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5 Tips for Smooth Shading with Graphite

Read my best advice for graphite shading, including a short demo video showing how I shaded part of my drawing "Satin Dress".

"Satin Dress", a drawing by Sadie Valeri after ter Borch
"Satin Dress", a drawing by Sadie Valeri after ter Borch

Graphite pencil on Strathmore 400 series drawing paper

Learning to shade with graphite pencil helps artists develop pressure control and teaches them to see subtle value shifts, skills that carry over to any drawing or painting media.

These are my top 5 tips for smooth shading with graphite:

1. Use a very sharp pencil Shade with the very tip of a very sharp pencil, so you can deposit graphite into the tiny crevices of the paper. Even very smooth paper has a texture that will be amplified when shading with a dull pencil or with the side of the lead. Never never smudge or blend graphite because it makes a slick, shiny surface that looks greasy. 2. Draw with short strokes

Move the point of your pencil only a millimeter or two as you shade. Beginners tend to sweep the pencil with big, 1-centimenter long strokes. A beginner's strokes are often slightly curved, and often darker at one end from pressing too hard. Short strokes help maintain consistent pressure for a smooth, seamless tone.

Watch this short video demo showing how I shaded part of the satin dress:

3. Eliminate black dots and white dots Graphite tends to deposit black dots, and leaves behind tiny white dots. This grainy texture can distract from the illusion you are trying to create. After you shade a few square centimeters or so, go back over that area and fill in all the little white dots with a very hard, sharp pencil. Use a kneaded gum eraser, twisted into a point, to gently lift out little black dots. Sometimes the eraser leaves behind a white spot, so fill that in with a sharp pencil.

4. Slow down In many aspects of our lives we are incentivized to complete every task as fast as possible. But with shading, if you speed through it, you'll just have to go back over it again and again. It's better to zoom in your vision close and slow way down. Imagine you are a tiny ant traversing a rocky terrain, and take all the time necessary to shade smoothly. It helps to find a comfortable way to sit that won't hurt you after a few hours, and shade while listening to your favorite music or a riveting audiobook or podcast. If you are working at an easel, make sure your paper is positioned low enough that your drawing hand is never higher than your shoulder.

5. Finish as you go Sometimes students quickly shade a layer over their entire drawing in one or two studio sessions, with a plan to go back and refine it later. Often they are surprised they need to do five or more passes to reach the level of refinement they are capable of. It's much better to bring a small area up to a fully refined level of shading before moving on to other areas. This helps "set the bar high". You'll discover that you are able to shade at a higher level of refinement than you may have realized, and as you continue to shade the rest of the drawing you have a standard by which to compare each area.

Bonus Tip! Aluminum pencil extenders are very useful for when the pencil gets too short to hold comfortably.

Online Graphite Drawing Courses

I teach artists of all levels how to develop pencil control with simple beginning exercises anyone can do in my online course Classical Sketchbook for Beginners. In my more advanced graphite courses I teach how to create smooth shading in the Bargue plate drawing and cast drawing courses.

Use coupon code sva20 to get 20% off any course

Students in my online feedback program get personal help twice a week from one of our atelier instructors. Our instructors are experts at guiding artists of all levels step-by-step through the courses.

My drawing "Satin Dress" was filmed and the footage is available to all members here.


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