Pencil drawing techniques: 7 tips to improve your skills

Pencil drawing of a cat with the sketcher's hand included

No matter what kind of artist you are, chances are pencil drawing was the skill that helped you learn how to draw, and the one that kicked off your artistic journey. Throughout my career as a character designer and visual development artist, I've realised that having a strong respect and understanding of the process and fundamentals of drawing is essential to becoming a better artist. And what's more fundamental than pencil drawing?

In this article, I'll share seven expert pencil drawing techniques to help you take your skills to the next level, whether you want to create stylised or realistic pencil drawings. Take a look at the video above to see these pencil drawing techniques in action, or read on for my expert tips. 

For more in-depth advice on composition to how to capture light and shadow, take a look at our art techniques article. And if you're still trying to find the right tools for the job, we also have a guide to finding the best pencil for your drawing style.

01. Master pencil grip

Pencil grip for pencil drawing techniques

Think of the pencil as charcoal in a wooden sheath

The first step is to master how to hold a pencil correctly. When I draw, I use not the tip but the side of the lead, in order to maximise its utility. Holding my pencil like I would charcoal also keeps it sharper for longer.

When covering large areas, I shade with my pencil perpendicular to the line I'm drawing to get wide, soft lines. For details, I hold my pencil parallel to my lines to get sharp, narrow marks. The only time I use the point is when I'm working on intricate details.

02. Mix up shading techniques

Pencil shading techniques - lines all the same way in one portrait versus lines in groups in another

Shading with unified lines versus shading in patches produces a different feel

I like to shade in two main ways: the first is with all of my lines going in the same direction, which makes my shading appear more cohesive. This pencil drawing technique also helps my details pop out from the lines I'm using for shading.

The second method I use is working in patches, which help define shape. Patches of lines go around the form, which help keep things in perspective. This drawing technique is also great for backgrounds and adding texture.

03. Control line weight

Pencil drawing technique using different line weights

Line weight can help define solidity and volume

The next drawing technique concerns line weight. Having control over my line weight is a great way to separate objects from one another, and can help emphasise shadows. Thicker lines can fade and disappear into the shadows, which can help convey the 3D form.

I try to avoid outlining my drawings because this tends to make things look flat and deadens the 3D effect. Breaks and spaces in my lines show form in the lights and shadows.

04. Build up your sketch

Pencil drawing technique mixes light and dark lines

Use light lines to explore and dark lines to commit

When I start drawing, I plan and explore using loose lines, and avoid committing too early with hard, dark lines. As I progress my lines will change, so checking and rechecking my work is vital. I darken my lines and add details at the end. I don't focus on one area for too long to prevent overdrawing.

When drawing something symmetrical, I focus on the spaces between the lines, and of course keep reevaluating as I go along.

05. Check and recheck

Pencil drawing of a smiling cat to check

Listen if your gut is telling you something is off

When I've checked my drawing, I check again. I have to nail down its underpinnings before I can add details. I really avoid guessing at the details; I want to make sure things are symmetrical and look right before putting down stronger and harder lines. I constantly ask myself, does this feel right? 

If anything seems off – even if I can't immediately put my finger on what it is – I trust my gut and troubleshoot my drawing before continuing.

06. Prevent pencil smudges

Pencil drawing technique to avoid smudges

Put a piece of paper under your hand to prevent smudges

This is a valuable beginner's tip: I always put a piece of paper under my hand to keep from smudging my drawing.

I also like to view my drawing in a mirror, through a camera, or step away from it. This way, I can get different vantage points on my drawing and detect if anything is off.

07. Know when to finish

Finished pencil drawing of a cat

Is this finished? Maybe…

Like every other artist I know, even after I've signed my name, I will sometimes continue tinkering with my drawings. I can always find something to change if I look hard enough, so it can be difficult to tell when a piece is truly finished.

But remember that a drawing can be overdone! Eventually, I make a conscious decision to put my drawing away and start something new. That's when I consider my drawing done. Well, maybe...

I hope these pencil drawing techniques have helped – join in the conversation by adding your tips and tricks in the comments on Facebook or Twitter.

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