I’m just wrapping up my morning drawing session, and I’m leaving the lesson on a discouraging note. I don’t like it when that happens. I much prefer closing my sketchbook and walking away from the table with a smile, feeling that I’ve accomplished something or that I’ve at least learned something. This morning, however, the only thing I learned is that shading with graphite is a real “sticking point” for me, and all I accomplished was to get myself more confused than ever!
You’ll recall that only a few days ago, I was watching a “Proko” video on how to hold a pencil, how to use fluid movements from the elbow or shoulder. That, it seemed, was part of the proper technique for creating smooth shading. But, maybe not. I tried using Stan Prokopenko’s suggestion of filling an entire page in my sketchbook with shading, and after about half a page I had such an ugly, uneven mess that I saw little point in continuing. Proko’s instruction to “shade only on the down strokes” and to “lift the pencil up” at the end of each stroke… well, yikes. That sure wasn’t working for me.
So, next I did a quick online search. Matt Fussell, my favorite online art instructor, had a free video lesson on “How to Create Smooth Shading with Graphite”. Exactly what I needed. Of course, I knew I’d watched this video before, so apparently it hadn’t given me all the information I needed. I was more than willing to watch it again in hopes of picking up more information, especially on the actual techniques involved in graphite shading.
Matt’s video is a helpful one. You’ll find it here: How to Create Smooth Shading with Graphite. In the video he explains that there are three considerations to keep in mind when it comes to shading:
- The grade of the graphite lead
- The application technique
- The texture of the paper
I watched closely as he demonstrated shading using several pencils: F, 4B, 6B, and 7H. But his application technique was completely different from what I’d seen in the Proko video. Matt was using the tip of his pencil and making small circular motions. This was essentially a wrist motion, totally unlike Stan Prokopenko’s methods. I dutifully followed along with Matt’s online demonstrations, but in the end I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing. Of course, I wasn’t trying to shade an actual drawing, just copying the exercises Matt showed.
Feeling bewildered, I turned to another source I’ve used in the past. It’s Drawing Dimension – Shading Techniques by Catherine V. Holmes. I’ve read this book before, and I’ve shared many of the exercises on this blog. The book was helpful, but again, I’m still not happy with my inability to shade properly. There’s something I’m missing. In hopes of finding whatever that something is, I began re-reading.
The very first exercise is creating a value scale. Oh, yes, been here, done this… how many times? But it’s not really the values I’m concerned with right now. It’s how to produce those values. It’s not knowing where to put lighter or darker marks. It’s knowing HOW to make them that’s the big stumbling block for me, so I read what Catherine Holmes said with keen interest:
“A simple back-and-forth motion should be used… to create an even dark tone,” she writes. She then adds, “Another way…could be a series of small, scribble-like marks called scumbling.”
Her scumbling is similar to Matt’s “circular motions”, but neither of these methods appears to produce a smooth, even tone. But what do I know? Seriously, when it comes to shading techniques, I’m totally confused. All I can say is this: Different artists have different techniques that work for them. That’s fine. At this point, though, nothing seems to work for me. And so, my search continues.
Craftsy has a “Drawing Dimensions” class taught by Catherine Holmes, and as a premium member, I can sign up for the lessons there. Maybe it will be helpful to receive instruction not from a book but straight from Holmes herself.
Another good resource I’ve found comes from Strathmore Papers — Shading Techniques and Selecting Paper for Graphite
Once again there are “tips” that differ a bit. Strathmore’s tutorial suggests holding the pencil at a 45-degree angle, using the side of the pencil, and making overlapping marks. They also cover various “types” of shading:
Confusion abounds! Is overlapping good or should it be avoided? Use the pencil tip? Or use the side? Should we hatch, cross-hatch, stump, stipple, or scumble? Move from the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder? Oh, by the way, there’s also “smudging” — another variant. It involves making marks on a separate piece of paper and then using your finger to “smudge” value onto your drawing.
At this point, the wisest and most helpful instruction I’ve found is this advice by Timothy Van Rueden. He says it’s important to discover which shading techniques suit your style. Now, that makes sense. In all I’ve read and studied this morning, that bit of advice is the most sensible. It comes down to practice, and that means spending more time doing more value scales and shading exercises. It means trying the side of the pencil as well as the pencil tip. It means experimenting with various grips, trying different methods, and using different grades of pencils as well as different types of drawing papers.
That’s really what any art technique involves, isn’t it? While it’s good to have online resources and to be able to learn from so many different artists and art teachers, sometimes we can end up with “too much information”, too many options, too many unanswered questions. From that point, we have to search within ourselves to find the right answers, the right methods, the right techniques.
Do I know how to shade properly? Well, yes, I guess I do. I know not one but dozens of techniques. Do I know which one works best for me? Not yet, so that’s what I’ll be working on. Eventually I will find a technique that does give me the results I want. Until then, it’s back to the drawing board, back to practice, practice, practice.