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How to Draw Darker with a Pencil: 5 Tips

Hey, fellow art enthusiasts! As you probably know, pushing the darks in your pencil shading can help improve the depth and realism of your drawing. But that’s something that I have struggled with a lot in the past (and occasionally still do).

For the past couple of years, I have been training myself to draw darker values, and for reference, here are a couple of my drawings that show the improvement in the depth of my shading so far. 😊

So in this post, I’ll share five tips that I’ve learned that helped me the most in going darker with graphite pencils while minimizing the amount of shine from the drawing paper.

5. Draw with a softer pencil grade like a 2B or 4B.

The easiest (and most obvious) way of getting darker values in your drawing is to use darker pencils. I know, not the most mind-blowing advice, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to switch to darker pencils so putting this out there for the absolute beginners. ✌️

While drawing with harder pencils like an HB or 2H is great for line work and even shading in some midtones, it can be impossible to create deeper blacks similar to those created with a softer pencil grade like a 4B even if you apply a ridiculous amount of pressure.

From my experience though, you don’t need a full range of dark pencils going all the way from 1B to 9B. Just having a couple of pencils like a 2B paired with a 6B can significantly improve your tonal range.

Personally, I rely on my 3B pencil to do practically most of the heavy lifting when rendering dark sections of a drawing. I also prefer it over harder pencils for lighter shading that something like an HB can probably manage because it helps me create richer tones and is less likely to disturb the texture of the paper while being less susceptible to remitting shine. Or maybe I’m just too lazy to switch too many pencils while drawing. 😂

4. Gradually build up the values by layering graphite on paper.

I love hatching bold pencil lines to indicate vibrant darks, but there are some dark sections of a drawing that are better served with a smoother transition of values. Like a section of background that you want to shade dark, but in an obscure kind of way without overpowering the main focus of your drawing.

When you’re going for deep blocks of tone that you want to transition smoothly over large sections of a drawing, I find it best to gradually build the graphite layer by layer, much like you approach the layering technique in a colored drawing.

To layer graphite effectively onto the paper surface, aim to apply low to moderate pressure on the pencil to allow the graphite to be caught within the paper’s texture. You can also speed up the process by blending a section of the drawing quickly before layering graphite on top of it.

When drawing on thinner sheets of paper, I find it best to shade graphite in one direction rather than going back and forth in a zig-zag manner as it helps to avoid damage to the paper.

3. Tone down the half-tones and brighten the highlights to make darker sections of your drawing appear even darker.

We seriously underestimate how much contrast plays a role in giving us the impression that a drawing is darker. For illustration, consider the following drawings in which I purposely left the shading untouched and only tweaked the intensity of the highlights and negative space by editing the drawing on the left.

It is surprising how much darker the pencil shading in the left drawing seems even though it is the exactly same as the drawing on the right except for its brighter highlights and negative space surrounding the actual shading.

So if you want to make certain sections of your drawings appear darker, consider lowering the intensity of the surrounding halftones while brightening the highlights and the background to enhance the perceived darkness of your pencil shading.

2. Use a black color pencil to draw the deepest darks.

One thing I have noticed when going dark with graphite is that no matter how soft a pencil you use, like a 9B, it’s hard to avoid shininess on paper. It gives a certain plasticky appearance to a drawing when viewed from certain angles and I’m not a big fan of that.

What has worked for me well to combat this is using a black color pencil from a well-known brand like Faber Castle or Prismacolor when drawing the darkest darks. This has been a game-changer for drawing smooth, deep, and rich shadows over a graphite drawing without creating a sheen over the paper surface.

You can create similarly dark values with charcoal pencils too, but from my experience, they can be a bit patchy, and switching from graphite to a color pencil feels more comfortable to handle for me. You can test out charcoal and black colored pencils to see what works for you best.

Just remember to apply your preferred tool to darken values in the final stages of rendering because it is hard to draw with graphite once a layer of black color pencil or charcoal is established on paper.

1. Overcome your fear of drawing dark.

Here’s a drawing from back in the day when I was so overprotective of my art. 🙈

If, like me, you find yourself worrying about ruining a drawing, then eventually the only thing that’s going to allow you to darken values is to simply embrace the imperfections that come with drawing more loosely.

Practicing lots of value studies can definitely help to train yourself to draw darker with better confidence and ultimately it can help you overcome the fear of pushing the pencil hard against the paper.

At the end of the day, if you want to improve your drawing skills, you’ll have to figure out a way to draw darker that also aligns with your drawing style and preferred medium. Experimenting with different drawing surfaces can also help because, from my experience, smoother, whiter, and heavier papers are often better at drawing darker tones.

If you know a nice trick or two that helps you get beautiful darks in your drawings, do share your wisdom with others by leaving a comment below. Happy drawing! ✏️