Experiment: Toning Your Paper with Charcoal and Graphite

Image: detail of my charcoal and graphite drawing “Portait of Aloe”.

All art is but dirtying the paper delicately. -John Ruskin

Have you ever toned your paper? This can be a fun little experiment…

I’m not talking about toning with ink or diluted paint, but with a 50/50 mix of graphite dust and charcoal dust. Especially for portrait drawing, I recommend trying this out.

I’ll put a list below of the products I mention.

I use a lead holder pencil instead of traditional pencils, so when I sharpen my lead, the little sharpener holds the graphite dust. You can buy a jar of charcoal dust in the store, or save the dust you make when sharpening your charcoal with sandpaper. Keep the 50/50 graphite and charcoal mix in a jar or empty spice container. (You can try this process just using charcoal dust, but the graphite in the mixture helps the tone stick to the paper well.) I tap some out on my white paper then use a bit of paper towel or tissue to rub it in. As with any powered art materials, be mindful not get it in the air. On a scale of black to white (such as Munsell), black being 0 and white being 10, I like to tone my paper at about a 6. I then tap the remaining dust into the trash. Other than being a little more careful not to rest my hand on my paper, I proceed like I would a normal portrait drawing.

The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you’ll make one. -Elbert Hubbard

Since I’ve made the paper a medium tone and my drawing is in a darker tone (usually an HB graphite), I’ll sometimes push the darks a bit darker using charcoal on areas like the hair in shadow. Using a kneaded eraser I gently remove some of the medium tone on the lighter areas of my subjects face like the forehead, ridge of the nose, top of the cheeks. As long as you’re using your eraser lightly, it will only lighten your paper, but not back to its original whiteness. At this point things are looking good, like they have dimension. I have a “darkest dark”, dark, medium and light tones. For an extra touch of realism I establish a lightest light using eraser pens. They are like normal white erasers but much easier to use for details. With these erasers I create the shine on my model’s face, like a highlight on the nose, top of forehead, and little glints of light in the eyes. It brings back the white of the paper.

Some artists use grey or tan paper with white chalk and the results will be similar; but there’s something about this process that makes a portrait seem to glow. I encourage experimenting. And I know you will have some fun trying out this technique!

Surprisingly I don’t get too messy when doing this. But I’d like to hear how you do! Comment below if you’ve tried this technique, or if you’re planning on trying it soon.

Be bold and have some fun!

**Links to the products I use**

Paper: Strathmore Series 400, 11” x 14″ Drawing Pad Fabriano Artistico Watercolor White Block

Pencils: Staedtler Mars 780 Technical Mechanical Pencil, 2mm. 780BK – Prismacolor Turquoise Lead Holder

Lead: Staedtler Mars Carbon Lead, 12 x 2mm, HB (200-HB)

Sharpener: Alvin ALP41 Rotary Lead Pointer

Charcoal dust: General Pencil Gen-570PC Powdered Charcoal, 6 oz/177ml

Charcoal: Nitram Academie Fusains Fine Art Charcoal HB

Erasers: Faber-Castell Grey Kneaded EraserGeneral’s Factis Mechanical EraserTombow MONO Zero Eraser, round tip).

Kelly Foss

Artist - Teacher - Author


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