I love drawing with graphite. Nothing beats the control and precision offered by a sharp graphite pencil.
But there’s one thing I hate about graphite: it gets “shiny” if you’re not really careful, and shiny drawings are ugly.
If you don’t know what I mean by “shiny”, grab a soft graphite pencil and a piece of paper. Fill a half-inch square on the page with the darkest value you can. Press hard with the pencil while you draw. Now look at the page from different angles. Depending on your angle of view, the square may seem inky dark, or silvery-grey, depending on how it catches the light. This is the dreaded “graphite shine”.
What’s happened here is that you’ve basically buffed-up the surface of the graphite under all that back-and-forth pressure with the pencil. This makes the surface of a drawing smooth and reflective, which produces glare and causes dark areas to appear light, effectively ruining the appearance of a drawing. This capacity to be polished is a natural characteristic of graphite – which is why some artists choose to avoid the material altogether.
There are ways to prevent your pencil drawings from getting too shiny, but they take some planning. To get started, you need to be aware of what’s actually causing the problem.
Graphite isn’t shiny.
The first thing to understand is that it’s not graphite itself that’s causing the problem. I frequently use graphite powder in my drawings, available by the jar, and it’s completely matte on the page.
The problem with graphite is that it can be polished, like silver. The process is called “burnishing” and it seems that the pencil point itself is a very effective burnishing tool – the back-and-forth motion of the pencil on the page will buff-up your drawing to a mirror shine, and flatten the “tooth” of the paper at the same time. The harder you press with the pencil, and the more you scrub back-and-forth with it while drawing, the smoother and shinier your graphite passages will become.
How to prevent graphite shine in a drawing.
In my experience, there are only 3 ways to prevent your pencil drawings from becoming burnished:
- Limit the amount of graphite on the page.
- Limit how hard you press with the pencil.
- Limit how many times you rework an area.
Let’s take these one at a time:
1) Limit the amount of graphite.
This may sound strange – aren’t we drawing with graphite pencils, after all? Well, yes and no.
In general, graphite pencils are available in two varieties: H’s and B’s. H pencils are harder and thus draw more lightly. B pencils are softer and thus draw more darkly. But graphite isn’t the only ingredient in pencil leads.
Graphite itself is a soft substance, so a very soft lead – like you’d find in a 6B pencil, for example – actually contains a high proportion of pure graphite. Harder leads – like you’d find in a 6H pencil – are harder because of the addition of clay. In other words, H pencils contain more clay and less graphite than B pencils.
Since graphite gets shiny and clay doesn’t, defaulting to harder leads is one way to limit burnishing in our graphite drawings. With less graphite on the page, we lessen the potential for future burnishing.
But what about darker values?
If we limit ourselves to hard pencils, however, we won’t be able to achieve robust darks – and that’s a big problem. Darker values are what make lighter values appear illuminated – we’ll sacrifice the sense of light and volume in a drawing if we can’t “go dark”.
There are two solutions to this problem. We could opt for graphite powder, applied with a brush or a rag, which can achieve relatively dark values without burnishing (unless, of course, you proceed to saw on top of it with a pencil).
A second option is to use pencils with alternative dark pigments. Examples include the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils, which have a pigment (probably carbon black) added to the lead. This allows for rich darks with little burnishing. I use these pencils for much of the darker values in my drawings, and they work nicely. The Kimberly 9XXB is a similar option.
2) Limit How Hard You Press.
There are occasions where softer B pencils are just the ticket. The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils, for example, aren’t well suited for covering large areas efficiently – they contain a waxy binder that’s tough to spread around and manipulate with blending tools. A nice 4B or 6B pencil may be better suited… Just don’t press hard with it! Instead, build up the value gradually with two or three light passes instead of one heavy pass. This can be tricky, and switching between tools like the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils or graphite powder may be necessary to push the value dark enough.
3) Limit how many times you rework an area.
While you might get away with 2 or 3 light passes with a soft graphite pencil, drawing in the same area over and over again will eventually lead to burnishing. Such “overdrawing” is usually the result of choosing the wrong pencil to begin with. You may select a 2B for a given value and find it’s not soft enough. Then you try again with a 4B, and it’s still not soft enough. Then a 5B, and then an 8B, all the while pressing harder and harder to force the value down. This approach leads to the most egregious cases of shiny graphite.
Choose the right pencil for the job.
A better approach is to select the right pencil for the job to begin with, and thus limit the number of revisions that will be required. In my drawings, for example, I’ve learned to recognize the threshold of darkness where switching to a Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencil makes the most sense. This is usually somewhere around a Munsell Value 4, although the value of the paper you’re drawing on will also be a factor.
The best way to learn this for yourself is to experiment. Make a simple value scale, working from light to dark. Check for burnishing as you go, and when you start to detect shininess on the page, note what value you’re on and what pencil you’re using. Off to the side on the same page, try that value again with a different pencil selection and repeat until you find an approach that yields the least burnishing.
Ultimately, such experimenting is the best way to develop a command of your materials.
The Last Word on Graphite Shine.
Graphite’s capacity to burnish is a natural characteristic of the medium, and there’s nothing to be done about that. All we can do is try to limit burnishing by avoiding the behaviors that cause it – namely pressing too hard or too long with soft pencils and polishing-up the surface of the graphite.
That said, some amount of burnishing may occur despite our best efforts. Every drawing is different, and sometimes I find my drawings start to shine a little even when I’m being really careful about pencil selection and pressure. In those cases, I just accept that it comes with the territory and keep drawing. Minimizing shine may be the best we can do, but our drawings will still look better for the effort.
Do you have any further thoughts on graphite and how it’s best handled? Let’s discuss it in the comments below!