How to Use Powdered Graphite for Portraits

By Megan Shoop ; Updated September 15, 2017

Things Needed

  • Light grade sketch pencil
  • Smooth paper
  • Powdered graphite
  • Paintbrushes: several sizes
  • Scrap paper
  • Chamois cloth
  • Kneading eraser
Replace graphite pencils with powdered graphite for softer, blended portraits.

Graphite powder offers a versatile alternative to graphite pencils. With graphite pencils, you need several grades of graphite, plus a very steady hand to create realistic looking portraits. With graphite powder, you can “paint” a pencil sketch, allowing for softer shading transitions and more subtle detail. Graphite powder eliminates the need to erase sketch lines. It also gives artists precision without the hassle of stippling and hand-shading. This soft, dark powder comes in small jars at most arts and crafts stores.

Very lightly sketch your portrait onto a piece of smooth paper. The lighter the lines, the better. You won’t need to erase them later because they’ll blend into the powdered graphite finish.

Dip a medium, dry brush into the graphite powder and swipe it over a piece of scrap paper until the brush leaves behind your desired color value. Never just fill a brush with powder and apply it directly to a drawing.

Fill in darkly shaded areas first, brushing the paintbrush lightly and smoothly over the surface. When working near edges, press on the brush so the bristles splay out in a flat, smooth line that follows the line of your portrait.

Roll the corner of a chamois cloth into a loose point. Gently rub the cloth over the darkly shaded areas, pulling shading from the dark areas and blending it into lighter areas. This gives the portrait dimension and works especially well on areas like cheeks and foreheads.

Fill in broad details first, like the general shape of the subject’s hair, eyes, ears and nose. Use a very narrow paintbrush to add very light values of graphite powder. Fill the same narrow brush with more powder to add shading and darker details.

Draw hair strands with a very narrow brush. Don’t worry about shading the hair right away; just draw in the strands.

Shade hair by lightly erasing graphite with a kneading eraser. Mold and shape the eraser to a point or a ball, depending on the erasable area, and gently roll (don’t rub) it over the area until it’s properly lightened.