is made of non-drying oil and wax, so drawings created with oil pastels don’t really dry, they just feel a bit tacky. For protection, oil pastel artwork is matted and framed behind glass.

Oil pastel sticks come in student and artist (professional) grade versions. Although student grade oil pastels cost less, the artist grade pastels are softer, blend easier, and the colors are more vibrant. Because oil pastels are soft sticks, the media is not good for drawing fine detail. Drawing some detail is possible by using the pristine edge of top of the stick.

Tips for Drawing with Oil Pastels

Paper for Oil Pastel Drawings

Use a paper size of 9×12 or larger, to draw with oil pastel sticks. Use a heavy paper, at least 98 lb, so oil won’t leak through to the other side of the paper. The paper needs plenty of paper tooth, or roughness, to facilitate color blending. Without enough paper tooth, color blending is limited to a few passes of pastel before the top color just slides over the one below and blending stops. For information more on different types of drawing papers visit What Kind of Drawing Paper Should I Use?

Correcting Mistakes with Oil Pastels

Of course, erasing isn’t possible with oil pastels. Correct minor mistakes using a darker color over a lighter one, or remove some oil pastel with a palette knife. Gently scrape off some color with the knife which re-exposes the paper tooth. (Just be careful not to tear the paper.) The old color won’t be removed entirely, but it’s a chance to apply new color.

Creating Color Value with Oil Pastels

Creating a range of light and dark values with oil pastels is tricky. Most sets come with a wide variety of colors, but these colors are very near each other in color value. Artists sometimes use black or white to darken or lighten a color, but it’s not recommended. Colors darkened with black appear drab or harsh. Colors lightened with white appear chalky. A better technique to obtain a range of values with any color media, is to use blue to darken, and yellow to lighten. When blending colors with oil pastels, the technique is ‘light over dark’. To cover over, or correct a color, use ‘dark over light’.

Working with Oil Pastel Colors

Purchase a set of 12 – 24 colors. Unlike oil or watercolor painting, where a new color is created by mixing paint on a palette and then applied, oil pastels are blended directly on the paper. Creating a new color by ‘combining’ oil pastels doesn’t work well. Part of the reason for this is that the oil pastel stick is not a pure pigment, but pigment combined with a binder. For example, blending blue and red oil pastels doesn’t produce a vibrant purple. This why oil pastel manufacturers produce a large array of colors.

Oil pastels are the favorite drawing media of many artists due to the availability of brilliant colors and easy blending. Because oil pastels are oil based, it’s wise to protect clothes and carpet in case a stick is accidentally dropped. On hard, non-porous surfaces, remove oil pastel residue with rubbing alcohol or a baby wipe. 

The oil pastel drawings shown below are by the artist Juanita Mulder. She takes full advantage of the medium with thick applications of brilliant color.

Pineapple and apples. Oil pastel drawing example.
Pineapple and apples. Oil pastel drawing example.
Image by Juanita Mulder from Pixabay
Landscape, oil pastel drawing example.
Landscape, oil pastel drawing example.
Image by Juanita Mulder from Pixabay

Drawing with Oil Pastels Pros and Cons:

Pros: Brilliant color, easily blended, easy to cover large areas with the side of the stick

Cons: Hard to render detail, challenging to correct mistakes, doesn’t dry, must be matted and framed behind glass, protect clothing and carpet

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Soft and Hard Pastel Drawing Media

Soft pastel sticks, how to choose drawing media example
Soft pastel sticks. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Soft pastels consist of pigment and a small amount of binder. With the majority of the stick being pigment, the colors are beautifully intense. The downside to this benefit is that if dropped, soft pastels crumble and break. Despite this minor problem of broken pastel sticks, artists love to draw with soft pastels. Color blending is easy. Using the top edge of the stick creates some amount of detail. The side of the stick easily covers large areas of the paper. 

Cretacolor hard pastel sticks, choose the right drawing media
Cretacolor hard pastel sticks. Photo © 2023 Rhonda Roth,

Similar to soft pastels, hard pastels are made from pigment and a binder, except that there is more binder and less pigment. The sticks don’t crumble or break as easily as soft pastels. It’s also easier to draw detail with a hard pastel. Sometimes artists lay out an initial sketch in hard pastels and then finish the drawing using soft pastels. Colors are also very vibrant.

Stabilo Carb-Othello pastel pencils, drawing media
Stabilo Carb-Othello pastel pencils. Photo © Rhonda Roth,

In pastel pencils the medium is encased in wood, and is in between a soft and hard pastel for firmness. One’s hands remain clean using pastel pencils. Sharpening to a point makes drawing fine detail easy. Because pastel pencils are softer than graphite, use caution when sharpening them to avoid breaking the point. The colors aren’t quite as intense as soft pastels, but ease of use makes up for this. Some artists draw with both pastel pencils and pastel sticks to produce fine detail and shade large areas.

Tips for Drawing with Hard or Soft Pastels

Because all pastels are a powdery media, take care that the powder doesn’t become airborne and inhaled. Don’t blow excess pastel powder from the paper, but rather gently shake it into a trash can. Pastel smudges easily, so mat a pastel drawing and frame it with a protective cover like glass or acrylic. Purchase a set with around 24 colors. To create different color values, add blue to darken a color and yellow to lighten.

Cassatt, Redon, and Pastels

Below are two beautiful pastel drawings and the American artist Mary Cassatt and French artist Odilon Redon. Cassatt uses a limited and muted color palette to bring home the gentle, tender feelings between mother and child. In contrast, Redon employs bright and saturated colors to express the vibrant life of his flowers.

Pastel drawing media example, Mother Holding Her Baby,
 by Mary Cassatt
Pastel drawing Mother Holding Her Baby,
by Mary Cassatt, 1914, American, Public Domain
Pastel, Bouquet of Flowers, Odilon Redon,
1900-1905, French, Public Domain

Drawing with Pastels Pros and Cons:

Pros: Vibrant color, blends easily, easy to cover large areas with the side of soft or hard pastels, pastel pencils create fine detail and are clean to use

Cons: Pastel sticks won’t render fine detail, doesn’t erase well, smudges, mat and frame drawings behind glass or acrylic, avoid breathing pastel powder

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Guidelines for How to Choose the Right Drawing Media – Additional Advice for the Beginning Artist

First learn to draw with graphite pencils or charcoal. Here’s why. First, small errors are simple to fix. Second, rendering depth using tonal value is the foundation of drawing. It’s easier to create value in a drawing using grayscale tones prior to moving on to drawing with color. After this, transition to drawing in color using colored pencils or pastel pencils. Drawing with these types of pencils is almost the same as drawing with graphite, except now, color is added. Lastly, move on to using soft, hard, or oil pastels.

Drawing tools ranked from the easiest to use to the most difficult are: graphite pencils, charcoal, colored and pastel pencils, hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels.

When choosing drawing media, the best advice for a beginning artist is know your skill level, what you’re comfortable with, and what seems like fun. 

Forward to Step 4 in the Drawing Process in Art: Choose a color scheme

Back to Step 2: Planning the Composition