The Virtues Of Sketching With A Pencil

People who follow my blog know that I’m a pen guy.  I used fountain pens long before I started trying to draw so it just seemed natural that I should use one as my drawing tool.  In fact, I was told that this was THE way to learn to draw by those who hung out in sketching groups.  Working with pen, it was said, would make me see better, make better decisions, improve my hand-eye coordination, and a whole slew of other great benefits.

Five years later I’m still using a fountain pen as my principal drawing tool.  More importantly, I can better assess all those well-meaning people who were advocating the use of ink to learn to draw.  And you know what?  I don’t think they were talking about ink at all.  They were talking about erasers.  They were talking about being sure about where you wanted to put a line before you put it.  They were talking about not spending a lot of time erasing and replacing lines.  When they said ink would improve my ability to see, they were really saying “If you know you can’t erase, you’ll pay more attention before you make a line.”

I suppose, they were right, BUT that is not the whole story.  There is room for pencil in the drawing process, even if you ultimately use fountain pens as your primary drawing tool.  For instance, I use a pencil when I start most drawings.  I use it to generate layout lines, to evaluation locations, major angles, and object sizes BEFORE I start thinking about drawing actual objects.  This is a step that pro artists may do in their heads but they are nevertheless doing it.  Less skilled folks, like me, need the pencil lines to evaluate those relationships and correct those they got wrong BEFORE they actually start drawing the outlines of the objects they’re trying to capture.  Most beginners skip this step completely.  I might talk about this at a later date but today I want to talk about a more fundamental reason to use a pencil to actually draw.

Using ink causes people to concentrate mostly on outline.  Whether it is buildings or people, basic lessons of contour drawing are very evident and, for the most part, that’s where the process of drawing ends for most people.  They may follow up with watercolor or maybe even hatching but these are done as after-the-fact processes once the contours are all drawn.

But if you draw with a pencil you start thinking more about form and less about outline.  Folds in clothes become areas of tone rather than a single line.  Curves become gradients of tone, or they should as the surfaces change their angles with respect to the light.  If you’ve ever tried to turn a circle into a sphere with a fountain pen you know how difficult this is, but with a pencil it’s a quite natural thing to do.

Because of this, drawing with a pencil will teach you more about seeing and creating tonal variation than will using a fountain pen.  You’ll concentrate more on 3-dimensional form rather than outline.  In short, you’ll start seeing in a different way and in doing so, even your fountain pen drawing will improve.

Because of this, I try to draw something in pencil every once in a while.  I always find it a struggle because I’m a left-handed sketcher who drags his hand across the drawing as I draw.  The smudging that results is not pretty.  The fact that I don’t do it as much as I should also limits what I can achieve, but each time I get a little bit better and I see just a bit better.  I also gain a keen appreciation for the pencil as a sketching tool.

Here’s a drawing I did of a statue in our museum.  I did it with a 0.5mm mechanical pencil which is a convenient tool, but probably not optimal for doing pencil drawings.  Please excuse my smudging; I’m just a lowly pen driver afterall.  Do you ever draw in pencil?

4 Responses to “The Virtues Of Sketching With A Pencil”

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  1. Tina says:

    My current studies in colored pencil are teaching me exactly what you are referring to. I am learning so much more about form and tone from colored pencil then I ever have from pen and watercolor. I would like to eventually do similar concentrated study using graphite, because I’ll probably learn even more about tonal values. I think it is possible to do tonal work with pen and ink (ala da Vinci, Durer, etc), but not easy.

    – Tina

    • I agree that you can do tonal work in ink, but it’s much more time consuming and less likely to have the artist replacing a line outline with tone. Paul Heaston is a modern example of doing this very well. Another way to approach it is Liz Steel’s way of painting and drawing simultaneously. If I had more hands I’d probably try it 🙂

  2. Dee Ludwig says:

    You are soooo right. Sketching with pen was learning NOT to erase. It was about the eraser! I just found old sketchbooks I did with pencil years back, but I never gained the confidence I now have drawing with pen. But with pen I am always looking for adequate ways to tone and make shapes with volume and have found no way to do that to my satisfaction with pen and ink. On the other hand, I now want more line definition when I Watercolor. You hit the subject right on the head! Thanks for letting me know I am not alone!

    • Yep, drawing with an eraser in the other hand is self-defeating in my view. First, you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing because you always think you can change it. Maybe more important is that if you can’t erase you don’t learn to concentrate on overall proportions first, or as Marc Taro Holmes calls it, working from the outside in. You just start drawing the eye, worrying about the head later because, well, you can always erase. Funny thing is that I pick up a pencil first, lines to indicate overall proportions. These are light, mostly straight lines but once done, I can concentrate on the outlines with ink, knowing that the various objects will fit within those layout lines, dots, or whatever. THEN, when I’m finished, I can use a kneaded eraser to eliminate those “scaffolding” lines. If you look at work from many of the master artists, you’ll see those layout lines because they didn’t feel it necessary to remove them.

      As for getting tone into your ink work, hatching is the typical way. This requires a lot of practice to create consistent hatching and a lot of time to do it. It seems to require that you work in relatively small formats. One thing that’s fun to do, however is to mix your media a bit, even if you’re going to use watercolor on top. I carry a waterbrush with very dilute dark gray ink and I can shade an ink drawing fairly quickly. Once dry, watercolors will go right over it. Another thing that’s fun is to do the same sort of thing with a few watercolor pencils and a waterbrush. I’m amazed by Liz Steel videos where she draws with a fist full of brushes, pencils and pens, drawing and painting simultaneously.

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