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Shades of Gray

Drawing with graphite requires a certain amount of patience, since it requires constant blending. Working with graphite involves continually layering the pigment, building it until you reach the level of darkness you want. As mentioned in the previous article, when beginning a drawing you should start by protecting the white areas, and then begin applying your darker values. The darkest areas of your drawing will require the most layering. As you proceed you can use various materials to begin blending the darkest areas into the middle shades of gray. Different materials will create different textures, so the look you want to achieve is dependent on the materials you use to blend graphite.

Common materials used for shading:

CHAMOIS, SOFT CLOTH, OR PAPER TOWEL - All of these create nice soft shading which works well for skin and some clothing. Chamois is a type of soft washable leather. If you use cloth, remember it may leave a slight texture because of the weave of the material. A soft, durable 2-ply paper towel like Viva blends graphite very smoothly. All of these hold and apply graphite very well, especially on large areas.

TORTILLONS AND BLENDING STUMPS - Tortillons are small, specially rolled sticks of paper that form a point. Blending stumps are similar but they are longer, made from pressed paper, and usually have a point on both ends. Both are excellent for blending small areas. Blending stumps come in several different sizes. Both of these can have very firm points when they are new and it takes a while to break them in. If the points on your tortillons or blending stumps are too hard, you can soften it by rubbing it on your sanding board. After use these will hold some graphite and are useful for shading small sections in your drawing.

FINGERS - Definitely the oldest blending instrument! However, fingers art not the best choice for your drawing. Oils in your skin will adversely affect the paper. For example, I have handled a clean piece of paper and accidentally touched the surface with my fingers. When I started applying the graphite there, it stuck quite prominently to my finger prints. I could not even erase it, and my shading always looked slightly darker where the graphite clung to the oils left by my skin. So for the best results, use cloth, chamois, or tortillons.

Blending and shading is accomplished in two primary ways. First is to apply graphite to your tool of choice (Chamois, blending stump, etc) and then use the tool to apply the pigment to the paper. To apply graphite to your tool, rub it around an area where you have already applied graphite with your pencil. Not only does this soften these areas but it picks up extra graphite that can then be applied to the lighter gray areas of your drawing. If you have powdered graphite on hand, you can dip your tool directly in the powder and then apply it to your paper. Be sure you shake off the excess powdered graphite before trying to use it on your drawing. After dipping my blending stump in powdered graphite, I rub it on a scrap piece of paper to give to remove the excess graphite and give me more control over how much goes on my drawing.

Graphite added to blending tools and then applied to paper.

Blending Stump


Soft Paper Towel
(Used for blending other graphite, then shaded


Soft Paper Towel
(Powdered graphite applied directly to the towel lays down more pigment.)


Another way to shade is by using your pencils to apply graphite to the shadows. When you do this, use pencils with softer leads (4B - 9B) and make light strokes. Only use heavier strokes when you want the pencil lines to stay visual for a textured effect. Make sure you keep your strokes going in all the same direction, and follow the direction indicated by the lighting. For example, if you are drawing a shadow under the chin of your subject, you would want to make downward stokes, not side to side. Follow the cast of the shadow. After shading with a soft pencil it can be blended with any tool. The more you blend these areas, the less pronounced your pencil marks will be. Each blending tool will produce a different look. Be aware that shading with pencils creates harder shadows then applying the graphite to a cloth and then to your paper.


Graphite added to paper with pencils and then blended with a tool.

Blending Stump (NEW)


Blending Stump (OLD)

Soft Paper Towel






Dark, soft texture

Softest Blend


Soft Blend



In the next article . . .

Once you have shaded your drawing, you will need to clean up those white areas and add other highlights.

Erasers are the answer, and their different varieties and uses will be discussed in the article Cleaning Up Your Act.


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All content and original art works © Nicole I. Hamilton.

Reproduction or use of any content or works without permission is strictly prohibited.

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