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Pencils are a useful starting medium for making under drawings before you begin a painting, but can also be used to make finished pieces in their own right. They have great flexibility of mark from broad generalized gestures to fine descriptive detailing. Pencil leads range from hard leads denoted by H, going from the letter H to 8H (the higher the number the harder the lead) to soft leads denoted by the letter B to 8B (the higher number being the softest). The harder leads make a pale and more grey mark, sometimes literally denting the paper surface with their sharpness, while softer leads make broader, blacker, shinier marks. In order to build up a detailed tonal drawing it is a good idea to use a combination of hard and soft pencils, going from light to dark using the harder H pencils to make the initial outlines and moving onto softer B pencils to build up areas of shade.


Charcoal Sticks

These come in the form of fragile charred willow sticks or are compressed into more solid pastels. Care must be taken when using regular pencils in conjunction with charcoal as the pencil can leave a shiny mark, which the charcoal cannot easily adhere to. For fine details it may be better to use a charcoal pencil that can be sharpened to a point like an ordinary pencil.

All forms of charcoal give a strong or soft quality of line depending on the pressure applied and the speed at which the mark is made. The marks can be easily smudged with the finger or cross-hatched to build up depth. The edge or tip of the stick or pastel can be used for fine lines and details but also the charcoal can be turned on its side and the length scraped across the drawing to block in large areas, give a wider mark or to enhance shading.

Charcoal works best on textured papers like sugar or pastel papers. White paper can sometimes look rather harsh showing through a charcoal drawing and coloured paper can make a more sympathetic background. Some artists allow the paper to remain untouched in the lightest area of their drawing or accentuate the highlights with light-coloured chalk, leaving a mid-tone.

As the drawing is easily smudged it is possible to spray a light coat of fixative (hair spray is an alternative to art shop bought) over it to prevent it getting accidentally rubbed off. This must only be used be in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Some people spray the drawing at regular intervals so that they can add more layers without smudging the work they have just done.


Pastels can be soft, medium or hard and come in a vast range of colours. Soft pastels are easiest to smudge and can be used on most papers. Harder pastels can rough up the surface of poorer quality paper and make it hard to work on. Drawings can look especially effective if limited to a few colours such as a browny red with a lighter colour reserved for highlights. Pastels can be used for quick sketching or built up into detailed drawings that can display the depth and finished quality of a painting.

Like charcoal, pastel drawings can be protected with a light spray of fixative between stages or when finished. This can darken the colours however and should be sprayed across the work rather than directly at it and from approximately 30cms away from the drawing. Careful with noxious fumes!


In order to exploit the transparent nature of the paint to its best advantage it is advisable to work from the lightest areas to the darkest, leaving the paper untouched to function as the highlights and adding gradual washes of colour progressing finally towards the darkest areas of the painting. Applying light colours over dark ones will not lighten the paint. Gouache paint, which is also water soluble, can be used selectively to add areas of light over dark as it has a much more opaque quality. A distinctive feature of watercolours is that they dry extremely quickly when working outdoors.
Some artists prefer to add a light general wash of colour before beginning a watercolour painting, especially if working on white paper to give it a more neutral tone. Before starting work it is important to stretch the wetted paper over a drawing board using gumstrip tape. This prevents it from buckling. Most types of paper will take watercolour paint but there are special ready primed watercolour papers available, slightly textured and more suitable to withstand being dampened. These usually have a right and wrong side, the primed side being the right one and often with a maker's watermark to indicate the correct side to work on.

Watercolour paints come in blocks, which are dry until moistened with water and bottles or tubes which are more liquid. The easiest way to experiment with them is to try using a ready prepared set in a tin with a closable lid. These often include a small palette or the underside of the lid sectioned off for mixing paints in. It is sometimes an advantage to have a limited range of colours when first starting out as it encourages the mixing of colours instead of selecting ones readymade. Limiting the range of colours used helps the resultant painting appear more unified. It is harder to mix up larger amounts of paint when using watercolours in block form and if a large area is to be covered it may be necessary to mix up an amount in a separate container such as a glass jar using paint squeezed from a tube.

It is usual to paint with soft synthetic or preferably sable brushes that can hold more paint than coarser bristles. Brushes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from ones with squared ends good for laying large areas of flat colour to round ones with a point for fine detailing.


Acrylics dry fairly quickly which some artists can find restrictive but the surface of the paint can remain workable for slightly longer if manipulated with a damp brush. Unlike oil paints, acrylics tend to dry to a semi-matt finish.

Paint will work well on canvas panels treated with an acrylic primer, wood, paper or prepared surfaces like Daler board.

A variety of tools can be used to apply the paint. Hog hair brushes and palette knives will give a thicker, more gestural mark and the brushstrokes can be left visible to create a painterly finish. Soft synthetic or fine point sable brushes can be used to add delicate detail.

Colours can be mixed on a palette if small amounts are required or mixed with the desired amount of water in a separate container for enough to cover a large area. As it is quite difficult to recreate the shade and consistency of a mixed colour it is probably more useful to mix up more paint than is required when making larger paintings rather than risk running out of paint.

Prepared sets of acrylic paints can be a good way of learning to paint. Sometimes the set will contain a ready made flesh colour. This can be useful as a base for making portraits of people with Caucasian colouring although the flesh tint used on its own can be a rather startling shade of salmon pink. It is best used when blended with other colours like yellow ochre or raw umber to achieve a more naturalistic skin tone.


Paint can be thinned to aid flow and make it easier to brush onto the canvas. One can use a ready mixed solution or 'painting medium' is produced by most leading paint manufacturers. Artists can easily mix up their own painting medium by combining two parts of linseed oil to one part turpentine (white spirit). This helps hasten the drying time of the paint and also creates an ideal solution for glazing.

By varying the proportions of oil paint and medium the artist can achieve a wide range of different finishes and techniques. As with water based acrylics the paint can be applied with little or no thinning using a brush or palette knife in order to create a thick almost 3D finish called impasto. Thick oil paint will take weeks, possibly even years to dry completely and can be difficult to work on especially if several layers are to be built on top of each other. Another technique is to apply several glazes over an initial underdrawing made in pencil, charcoal or a thin paint. It is unwise to do too detailed a drawing in the early stages as it is extremely difficult to fit the oil paint around pencil marks without obscuring them. It may be easier to make a general design in pencil first and concentrate on fine details at a later stage once the painting has been blocked in.

Even paint diluted with a medium can take several days to dry although the drying process can be speeded up slightly with a few drops of 'driers' added to the painting medium. It may be necessary to wait for part of the painting to dry off before laying more paint over it as colours can become 'muddy' if overworked. Interesting effects can be achieved though by blending colours together wet into wet on the canvas. This technique can be especially good for shading or areas of shadow. There is an expression relating to the practice of oil painting which is'fat over lean.' This means that a little more oil should be added to the paint medium as each layer of paint is applied to help prevent the bottom layers from sucking oil out of the top ones which would cause the surface to crack. Some artists prefer to stain the canvas with a coat of colour before beginning an underdrawing to eliminate the white of the canvas glowing through the finished painting. Various artists have experimented by painting the canvas an earthy green or brownish red first and then beginning their painting as normal over this layer when it is dry or almost dry. Some portrait painters find that by using these colours as a base coat it gives a more naturalistic and solid quality to the skin tones laid on top.

Even if an artist is loyal to one brand of paint it is not unusual to find that each colour can dry to a different finish depending on how much oil or pigment was used when creating that colour. Parts of the painting may dry to a matt, semi-matt or glossy finish which can create a slightly patchy effect. Some artists varnish the finished painting to give it a more consistent overall appearance or to bring out the true vibrancy of some colours which may have dried rather flat. It is advisable to leave paintings to dry completely, usually at least three months, before varnishing them. Varnish comes in two general finishes: matt which will give the painting a very flat, uniform look, or gloss. A glossy finish will give the painting a rich lustre but the shiny surface may reflect light making it hard to view the painting.
Some papers are primed and suitable for oil painting. These should be stretched onto a board with masking tape to hold them flat and taut. Canvas or linen is the traditional support for contemporary oil paintings and ready made stretched canvases are available from art shops. These can be bought ready primed or should be treated with a suitable primer to prevent the paint from sinking and also because some properties of the paint could rot raw canvas. Oil paint could also be applied to primed wood, MDF primed panels or heavy duty cardboard. Textured surfaces like Daler board are prepared for acrylic or oil painting and are a cheaper option but the corners can crumble if not protected adequately.

Stiff bristled brushes like hog hair come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can give a good, gestural mark. For a smoother finish paint can also be applied with synthetic or sable brushes and even softened with dry brushes to remove the appearance of the brush stroke altogether. Brushes should be cleaned thoroughly in turpentine or white spirit, then washed with soap and finally dried with a clean rag.