The Importance of Pencil Strokes

I have a confession to make. I was a long time fully understanding the importance of pencil strokes to the artwork I created. For the longest time, I was more concerned with just getting color on the paper than with how I put it there.

So I’m delighted to have received this question from Arthur.

Hi Carrie,

A question for you. How important are the pencil strokes we use, and what do you recommend?

Cheers, Arthur.

If you’ve listened to art-talk long enough, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “brush work.” Brush work refers to the way an oil painter (or acrylic painter) uses his or her brush to put paint on the canvas.

Brush strokes can be very fine or quite heavy. They can leave no mark at all in the paint or they can make paint very thick and textured.

The artist decides what type of stroke to use based on the affect he or she wants to create.

The Importance of Pencil Strokes

The same holds true for colored pencil work.

No. You don’t create physical texture with colored pencils like you could with oil paints or acrylics.

But you do create the appearance of texture, and how you put the color onto the paper is just as important to you as brush work is to an oil painter.

The Importance of Pencil Strokes

Some artists always use the same type of stroke no matter what they draw, and they get excellent results.

I prefer to match the type of stroke to whatever I’m drawing, because that works best for me.

When drawing hair or grass, I use curving, directional strokes. For trees, I use a squiggly stroke and tap in accents or details with a stippling stroke. Base layers are often applied with parallel or cross-hatching strokes, and I sometimes even use the side of a pencil. All of those pencil strokes are important to my drawing methods and style.

A Couple of Examples

Let’s look at some examples of how I use pencil strokes for different applications. I chose each of the following sketches because they show stroke work more clearly than more finished work.

The Dead Tree Branch

Blick Studio on Fisher 400 sanded Paper.

I wanted to capture to the look and texture of a dead branch that still has some bark. I used long, steady strokes for the smaller branches, but used mostly short strokes for the main branch.

Combined with differing values and overlapping, the shorter strokes produced a much more realistic bark look.

The Importance of Pencil Strokes

Three Trees

Derwent Lightfast pencils on Lux Archival sanded paper.

I had more time when I drew Three Trees, but I still matched pencil strokes to different parts of the composition.

For example, the fine branches at the top of the drawing were drawn with short, broken strokes. That was the only way I could produce fine lines with such soft pencils.

For the larger branches and trunks, I used a mix of long and short strokes, but blended them together to “shade” color.

In the grass, I combined short, directional strokes with stippling (tapping) strokes. That was the only way to get a grassy look.

Sasha’s Tail

Blick Studio on Stonehenge.

This is an example of all directional strokes.

This is the tail of one of our long-haired cats. She lay still just about long enough for me to sketch this. Using this type of stroke helped me get as much of her drawn as I was able to in the amount of time available. In this case, the importance of my pencil strokes cannot be ignored!

So How Important are Pencil Strokes?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, some artists use the same stroke all the time or use a limited variety of strokes to create stunning works of art. Other artists such as myself prefer to use different strokes to create visual textures.

There is no right or wrong way to draw, in other words.

What it all comes down to in the end is what works best for you. I encourage you to practice using different types of strokes to create different affects, then use those that work best for you.

Some time ago, I wrote an article for EmptyEasel on different types of pencil strokes. You can read The Five Basic Colored Pencil Strokes here for more information.

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