Is It Any Wonder I’m Confused?

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:

  • Hatching
  • Cross-Hatching
  • Stumping
  • Stippling

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.




    1. Thank you for the sage advice. Yes, we can easily get “information overload” with so many things, and art is definitely one of them! I have to stop looking for answers “out there” somewhere, bring it all back to myself, and spend time figuring out what works best for me. 🙂 I do appreciate that reminder.


  1. Ugh…too many rules. Too many options. There are probably 1000’s of ways to create the effect of shading with pencils. This is one of the issues that destroyed my nascent love of drawing-drawing (as opposed to making cartoons, doodles, etc.). The books are filled with ways – I tried several of them – but the only way that ever made visual sense to me is to pull the shadow from a dark line (or space) to thin it & let the light in gradually. Basically: I smudge the darkest spot with my finger and move the progressively thinning darkness wherever I want it. Works fine, nice shading, easily controllable, and doesn’t take forever. I guess it’s in a book somewhere; I just did it naturally. Only problem: messy fingers, no big deal. Avoidable by using a tiny piece of facial tissue over the fingertip. But I liked the feel of the graphite (or charcoal) on my finger.
    I admire your patience!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like your idea! There’s also “powdered graphite” too… if we want to confuse the issue even more. Shading has been my biggest weakness in drawing, so I’m always looking for information on how to improve my technique — but now I’m finding so many different techniques that I’m more confused than ever! Like you said, too many options. This search, though, has helped me understand the fundamental truth that it doesn’t matter how many ways there are to do something… all that matters is that I find MY way of doing it. So I can practice now with more purpose. I can try different methods and see what feels comfortable for me. And I’m going to stop obsessing about shading! LOL. Yeah. Really. Seriously, I’m going to stop. I’m just going to do my best and not stress-out about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I took away a technique from a drawing class that has worked well for me. I never use a pencil sharpener. An Exacto knife is good for trimming back the pencil wood—on a long slant. When there’s a nice length of graphite showing I smooth it out to a nice long point by rolling and rubbing it against fine grade sand paper. For me anyway, this gives me a very fine, controllable pencil point that lasts longer than a point created by a sharpener. An added bonus is you get to tip the graphite particles from the sandpaper into a jar to save as powdered graphite.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve noticed a lot of artists doing this, so it’s something I can try. I enjoyed learning “broad stroke techniques” last year, and that was a step in the right direction, I think. Thanks for sharing this tip!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The truth is that over time, every single artist develops their own application techniques. While many sources will tell how to do one or another thing, in fact, it always is how THEY DO IT. There are always hundreds of different ways to achieve similar result.
    It’s best to start with observational drawing using still life you set up in some distance from you. Choose the eye level. Some views are more convenient than others. Go ahead. Start with light and approximate placement, draw big, don’t use eraser until you’ve established the main shapes, apply shadows (what you can detect and see), apply stronger values, again where you see them, erase lines and areas that don’t fit, refine and define detail, and repeat strengthening values, etc.
    Many drawing artists use numerous additional tools and even mediums. You don’t need that to start trusting your eyes and drawing from reality.
    It’s no wonder you get confused and overwhelmed with information because beginner can never repeat what experienced artist can. We are talking here decades of drawing, not hours.
    I had a laugh about how to hold pencil. You should hold it as it’s convenient for you, or otherwise wrist will hurt. and control pressure eventually working out lines and application. Over time, it works on its own.. There are too many tutorials, and, honestly, many should go under “how not to …”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I so agree with you! This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned as I’ve moved through all of these confusing tutorials and “how-to” articles. There is not a single “shading” technique that works for every artist or for every drawing. My experience has been limited, so it’s been difficult for me to really consider all the options and figure out what makes me most comfortable. Now, I’ll be able to practice with more purpose, trying things, and seeing for myself what seems best suited for me. Art instruction can be confusing because there is so much of it out there, and as you’ve pointed out, everyone shows what works for THEM, which may or may not work for ME. I certainly know a lot of methods now, so I can play with them and find my own method. 🙂


    1. I agree. I like hatching and cross-hatching when I’m doing ink drawings. It “looks right” to me. With graphite, I prefer the soft, smooth shading… which is why I want to learn to do it. 🙂


    1. Oh, I love that thought! You’re right. We can become overly confident, and that can lead to complacency, and that’s a downhill slope from there (not in a good way). I think I’ll print out your words: Inspiration relies on uncertainty. That would be a good addition to my art bulletin board. Thanks!

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