Beginners guide to drawing media

Inside Art with Dima

Getting Started

First is a look at the basics of drawing materials:

  • Papers sizes, weights, types, and surfaces

  • Types of pencils and graphite sticks

  • Pastels, soft and hard, pastel pencils, oil pastels, Conti

  • Charcoals, natural sticks, compressed, charcoal pencils

  • Blenders, stumps (tortillions), brushes, tissues, cloth

  • Erasers, kneading putty rubbers, natural rubber, plastic synthetic, mechanical

  • Don't forget a blade

Developing techniques:

    • The importance of find the best ways to grip drawing instruments

    • Limbering up exercises

    • Getting the best out of hand and arm movements

    • Looking and seeing

    • Drawing exercises to discover how materials feel to use and how easy it is to draw.

The objectives are to help in discovering and experiencing the pleasures of creating realistic drawings and sketches. Experiential learning is very powerful, but, it can be problematic as it can take time to develop drawing skills by using the trial and error method alone. Better to take advantage of others who gone through experiential learning processes and found the shortcuts.

Everyone can draw if only they want to. The first step is a willingness to try, and to cast aside thoughts of perfection for getting it right first time. Professional artists say that every painting has a thousand adjustments. The lesson here is not to dwell on first attempts – be prepared to adjust. One of the secrets is to start off with lightly made marks so that any rough shapes can be lifted off or shaved without damaging the surface, drawings can then easily develop from matchstick men or rough drawings into realist images.

Basics to getting started include: a surface to draw on, mark makers and a blade for sharpening, erasers to refine or remove marks, and some kind of support to work on. It's good to have a range of materials to try out but there is no need to start with premium products although the better quality of materials can lead towards work that can be refined whereas poor quality papers and markers tend to easily deteriorate during use.

But most of all is the desire to make a mark – what is used, how its held, and using your body's natural physical properties.

Paper sizes and weights:

A full sheet of Imperial paper is called “Full Imperial” and is measured in inches

  • Full Imperial - 30×22 inches (76x56cm)

  • Half Imperial - 15×22 inches (56x38cm)

  • Quarter Imperial - 15×11 inches (38x28cm)

Imperial paper weights are shown in lbs as determined by pounds per 500 sheets of a given size based on 500 master sheets i.e. if 500 master sheets weighs in at 120 pounds it is classified as 120 lbs

Generally printer paper is 20lbs to 32lbs

Sketchbook papers vary around 100lbs

Watercolour papers are normally 140lbs and upwards

European ISO paper is sold in “A” sizes.

Nominal  mm      Inches

 A0   841 x 1189  33.1 x 46.8

 A1   594 x 841    23.4 x 33.1

 A2   420 x 594   16.5 x 23.4

 A3   297 x 420   11.7 x 16.5

 A4   210 x 297   8.3 x 11.7

 A5   148 x 210   5.8 x 8.3

Note: To find size half the sizes of the next biggest above i.e. A0 makes 2 of A1, A1 makes 2 of A2

ISO papers are weighed in grams per square metre (gsm) i.e. a 1metre square sheet weighing 80 grams is sold as 80gsm

Paper types

There is a wide range of art papers available on the market however the most common affordable papers are made from wood pulp or cotton fibres.

The types of paper used offer a variety of finishes that impact how the marker (graphite, charcoal or chalks) can create an image and just how long before the paper can deteriorate or yellow. During the manufacturing process papers are usually treated with a cellulose size within the pulp which may also be coated on the surface. The size holds the fibres to resist moisture and make the surface durable.

Graphite pencils and other dry markers such as charcoal sit on the surface fibres but can penetrate between them depending on the surface finish and how much pressure is applied to the marker. If graphite is applied lightly to the surface mistakes or any adjustments can be easily removed using a synthetic eraser or a putty eraser. However it becomes more difficult if the mark is pushed into the fibres – more about this later. Wet markers generally soak into the fibres becoming part of the paper and therefore difficult or impossible to erase

The three types of surface finishes of machine made paper are:

HP – hot pressed which is very smooth - good for fine line work

CP – cold pressed or NOT has a smooth or semi rough finish – used for sketchbooks, drawing pads, watercolour papers

Rough – often with a textured finish for graphite, pastel and charcoal papers


Drawing and sketching pencils, often known as lead pencils, are really made from graphite and clay mixtures with a little binder. Pencils are made in a range of strengths usually sold in sets graded from B to H: thus 9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, 9H

9B grade pencils are softest with least clay and make the darkest marks, if lightly applied can be easiest to erase without damaging the papers surface. HB is the most common as it hard enough to keep a good point used in writing, when used to make dark tones it is difficult to erase without damaging the surface as there is a tendency to press it hard into the paper. 9H pencils are the hardest and because they make the faintest marks there is often a tendency is to push into the paper causing damage to surface fibres.

I find 6B is best for quick sketches as the marks can be dark without pressing hard and therefore easy to erase, also an edge can be maintained by rotation the pencil during drawing.

Graphite Sticks

These are made of compressed graphite often supplied in packs of 4 with grades of B, 2B, 4B, 6B. Easy to work with as they tend not to smudge, however large areas of a drawing will build up a sheen that is reflective.

Coloured pencils

Artist Grade pencils have a core based on wax or oil, plus fillers with high levels of pigment and UV resistant binding agents for longevity. There is an extensive range of colours that can come singley or in sets, 72 colour sets are common, some of the finest makers offer 120 colour sets.

Student Grade or Scholastic Grade are not so heavily pigmented and therefore are less durable often sold in 24 colour sets and 36 colour sets.

Watercolour pencils

Also known as water soluble pencils, can be used dry like ordinary coloured pencils or for wet applications using damp paint brushes, and can be blended in washes like ordinary watercolours. Artist grade sets often come in sets of 60, 72 or 120 colour sets.


Pastels are made from pigments, chalks, and a binder, mixed into a paste and formed into round or rectangular sticks. The main varieties are Hard, Soft, Extra Soft, Oil, and pan pastels. Both hard and soft pastels come as sticks and as pencils, oil pastels are sold in sticks, pan pastels come in pans similar to makeup.

Artists pastels come in a very wide range of colours that have a high pigment content. Hard pastel sticks can come in sets of 10 to 400

Student quality chalk pastels have more filler and lower cost pigments which makes them affordable for experimentation. These offer an inexpensive route to develop pastel painting skills such as blending, mixed media and water washes.

Oil pastel painting skills can be developed for blending, layering, scraping, washing with turps.


Charcoal is one of the oldest form of media in drawing. It is simply the carbon of wood that has been processed in a kiln to expel all resins and moisture.The main types are Willow, Vine, Compressed, Powder.

Willow charcoals are short lengths of soft natural thin twig sticks popularly used in composing drawings as the results can easily be shaped and erased.

Vine charcoal is also a natural thin charcoal stick from grape vines, a little harder than willow but still not favoured for fine details.

Charcoal Sticks or Compressed charcoal are round or rectangular sticks made from crushed charcoals mixed with binders of gum or wax compressed into sticks. Graded from hard to soft - hard make lightest marks, softest most black.

Charcoal pencils are made from compressed sticks clad in wood. Often sold in sets of 3 (hard, medium, soft) sometimes the set can include a white charcoal pencil. These pencils are used for fine detailing and for light under-drawings.

Charcoal Powder is used on large surfaces to provide background tones and within images to produce delicate blended tone by means of fine brushes.

Blenders (Stums or Tortillions - made from compressed paper), small nylon paint brushes, tissue papers, are all good for blending to smooth out textures and transitions. Fingers can also be used, however oils from the skin can affect the paper to make any changes difficult or impossible to erase.

Erasers include kneading putty rubber, synthetic plastic, natural rubber, rubber compounds, mechanical erasers

Kneading putty is best, being gentlest to the surface because it lifts the marks off the fibres and can be shaped to fine points or edges, also it can be kept clean by kneading as required.

All other erasers use friction to remove marks and can therefore readily damage the surface if used vigorously, rubber compounds are often the most aggressive.

Mechanical battery operated erasers rotate and can be used to great effect in detailing highlights. These come with a variety of synthetic plastic tips as fine as 2.3 mm. Care must be taken to avoid damaging the surface as fibres can easily be dislodged by the spinning tip.

Don't forget a blade

A blade or two in your kit are essential items not only to keep pencils sharp, but for scraping and cutting. I keep a range of blades including snap-off blades, craft blades, one or two pencil sharpeners for both pencil and large diameter and a sharp penknife.