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Drawing Tools: Pencils, Crayons, Charcoal, and More

Updated on October 25, 2009

Drawings and Mixed Media

Sketch in guestbook: pencil foreground, ballpoint pen behind
Sketch in guestbook: pencil foreground, ballpoint pen behind
Book cover art, done with colored pencils and chalky paints on black watercolor paper
Book cover art, done with colored pencils and chalky paints on black watercolor paper
Illustration of basketmaking technique: done in pencil, traced in pen
Illustration of basketmaking technique: done in pencil, traced in pen

The Right Stick for the Job

Drawing tools are no-fuss color. Most come wrapped in wood or paper. For quick, portable art materials they're hard to beat.

So what's the big difference between drawing tools?

Shape and Smudging:

  • Round art tools are easier to hold and aim for beginners. The color always comes from one place, and the wrapper limits accidental smudging. But your line is always wobbly, and as wide as the tip of your crayon. Sooner or later, you want to smudge. Just a little. There, where she needs a rosy cheek instead of clown makeup. If you can't smudge, you need a lot more colors to get delicate effects.
  • Square art sticks (charcoal, chalk) give a professional artist more control than round ones (use a point, an edge, or a side). You flip the stick every which way, laying down strong lines, soft shades. Then you use an eraser, your hand, or a tissue to smudge in some softer details and brush off the extra dust.
  • Pencils: More control, at the cost of less shading surface. You can sharpen the point flat instead of round (with a knife, or by scribbling with the pencil held flat). This makes a 'chisel-tip' that is versatile and sturdy: two sizes of line for detail work, calligraphic writing, and a wider side surface for shading.
  • Can it be Erased? Most drawing tools can be used on paper, but some will never come off again. Sometimes you want it to last forever, sometimes you want to change it.  Good graphite pencils can be erased; waxy ones, and colored pencils, mostly can't.
  • Hardness: Hard materials stay sharper for fine lines, and put less color on the paper at once. Soft stuff smears more color onto the paper faster, and make shading easier, but can be harder to erase.  Colored pencils are harder, pastels are softer, and pencils and charcoal come in a range of hardnesses.

Mixing and Matching Specific Tools:

Pencils: Pressed graphite, often with a wax binder, encased in wood or plastic. Pencils were once made with real lead centers, and can also be filled with other pigments or metals. Art pencils come in a range of hardnesses from 6H (hardest; faint, sharp lines) to 6B (softest; dark, smeary lines). #2 or 'HB' pencils are riight in the middle. All of them can be erased if they are applied gently. Big flat pencils and mechanical pencils are available in a range of precise sizes and levels of quality; drafting pencils have nice thick 'leads' that come in all levels of hardness, and the sharpener collects pure graphite dust which can be used for shading.
- Great for temporary sketches, or drawings that will be protected from contact. Will smudge with contact (does not 'set' or cure). Water-resistant, pencils don't write well on wet paper. Used for delicately shaded drawings, architectural drafting, construction and carpentry, fabric marking, and schoolwork. Often used to do preliminary sketches under other paintings or drawings.

Colored Pencils: Pigment in a wax or gum base, encased in wood or plastic. Work best on paper, cardboard, and similar materials. Truly 'erasable' ones are rare; the drawing material is more like a hard wax crayon even though it's encased in a wooden pencil. Quality is usually indicated by foreign-sounding names like Caran D'ache or Albrecht Durer, even when the maker is Faber-Castell or Prismacolor. Cheap colored pencils tend to have waxy, weak colors. 
- Great for no-mess sketching, architectural drawings, tinting photocopies or line art. Also gives a decent range of contrast between light and dark shading, in color. Not great for: saturated color, changing details after the fact. Layers tend to show through each other, so plan ahead.

Watercolor Pencils: Colored pencils where the core is dried watercolor paints. Can be used like colored pencils, or grind some color onto your paint palette and use like watercolors. Or draw, then wet paper in certain areas to deepen & move pigment around. Can outline coloring-book shapes and have kids pull water across like auto-coloring books, but this always seemed like the death of creativity to me.
- A good set of colored pencils, with a range of colors, is worth getting.  Once you have a set you like, don't replace it with a bigger set: instead, get individual colors to suit your favorite subjects, and add them to your set as your favorite colors wear down. 
- Great for: Portable, flexible art medium; can be less messy than a watercolor palette. Creating areas of color with detailed lines in the same colors. Not great for: any situation where the drawing may get wet again after it's done.

Oil Pastels: Pigment in an oil base, usually wrapped in paper. Can be used with oil paints, or as a sort of heavy crayon. The oils dry slowly if at all, so expect an oil-pastel drawing to remain slightly tacky or gooshy. Oil can slowly soak into paper or other nearby things. Typically used on paper, hardboard, or primed canvas; can also be used on any tough surface suitable for oil paints.
- Great for colorful sketches, swirls of color a la Van Gogh, or blending. A step up from crayons for sure. Resilient option for outdoor or sports drawing, where your work may get wet - will dry almost unaffected.
- Can be layered on thick; there's a popular trick of laying down colors first, then black, and scraping through the black to reveal a colorful line.
- Can also be used with finesse, almost like Conte crayon, by an artist who has gotten very good with chalks and wants something that won't dust off.

'Chalks' or dry art pastels: Dry pigment and extender (usually chalk, can also be home-made with plaster of Paris). Sometimes include a small amount of binder such as gum or glue.
- Great for delicate, quick sketches, and the ability to brush off or smear in the colored dust. Almost like dry finger-painting, but the edge can also make sharp lines. They remain smearable when done; fixative sprays help preserve the drawing from falling off the paper. Can be used as fancy sidewalk chalks, with the same washability.
- Especially good for highlights on dark or colored paper.  Try a medium-colored art paper with light chalks and dark charcoal.

Wax Crayons (Crayola, etc): Dye or pigment trapped in wax and wrapped in paper. Intended for drawing on paper, but can also be used on walls, pet rocks, wood, some fabrics, or craft projects like candles and wax-paper "stained glass." They tend to leave a characteristic uneven line, even on smooth paper, as little fragments of wax break loose. A very sharp-edged crayon can leave an almost straight line for a few inches; edges give better control than points.
- Great for low-mess, inexpensive, re-usable, kid-friendly, low-cost art projects. Will outlast paper in the rain, and can leave permanent marks on other things (remove them from pockets before laundering!) Can be used in sophisticated ways, but rarely are.
- A China marker is a wax pencil, like a very soft crayon encased in wood. They can mark on, and then be rubbed off, non-porous surfaces like glass and ceramic.
- Resist and Batik Drawing:  A white crayon, or a home-made clear one (parrafin wax), can trace an invisible pattern that will protect the paper.  Reveal the invisible drawing with water-based paints, or draw a white area underneath colored pencils or oil pastels to scrape white lines later.  You can get batik effects with watercolor paint over crayons.

Charcoal: Carbon black pigment, derived from burning wood. Available a variety of shapes and shades: pencils of varying hardnesses, thick black square-pressed sticks, or "grapevine" charcoal which is soft and crumbly. The first two kinds may have a small amount of added binder such as gum, but charcoal is one of the dustier media and can benefit from the same fixatives used on chalk. Usually used on paper, or anywhere chalk is used. Not recommended for use in oil painting, as the carbon can prevent some oils from setting.
- Great for drawings with a lot of shading. Figure drawings and curved contours look particularly rich in charcoal. Can be smeared and moved around with a paper stylus or eraser (or your fingers, but they get dark fast). Brighten highlights as you go along with a special gum eraser, or at the end of the process with chalk or white Conte crayon.

Conte crayons: A small, square stick of pigment in a waxy base. Like charcoal in appearance, but smoother to apply to the page, and doesn't dust off (or erase well). When you are good at charcoal and don't need to erase much, try Conte crayon for deeper, smoother lines, and white Conte for highlights.
- Great for: One-pass figure drawing, rich shading, reinforcing the lines in a charcoal or pastel drawing, action sketches, and landscape sketches where forms and shadows are emphasized. Use light and dark Conte crayon on colored paper for elegant contrast effects.

Stylus: AKA stick. Plain and simple? A properly selected stick is a sophisticated tool. Styluses are available with rounded or pointy tips, or with paper tips that peel off for smearing charcoal and chalks. Special nylon styluses are provided with touch-screen tools so you can do digital drawings without damaging the screen. A broken ballpoint will work as a stylus for pencil drawing (you write something "invisible", then shade over to reveal it).
- For regular drawing, styluses are an "assist" tool. They can scrape or smear other media to move colors around on the page, emboss a drawing after it's done, or trace a resist pattern.

Care to read more?

What's a Fugitive doing in my Coloring Box? and What Should I Get My Neice? - Getting Started.

Is it only called a Fountain Pen if it Leaks? - Pens and Markers

Red Lake doesn't sound healthy... what does it mean?- Paints and Pigments

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