Finding and assessing the drawing material that is right for you can throw up all sorts of challenges and confusion, especially if you’re self-taught. I’ve been through it all, so hopefully hearing my story with different art supplies will help you. Here’s the video version and below is the article version:
So first a quick note, we have no relationship or sponsorship to any art supplier at the time of this article. I wish we did, but they won’t return my calls, so this post is totally unbiased.
When I started, I didn’t know or care at all about what pencil or paper I was using. I believed then that if you had skill, it made no difference what material you used. As a kid, I used to get over excited after watching Jackie Chan films, I’d get my mum’s artist grade coloured pencils, put them across two piles of books, and karate chop them in half, and then hide the evidence. I remember doing that all the time.
I should have cared about and respected materials more, but there was a tiny part of my thinking that was sort of right. When you’re starting out learning to draw, you don’t need a fancy material and you don’t need fancy paper either.
But what you do need is something that will help you build your skills. When I started going to life drawing, I was mainly using a graphite pencil, sharpened with a standard sharpener and A4 sketchbook. It’s a combo that is infinitely better than nothing, but not the ideal toolset for learning to draw.
These pushed me towards drawing small with this kind of tripod grip, using just my wrist and fingers, with poor posture. I should have been starting to build that muscle memory for drawing with my arm instead with an overhand grip. Doing this encouraged me to think about details. Instead, I needed to learn to see the big simple shapes. So this combo, whichever brand I got, however expensive, wasn’t a great combo for my beginner learning. But it got me started, so that was the main thing.
Finding materials that taught me beginner lessons
So my mum told me to draw bigger and to try charcoal sticks. She said the materials I use as I learn don’t have to be the material I use forever, they have to teach me important lessons. The message was, worry about your learning not your drawings!
Using larger sheets of paper with a stick of charcoal means you naturally open up your posture, you have to change your grip, you can’t think in terms of details. I haven’t used charcoal stick for years now but that period when I did was invaluable. And you can keep using them even if you get really advanced too of course.
At first I tried to keep drawing details, draw the figure small and try to get a fine edge on the charcoal stick. But the charcoal made that approach so frustrating, I was forced to open up a bit.
Then I realised I was overthinking my lines, thinking I could analyse them in detail and correct them, so I wouldn’t really commit to them or be decisive. So for a while I also used pens. Ink means you have to commit because there’s no erasing. It helps you build your decisiveness.
Again I don’t really use pens much now, but that period when I did taught me a lot. Charcoal on larger paper and sometimes using an ink pen turned out to be great learning tools.
The drawings in the early learning stages don’t matter, the learning is what matters. Don’t think well that guy does amazing drawings with that material, so I need to use that material to make my drawings amazing. What you need is to build the skills that artist has.
Getting too obsessed with materials
Unfortunately, I shifted to a less learning mindset because I got a bit better. I got impatient suddenly and wanted to do drawings like I was seeing professional artists doing. I still hadn’t found my perfect material and I got into a mindset where I thought if I just had the right materials, I could create the artwork I wanted.
So I started fretting about whether what I was using was right. Was I wasting my time with this material, maybe I should hop to that material? I was doing watercolours, ink drawings, marker pen drawings, charcoal drawings, charcoal pencil drawings, graphite drawings, trying different brands.
New materials are hard at first, so your drawing level and confidence dips a bit. You try to use your skills from other materials with the new one, but you have to instead learn the new one. If you keep flip flopping, you just keep going into those ruts all the time.
Anyway, I decided to stick to one material for a while so that I could focus more on my actual skills.
So we are now at my mum’s house and we are going to try out all the stuff we bought. I think you can assess a material against a few specific criteria:
Graphite pencil and willow charcoal sticks are easily corrected with a rubber. But willow charcoal can lift off the paper too easily, which can make a mess and be frustrating for some people.
Charcoal pencils tend to be correctable when you use light marks, but less so with harder marks.
Ink isn’t correctable, your marks are permanent and you get one chance. And often that’s a good thing.
Strength of mark.
Willow charcoal and the non-graphite pencils can put down really strong deep dark tones quickly, and very subtle gentle ones.
Graphite if you use a soft pencil can get dark, but it’s range is more limited. Plus is has a sort of shininess.
The wax crayon seems to put down a good mark but not as deep dark as the charcoal and other pencils.
Ink goes super strong, but doesn’t have the range. It can’t do the soft marks.
A willow charcoal stick and the wax crayon can cover a big sheet in seconds. So you can do a lot with a few marks, which is good for quick poses.
Charcoal pencils can do the same, if you sharpen them properly to expose the side of the lead.
Graphite pencil and pen you tend to use the tip more, so its covering power is limited and you need more time to do a large area.
A charcoal stick and the wax crayon force you into the overhand grip.
A pen pushes you into the tripod grip (the normal writing grip).
Charcoal pencil lets you use both, but ideally you’ll mostly use that overhand grip with it.
A graphite pencils lets you use both, but generally encourages the tripod grip more. If you’re a beginner, the ability to use a tripod grip with pencils could be too tempting, so a charcoal stick could be better because it’s great to learn the overhand grip.
They can all do simple and detail, but which do they encourage?
The willow charcoal and the wax crayon push you towards simplicity, so they are great for helping you learn to simplify.
The pen and graphite pencil push you towards detail. You should learn simplicity before detail.
The charcoal pencils let you do whatever you want, but are best used for simplicity.
Sweeping gestural curves
They can all do big sweeping curves and gestural marks, but charcoal sticks and wax crayons might be the easiest to start with.
Charcoal pencils are at the moment my favourite for gesture drawings, but you do need to figure out how to sharpen them properly so it’s not really easy to start doing.
A really soft graphite pencil and brush pens can be good for gestural marks. But fineliner pens and harder graphite pencils will probably be more difficult.
Charcoal sticks are cheap and can be used with newsprint, a super economical combination. Wax crayon too.
Graphite pencils can be pricey sometimes, but also last pretty well I think.
Charcoal pencils, because you can break them so easily and because you end up wittling down the pencil, I seem to go through quite quickly, and they aren’t cheap either. The good thing is they work well with cheap smooth newsprint paper.
Pen and ink – they aren’t too bad but I do find I go through pens fairly quickly.
Ease of use
Charcoal stick, wax crayon, graphite pencils and pens you can start using out of the box. Maybe they’ll need some sort of easy sharpening. But to use graphite pencils and pens well is more tricky than the others.
Charcoal pencils you have to learn to sharpen them, which we’ll talk about more soon, but it can be tricky, so it’s not an easy one to just start using.
So I guess what I learned from all this is that when I’m learning something, I don’t need to do that thing amazingly. Instead, I needed to set myself up for success to learn, including using whatever material helps you learn. In the beginning that was charcoal stick, cheap, easy to get into, forced me to use a good grip and thing big and simple. Occasional pen drawing helped me learn to commit. Now I feel like I really want to develop line quality and gesture and I want something more versatile so the perfect material now is a charcoal or carbon pencil.
So it’s versatile, but that isn’t always a good thing. Versatile gives you too much choice sometimes. When you’re a beginner especially, like I said before, it’s good to have limits so that you have to build new skills to use them. If I went from graphite pencil to charcoal pencil, I’d never have started building my overhand grip skills or drawing with my arm.
Takeaways: don’t flipflop based on every amazing drawing you find. Think about how the material will help you achieve your current goal – to learn the fundamental skills. Graphite pencils are wonderful and I love graphite drawings, but I think they are hard to learn the fundamental skills with. Charcoal sticks are great for learning but not for everyone, the marks come off the paper so easily, they are quite messy. Charcoal and carbon pencils are versatile and create beautiful marks while being clean. But they can present challenges when you’re a beginner.