Drawing techniques and materials

Learning objectives

  1. Explore a range of drawing materials.
  1. Analyse the techniques artists have used to create different effects in portrait drawings.
  1. Experiment with materials and develop drawing skills.
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    Asif Kapadia ('00:52:33'),    by Nina Mae Fowler,    2019,    NPG 7064,    © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: Douglas Atfield
Asif Kapadia ('00:52:33')
by Nina Mae Fowler
compressed charcoal and pencil on paper, 2019
11 3/8 in. x 17 1/4 in. (290 mm x 439 mm) overall
NPG 7064
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: Douglas Atfield

The choice of materials and technique makes a big difference to the style and feeling of an artwork. Looking at other artists’ drawings can help you to explore the possibilities drawing offers and refine your ideas.

This resource presents questions and artworks you can use to analyse and explore different drawing techniques and materials. You might like to try some out in a sketchbook as you go.

Why do artists draw?

Think about your own reasons for choosing to draw. What type of drawing are you aiming to create? What do you hope to achieve? 

Explore these portraits to find out more about each artist's creative process and drawing techniques.

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    David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.'),    by David Hockney,    1983,    NPG 6473,    © David Hockney 1983
David Hockney ('Self Portrait 30th Sept.'), by David Hockney, 1983
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    George Moore,    by Henry Tonks,    circa 1920,    NPG 2807,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Moore, by Henry Tonks, circa 1920
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    Diane Abbott,    by Stuart Pearson Wright,    2006,    NPG 6927,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Diane Abbott, by Stuart Pearson Wright, 2006
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    Asif Kapadia ('00:52:33'),    by Nina Mae Fowler,    2019,    NPG 7064,    © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: Douglas Atfield
Asif Kapadia ('00:52:33'), by Nina Mae Fowler, 2019
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    Sir Charles Clore,    by Graham Sutherland,    1967,    NPG 6465,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Charles Clore, by Graham Sutherland, 1967
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    Elizabeth Carter,    by Sir Thomas Lawrence,    1788-1789,    NPG 28,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Carter, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1788-1789

Charcoal

As well as deciding what type of drawing you will make, you need to choose your materials.

Charcoal or chalk can either be used to draw out an image before painting or as the media for finished portraits.

Charcoal is usually made from burnt, blackened willow twigs and is also sold compressed into solid sticks. It is Soft Pencils come in varying degrees of hardness (labelled H) or softness (labelled B): softer pencils produce darker marks. , fragile and very versatile. It can be used to make soft or strong lines and can be smudged and dragged over the paper for textured effects and shading. It can be erased with a rubber to create highlights.

Artists often use charcoal for making spontaneous, large and bold drawings.

Look closer at charcoal techniques

Explore more charcoal portraits

  1. Which of these charcoal drawings seem bold and spontaneous?
  1. Which drawings are more detailed and studied?
  1. Can you find examples of chiaroscuro?
  1. Choose a portrait that you are particularly interested in. Why do you think the artist chose charcoal for this portrait?

Chalk

Chalk is made from various Soft Pencils come in varying degrees of hardness (labelled H) or softness (labelled B): softer pencils produce darker marks. stones or earths cut into sticks. The three main types are red (also called sanguine), black and white chalk. Because it is found in nature, chalk has been used to make art for thousands of years.

Chalk can be applied dry to paper and smudges easily so can be blended and mixed. Some artists work with a Stump A pointed roll of paper or leather used to rub charcoal or chalk drawings to give a delicate blending of tones. – a pointed roll of paper or leather used to rub charcoal or chalk drawings to give a delicate blending of tones. The technique was popular in the 1800s, as it could be used to make drawings look like photographs, and it is still used today.

By using black and white chalk artists can create effective portraits that show the Contours The outer edges of something; the outline of its shape or form. of a face. Sanguine, traditionally made from red iron oxide, is popular for the softness and warmth it gives to a drawing.

Artists often heighten their drawings using contrasting touches of white. Heightening allows the artist to brighten and intensify the image to bring out important features and to give an illusion of light and depth. Look out for artists using heightening in drawings in other media too, especially pastels or ink.

Look closer at chalk techniques

Explore more chalk portraits

  1. Which of these chalk drawings do you think have been made as preparations for paintings, and which are final art works? What makes you think that?
  1. Compare drawings made with one colour to drawings made with two or more. Why do you think the artists made these choices?
  1. Which drawings do you think have been delicately blended with a stump?
  1. Why do you think the artist chose to use a stump? What effects do they create?
  1. Choose an example of heightening that you think is effective. What do you think the artist was trying to achieve?
  1. What do you think the texture of chalk on paper adds to a drawing?

Pastel

Pastels are sticks of colour made from powdered pigments mixed with chalk and bound together with Gum A sticky substance produced by some types of tree. . They are popular with artists in Britain today and have been used since the 1600s. This is because, unlike paint, they are easy to carry and ready to use straight away. Pastels became particularly fashionable in the 1700s. Many artists specialised in what was known as ‘pastel painting’, which became a popular Form The shape of somebody or something. of portraiture.

Pastels are used dry on paper and can be blended and mixed on the page. Soft Pencils come in varying degrees of hardness (labelled H) or softness (labelled B): softer pencils produce darker marks. ‘true’ pastels are available in more than 600 tints. They are soft and fragile, giving drawings a powdery surface and Translucent Allowing light to pass through but not completely clear. quality. The high content of chalk in pastels means that they can be easily smudged and smoothed, producing convincing and subtle Three-dimensional Having, or appearing to have, length, width and depth. effects.

Many artists prevent their pastel drawings from smudging or falling off the paper by spraying them with a Fixative A substance that is used to stick things together, prevent colours from running or keep things in position. . But not too much – taking care not to flatten the delicate texture.

Oil pastels are made with an oil binder and are greasier than chalk-based pastels. They come in fewer colours but stick to the paper better.

Compare pastel techniques

Paula Rego and R.B. Kitaj both made many artworks using pastels. Their techniques varied. Kitaj smudged the pastel, often rubbing it into the paper. Rego mixed the pastel colours but did not smudge. Instead, she built up layers of colour, spraying with Fixative A substance that is used to stick things together, prevent colours from running or keep things in position. between each layer. When she was asked her secret to keeping her colours vibrant, she said simply, ‘don’t smudge’.

Compare these portraits by Rego and Kitaj.

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    Germaine Greer,    by Dame Paula Rego,    1995,    NPG 6351,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Germaine Greer, by Dame Paula Rego, 1995
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    Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich,    by R.B. Kitaj,    1986,    NPG 5892,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, by R.B. Kitaj, 1986
  1. How are their techniques different? What different effects have they created?

    Can you find any similarities?
  1. Can you see how they have mixed or layered their colours?
  1. Can you see how each artist has held and used their pastels?

    For example, have they laid a pastel on its side and created broad strokes of colour? Have they used the end of the pastel to create bold lines? Have they twisted and turned the pastel as they drew to create texture?

Explore more pastel portraits

  1. Compare the techniques artists have used in these portraits. Which do you prefer, and why?
  1. What impact does the wide choice of colours have?
  1. How have some artists used the translucent quality of pastel?

Pen and ink

Ink is a liquid medium. There are two basic types. Waterproof inks dry to a Glossy Smooth and shiny. film, so other media can be used on top. Non-waterproof inks give an effect of diluted watercolour, drying to a Matt Not shiny. finish.

Ink has been used since the 1500s. These early inks came from natural sources, such as iron sulphate and squid ink. Artists would dip sharp pens into ink and draw fine lines.

Pens that had a reservoir to hold ink became available in Britain in the 1800s. Pens became easier to carry and could be used immediately. In the 1900s, artists began to use biros, felt-tip pens and markers that come in many colours and create lively, spontaneous marks.

Ink cannot easily be erased, so mistakes are permanent. Artists may work more boldly and decisively with ink than with chalk, or simply embrace imperfections in their drawings.

Artists working with ink create highlights using the white of the paper. Rather than blending or smudging, artists often fill in areas or create shading by building up marks. They use techniques such as stippling (tiny dots) or hatching (finely spaced parallel lines). When more sets of parallel lines are drawn criss-cross over the first it is called Cross-hatched Finely spaced parallel lines drawn criss-cross over each other, usually to create shading and depth. .

Look closer at pen and ink techniques

Compare pen and ink techniques

The The person in a portrait A person who sits or stands somewhere so that somebody can paint a picture of them or photograph them.  in these portraits are both politicians, and are both drawn with ink. But the purpose of each portrait is different.

Gerald Scarfe’s portrait of Margaret Thatcher is a political cartoon that was printed in a newspaper.

Andrew Tift drew the portrait of Ken Livingstone from life. He made this sketch in preparation for a final oil painting.

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    Margaret Thatcher,    by Gerald Scarfe,    1983,    NPG 6010,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Margaret Thatcher, by Gerald Scarfe, 1983
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    Ken Livingstone,    by Andrew Tift,    2013,    NPG D43016,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ken Livingstone, by Andrew Tift, 2013
  1. Consider how the artist has used the ink in each portrait. What tools and techniques has each artist used?

    How do you think the purpose of each drawing affected the artist’s decision?
  1. How might each artist want the viewer to feel about the sitter? How could the way they have put the ink down on the paper encourage the viewer to feel that way?

Explore more pen and ink portraits

Take a closer look at the lines and marks the artists have used to build up images with pen and ink. Look at how they have used the white of the paper too.

Choose a portrait that catches your eye. Why do you think the artist chose to use ink?

Pencil

A pencil is a stick of graphite in a wood or plastic casing. Pencil is reliable and flexible. It can be used with a blunt end for Soft Pencils come in varying degrees of hardness (labelled H) or softness (labelled B): softer pencils produce darker marks. marks and overall tone or sharply pointed for precise marks.

Pencil drawings can be purely linear, made up entirely of outline, or tonal.

Usually, pencil works best on paper with a slight texture or ‘tooth’ such as cartridge paper. It can work well on an off-white or coloured paper to give more warmth and depth. The paper colour can act as a Mid-tone A shade of a colour that is neither light nor dark, but in the middle. .

The quality of the mark depends on the softness or hardness of the pencil, the amount of pressure used and the speed with which the mark is made. Shaded areas can be smudged with fingers or marks can be laid side-by-side or Cross-hatched Finely spaced parallel lines drawn criss-cross over each other, usually to create shading and depth. to create depth or shadow. Erasers can be useful to correct mistakes and create highlights.

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    Isaac Barrow,    by David Loggan,    1676,    NPG 1876,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Isaac Barrow, by David Loggan, 1676
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    Mark Gertler,    possibly by Dora Carrington,    circa 1909-1911,    NPG 5431,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mark Gertler, possibly by Dora Carrington, circa 1909-1911
  1. How has each artist created depth or shadow?
  1. Where has each artist made fine lines with a sharp point? 
  1. Where has each artist used a softer line?
  1. Why do you think each artist chose to use soft lines where they have?
  1. Where has each artist blended from a light to a dark tone?
  1. What effect has each artist chosen to create with blending? Is it dramatic or subtle?

Look closer at pencil techniques

Explore the drawings below and find out about the different techniques the artists used to create the portraits.

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    Henri Gaudier-Brzeska,    by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska,    1912,    NPG 4814,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1912
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    Nicolas Clerihew Bentley,    by Leonard Rosoman,    1980,    NPG 5368,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Nicolas Clerihew Bentley, by Leonard Rosoman, 1980
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    Samuel Beckett,    by Avigdor Arikha,    1971,    NPG 5100,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Samuel Beckett, by Avigdor Arikha, 1971
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    Alice Meynell (née Thompson),    by John Singer Sargent,    1894,    NPG 2221,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Alice Meynell (née Thompson), by John Singer Sargent, 1894

Explore more pencil portraits

Artists in the UK have been using pencil for centuries. It is a versatile material and can be used in a wide variety of ways. Which pencil portraits appeal to you, and why?

Mixing drawing media

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    'Sadie' (Zadie Smith),    by Toyin Ojih Odutola,    2018-2019,    NPG 7105,    © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019

You don’t have to use just one drawing medium.

Toyin Ojih Odutola has a distinctive style that combines many media in her drawings, often pastel, charcoal and pencil. She puts down layers of shading, marks and lines, to create intricate patterns, rich colours and varied tones. 

She pays particular attention to her Sitter The person in a portrait. ’s skin. She says, ‘Skin is … a landscape that you project meanings onto. It has its own history.’ In this portrait of Zadie Smith, Ojih Odutola has used her layering technique to give a sense of the feeling of Smith’s skin and the way it reflects the light.

Explore more mixed media drawings

  1. Can you identify the media used in these mixed media drawings?
  1. What effects do you think the artists achieved by combining different media?
  1. What do you think combining media can bring to a portrait?

Which medium is for you?

You have explored the qualities of charcoal, chalk, pastel, ink, pencil and the techniques artists have used with them. Think of ways you could be inspired to use these in your own drawings.

Have you changed your opinion about any of these drawing materials? Have any portraits surprised you, or made you reconsider a medium you don’t often choose for your own work?

Have you discovered a medium or technique that is right for you and the portraits that you want to create? You don’t have to settle on just one.

You could:

  • explore and research the artists further
  • use sketchbooks to experiment and try out different media and techniques
  • make notes to track and reflect on your progress.