Beginners Guide: Realistic Pencil Drawing

Updated: 01 Sep 2022

Pen vs pencil drawing

Pencil drawing is monochromatic. It has a single hue (gray), but with different brightness values (from very light gray, to very dark gray).

Brightness values with pencil, from light to dark

To get realistic results when drawing with pencils, start by drawing the form accurately. Then, brightness values are the key. Meaning, how dark or light each area is. In addition, pay attention to edges and transitions.

While there are many factors when it comes to drawing realism, here I focus on the most important ones.

The 4 key factors for realistic pencil drawing are:

  1. Precision Drawing
  2. Brightness Values
  3. Edges
  4. Transitions

Note:

At the end of this tutorial, you will find some practical drawing tips.

Precision Drawing

Each object or figure has distinct characteristics and a unique form. Therefore, in order to produce a realistic result, the craft of drawing must be precise.

To draw in an accurate way, you need to understand what you are looking at, and to draw what you see, and NOT what you know.

Foreshortening:

When drawing in perspective (a set of guidelines for drawing in a realistic way), objects are subject to foreshortening.

In the following example, you know that the top part of a candle is round (circle), but when you draw what you see (when drawing a side view), the top part of the candle is actually elliptical:

Learning to look for foreshortening

Opposite phenomenon occurs when looking from above. The candle's long cylindrical body becomes shorter due to foreshortening:

Foreshortening views for a candle

Explanation:

In perspective, objects that are in front of the observer look smaller as they are farther away.

Because they are in front of the observer, they keep the ratio between width and height, meaning there is no distortion, the object looks the same only smaller.

On the other hand, objects or surfaces along the line of sight are distorted (meaning, foreshortened).

The reason is the observer angle of sight. The more a surface is in the direction of your sight, the shorter it is.

In the next example, see how the surfboard is foreshortened when facing you.

A drawing of a surfer riding a wave

To get a deeper understanding on foreshortening, read my guide on how to draw objects from imagination, there you can learn how to draw basic shapes, such as a cylinder, correctly, as in the following examples:

Realistic pencil drawings of weightlifting and weights

How to draw accurately:

Drawing is done in a two-dimensional way, on a flat paper. Disregard the third dimension, which is depth, and look at objects in a 2D way: width, height and angles.

Use your pencil to see the angle of any line you choose to draw.

Pay attention:

Your drawing paper is flat, so when measuring angles, turn the pencil left or right only! Never forward or backward.

Checking the angle of the line

Do the same for complex drawings, like portraits.

In the next example, I paid attention to the angle of the eyes.

Measuring the eyes angle when drawing a portrait

If you struggle drawing accurately, read my guide on how to draw accurately from observation.

Tip:

When two people look at an object from a different angle, they draw it differently.

The same happens with your eyes. Each eye looks at an object from a different angle.

To draw accurately, close one eye when you are using a pencil to measure dimensions and angles.

Drawing accurately by closing one eye

Look at some coloring pages on your screen, and try to reproduce them.

Drawing the form (structure) accurately is the most important part of realistic drawing.

Drawing coloring pages from observation

Remember:

Learning to draw accurately from observation is crucial for drawing realism.

Initial sketch of a mink

After you master drawing anything in proportion, you can deal with the other factors of drawing realism.

Drawing the head of the mink

Understanding brightness values is essential, and I will cover it next.

Realistic pencil drawing of a mink Realistic pencil drawing of a mink

Brightness Values

What are brightness values?

Brightness values or values are how light or dark any area of the drawing is.

Brightness values ​​play a crucial role in creating the illusion of depth and three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface.

What is pencil drawing?

Pencil drawing, at its most basic form, is putting graphite particles on paper.

To do that, we use pencils.

Pencils come in different hardness levels. Hard pencils only put a little amount of graphite particles on a paper, resulting in a lighter/brighter value (H levels for hardness).

Pencils with H levels for light values

On the other hand, soft pencils put a big amount of graphite on a paper, which results in a darker value (B levels for blackness).

pencils with b levels for dark values

How to use a pencil?

For any type of pencil, the amount of pressure applied while drawing determines the brightness value. More pressure creates a darker value, and less pressure creates a lighter value.

I recommend using a number of drawing pencils with different darkness levels for different brightness values.

Sharp pencils are suitable for small details. For smooth transitions, sometimes it is useful to use non-sharp pencils.

How to practice?

Know your tools! Practice on creating gradual transitions in brightness values for each pencil grade you use.

That will help you determine how much pressure to use for each different brightness value, and how dark or light you can go with each pencil grade:

Practice on transitions with different pencil grades

You can alter brightness values by using a kneaded eraser.

By gently tapping on a drawing surface, the kneaded eraser will collect graphite particles, and therefore result in a lighter value.

Practice on transitions with kneaded eraser

How to determine brightness values?

Observation is the key to identifying the brightness values ​​of any object or image.

Examine each part of the drawing, to see if it is darker or lighter than the object you are trying to draw, and then correct it accordingly.

In addition, it is important to pay attention to the range and variety between the darkest areas and the brightest:

In other words, there should be enough contrast between dark and bright parts of the drawing in order for it to look rich and intense.

Tip:

Sometimes when looking at a complex object, especially with colors (or texture), it is hard to see how dark or light each area is.

To solve this problem, squint while observing, in order to lose focus.

When both eyes are partly closed, you can focus on brightness values, and disregard other distractions.

Exercise:

Try drawing your hand. Start by marking the drawing paper, so you can always put your hand back at the same place.

How to mark the hand on the paper

Unless you are using a table lamp, difference in brightness values are subtle, and therefore it is a great practice to master values.

Realistic hand pencil drawing

Arguably, the hardest form of drawing is portraiture.

It is critical to be accurate both in drawing the form AND in brightness values.

Female portrait pencil drawing, Alin Portrait pencil drawing, Alin

For a list of materials that I use for drawing, visit my essential pencil-drawing supply review.

Realistic drawing of Sylvester Stallone from Cobra film Sylvester Stallone, Cobra, 1986

Edges

As opposed to comics drawing that is characterized by contour lines, which surround the figure, in realistic drawing with a pencil (or in any other way), there are no lines at all.

The edge of an object is where its shape or surface ends. It can end in a sharp way, or in a soft way, but it is not a line!

Some objects (like fur, hair, or cloth) have soft edges, while other objects (like rocks, cars, or furniture) have hard edges.

Edges vs outlines in pencil drawing Edges vs outlines

To draw a soft edge is to create a gradual transition (gradient) in brightness values, from dark to light.

Depending on climate conditions and distance, far away objects might have soft edges.

Remember:

Use lines only as guidelines to draw an accurate form. Draw them lightly, so they are easy to erase if needed.

How to draw soft edges:

There are many ways to draw soft edges (gradient from dark to light), depending on the effect you would like to achieve.

Hereby, three recommended ways:

How to draw soft edges with graphite Methods to draw soft edges

If you are not around your drawing equipment, you can always use a dry paper (like paper towel) or cloth to smooth edges.

How to use paper or cloth to smooth edges Soft edges with toilet paper

Note:

Try to avoid smudging a pencil drawing using your finger. It can transfer body oils or sweat to the paper sheet.

Using soft edges for far away objects creates a sense of depth.

Pencil drawing example:

Pencil drawing on 2 pigeons Soft edges for far object to add depth

Shadows and reflections:

In many cases, shadows and reflections have soft (or less defined) edges.

Realistic pencil drawing for the Valachi hearings Less defined edges for reflections

While shadows and soft objects have soft edges, overlapping parts have hard edges.

After you draw the contour lines for your object, to achieve a hard edge, draw with the tip of the pencil toward that edge.

Contour lines and drawing a hard edge

When drawing the area around the hard edge, you get the object structure without lines.

If the hard edges are not hard enough, you can use an eraser. Erase with the tip of the eraser toward the hard edge.

How to erase to achieve a hard edge

Lastly, in some cases, I like to draw the dark values first.

The dark values help to determine the light values and transitions.

Realistic pencil drawing of an ear

Transitions

When drawing with a pencil, it is important to pay attention to brightness values (how dark or light each area is) and edges (how each area or surface ends, either with a soft edge or a hard edge).

In addition, pay attention to transitions.

On a certain surface, areas that are closer to a light source are lighter, and areas farther away from the light source are darker, meaning the surface has a gradual transition in values.

Therefore, look for the brightness values of a particular surface compared to other surfaces, but also the transitions of values ​​within the surface itself.

Pencil drawing example:

A portrait pencil drawing, Sharon Portrait pencil drawing, Sharon

In the next example, I used transitions in brightness values to draw the folds in the neck area.

Realistic rhinoceros graphite drawing Rhinoceros pencil drawing

Remember:

Every part of each drawing has transitions. An area with no transitions looks flat and unnatural.

How to draw smooth transitions?

After you draw the form accurately, it has no depth without brightness values:

Form drawing with no brightness values

You can draw smooth transitions with smudging tools, like a blending stump, or a synthetic brush.

To get natural results, using pencils only, think of your pencil as if it is a brush.

Draw gently, in a continuous way, with no spaces between marks, so not to create lines.

How to draw smooth transitions

Use light pencils for transitions in light areas (H levels), and dark pencils for transitions in dark areas (B levels).

Portrait pencil drawing of IZ, Israel Kamakawiwo ole Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (1959-1997)

Drawing Tips

Where to start drawing?

If you are right-handed, start drawing from the upper left part of a paper sheet, and gradually move to the lower right.

For left-handed artists, start at the upper right part of the paper.

In this way, the palm can rest on the blank surface of the drawing-paper, and not smear what has already been drawn.

Pencil drawing from left to right Drawing from left to right

Where to put the light source?

If you are right-handed, place the lighting (table lamp) on the left side, so that the palm will not block the source of light, and you can see little details while drawing.

If you are left-handed, place the lighting on the right side.

Pencil drawing of a wildebeest Wildebeest pencil drawing

How to hold a pencil?

By using the thumb, you can move the pencil body upwards, and use it as a measuring device (to see angles).

When releasing the thumb, the pencil is back in place for drawing:

How to use a pencil for measuring and drawing

How to avoid smearing?

In order to avoid smearing the drawing or transfer body oils or sweat to a drawing paper, you can place a blank sheet of paper under the drawing hand, so that the palm is not placed on the drawing-paper.

How to draw without smearing

Another option is to use a transparent paper sheet under the drawing hand, that way you can avoid smearing, and still see your drawing.

How to use your drawing equipment?

Try not to press hard when drawing, so you do not damage the paper sheet you are drawing on.

Draw as if you are using a paintbrush, softly and gently. You will get smooth results, and you do not need to use smoothing tools.

Use thick paper for your artworks, it is more durable. Thin paper sheets are great for practice.

I prefer paper with at least 150 g/m thickness, ideally 180 g/m or more:

How to know the width of a paper sheet

Do not lean hard on paper (with any hand) when drawing, to avoid dents.

How to use a grid?

The center of a reference image is the point where the two diagonals meet.

After finding the midpoint, draw a horizontal line and a vertical line in order to divide the image into four rectangles.

If an image is large and complex, you can divide each rectangle repeatedly to have more grid lines.

How to find midpoint and create a grid on image

The next step is creating a grid on your drawing paper, which is the same process of finding the midpoint and creating vertical and horizontal lines.

Remember that the ratio between the width and height of your drawing paper should be exactly like the reference image. You can always crop the reference image to fit the ratio of the drawing paper.

Now it is possible to draw inside each rectangle separately. Consequently, the drawing process becomes easier and more precise.

Drawing inside a grid, one rectangle at a time

When drawing grid lines, do it gently, so you can erase them later!

While I rarely use grid lines when drawing, for commission drawings, especially with limited time, I use grid lines for efficiency and speed.

Commission drawing process:

I start by drawing the form accurately.

Then I pay attention to the other 3 factors (brightness values, edges & transitions).

I am right-handed, so I draw from left to right and from top to bottom:

Man portrait pencil drawing steps

For more tips, check out my fine art painters gallery for exclusive painting tips by professional painters.

Which paper size to use?

Realistic drawing is time-consuming.

A drawing of an animal or a portrait, on an A4 paper sheet, can last 15-40 hours.

Therefore, I do not recommend drawing on a large paper sheet.

Depending on the project, I use these paper sizes: A5 (small), A4 (medium) and A3 (large).

How to draw straight borders?

When using just part of a paper for drawing, it is useful to border it with masking tape.

John Rambo initial pencil drawing

When the drawing is ready, remove the masking tape, and you will have a straight border.

John James Rambo realistic pencil drawing

Pen Drawing

While there are no lines in nature or in realistic pencil drawing, pen drawing is characterized by drawing lines.

A pen drawing of a tree Drawing using lines

I use a technical pen (fineliner) for drawing.

For recommended pen brands to use, visit my review on drawing pens for artists.

A pen has a fixed brightness value!

The way to create the illusion of different brightness values ​​when drawing with a pen, is to create more lines in the same area for a darker value, and fewer lines for a lighter value.

Tree drawing with a pen Brightness values using lines

If you like drawing with pens, you might like my guide for flower drawing.

Flower drawing from observation, using a pen

And, my guide for drawing trees.

Tree drawing from observation, using a pen

Summary

Since all materials are made of molecules, they can never be one hundred percent smooth.

Light travels as a wave; therefore, shadows are not completely sharp.

For these reasons, there are no lines in nature!

When drawing with pencils, it is all about transitions in brightness values and different types of edges.

That said, in art, it is possible to create realistic looking drawings, using only lines, by creating the illusion of transitions, brightness values and edges.

For an in-depth article about drawing and painting realism, visit The 8 Key Factors for Painting Realism.

To understand and add depth when drawing, visit my guide for creating the illusion of depth in art, it includes 15 ways to draw depth, with many examples!

While it is convenient to draw from images, I recommend practicing drawing from direct observation. Read my still life composition-drawing tutorial to see how to plan your composition.

After mastering accurate drawing (structure and values), you can take your drawings to the next by learning how to draw textures.