Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

Can you use graphite under colored pencil? Does graphite work as an under drawing for colored pencil work?

There are a lot of ways to draw an under drawing for colored pencils. Umber under drawings. Complementary under drawings. Monochromatic under drawings. The fact of the matter is that you can use any of these or combine them almost any way you want.

But what about using graphite for the under drawing?

The most obvious reason many artists think graphite and colored pencils are compatible is that they’re both pencils. They’re also both dry mediums and you apply them in many of the same ways.

But you really mix them with success?

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

The short answer is, yes, you can. But there are some unique qualities to each that make them not entirely compatible.

The biggest difference is that colored pencils are made by mixing pigment with wax and/or oil and a small amount of clay so the pigment can be formed into a core.

Wax and/or oil holds the color together within the pencil, and also allows it to be put onto paper. It’s fairly resistant to smearing or erasing.

The core of a graphite pencil is made by mixing graphite powder with a clay-based binder. This binder holds the graphite together inside the pencil, and also allows the graphite to be easily transferred to paper.

However, it is not permanent, and is easily erased or smeared (blended.)

So if you plan to try graphite with colored pencil, you need to observe two very important things.

Always use graphite first, then colored pencil.

Always, always, always use the graphite first and the colored pencil second. Colored pencil will stick to paper that has graphite on it, but it will be very difficult to get graphite to stick to colored pencil. The heavier the layers of colored pencil, the less likely graphite will stick to it.

Even if you used oil-based colored pencils.

Consider sealing the graphite before adding colored pencil.

Graphite muddies colored pencil if you don’t seal it before adding the colored pencils. This may not be a concern if you’re making a dark background, but it will damage or darken lighter colors immediately. Once that happens, it’s difficult to correct the problem.

Graphite also gets shiny if you apply it too heavily. Since the purpose for using graphite is creating a dark value, and since you achieve dark values with lots of layers, or heavier pressure, you may very well have to deal with a shiny surface by the time you get to the colored pencil stage.

One way to seal a graphite under drawing before adding colored pencil.

The easiest way to prepare a graphite drawing for colored pencil work is to seal it with a couple of layers of fixative. You may have to try more than one brand to find one that works best for your uses.

Spray the drawing at least twice, by holding the can upright and about twelve inches from the drawing.

Start at one side of the drawing and move across the drawing to the other side. Begin and end off the edge of the paper to avoid excess fixative along the edges of the drawing.

If the paper is very large, move down and repeat.

NOTE: I always spray a drawing the same way I read a page, starting at the upper left corner and moving left to right, and down. You don’t have to do it this way if another process is more comfortable.

Let the paper dry for at least 30 minutes, then repeat.

WARNING: Work in a well-ventilated area. I prefer to do this kind of work outside, but any room with good ventilation is acceptable. You may also want to consider using some kind of respiratory protection.

How to Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step-by-Step

An Optional First Step

Use masking film or masking fluid to protect the subject. They both work by covering the parts of the paper you want to be white, but each one works best in different ways.

Masking fluid is a liquid mask you brush onto the paper. When it dries, you can work over it carefully, then peel it off. Just make sure not to leave it on the paper too long, or it may discolor the paper.

Fluid is good for protecting small areas or details because you can apply it with a brush. You will ruin the brush, so don’t use expensive brushes.

Masking film comes in sheets, which you can cut to shape, then press onto your paper. It’s ideal for larger areas or for shapes that have smooth edges.

You can use both forms together.

Since my demo drawing was small, I didn’t mask out the main subject.

Step 1: Shade the background with graphite

This step will take several layers, even if you use a very soft graphite pencil. I used a 6B pencil to shade this drawing on Stonehenge paper.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step 1

TIP: Graphite pencils are graded by softness. HB is about in the middle. Harder pencils are labeled with an H; softer pencils with a B. The higher the number, the harder or softer the pencil. 6B is softer than 2B. 6H is harder than 2H, and so on.

After shading, blend the graphite with a tortillion, paper towel, bath tissue or cotton ball. The fact of the matter is that you can blend with almost anything soft. Brushes are even good blending tools.

Here’s the previous layer of graphite blended.

Continue to layer and blend until the background is as dark as you want it (and can get it with graphite.) I did three rounds of layering and blending to get the result below.

Step 2: Seal the graphite

When the background is finished to your satisfaction, seal it as described above.

Step 3: Add Color

Start layering color over the background.

You may need to adjust the amount of pressure you use when you work over graphite. I ordinarily begin with very light pressure, but that made no impact at all on the graphite background. So I increased pressure until I was almost burnishing.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil - Adding Color

You will probably want to add more than one color. I used only a dark green for this demonstration and it worked, but adding blue, brown, or even red makes for a much richer dark value.

For comparison, I also shaded the tree with the same green. I used a variety of pressures, including heavy pressure, so you could see how much darker the graphite made the background.


Personally, I very rarely mix graphite and colored pencil. This method didn’t produce the results I hoped for, nor was it any faster than drawing a background with colored pencils alone.

For the ways I work, simply layering colored pencil and blending with sovlent produce better results more quickly.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. Graphite can produce some very interesting and unique effects if used properly. And you can lift highlights with an eraser or sticky stuff, so long as you do it before sealing the drawing.

So if you’re looking for a different way or a different look, give graphite and colored pencil a try.

For information on using graphite under colored pencil, read How to Use Graphite Under a Colored Pencil Drawing, which I wrote for EmptyEasel.

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