Heather Harding: Art Materials – What to Try and What to Buy

Heather Harding: Art Materials – What to Try and What to Buy


Pencils come in a variety of grades from 9H (which is very hard and gives a sharp thin line) to 9B (which is very soft and gives a thick dark smudgy line).

You can buy tins of multi-grade pencils (both WHSmith and Derwent do these), which are great to start you off and will give you lots of versatility.

Whether you buy a set or individual pencils, I would recommend you use a 2B, 4B and 6B to start with. They’ll give you a lovely soft dark line and make your drawings bolder.

The sketch here was made using a 2B pencil, which allowed me to keep some lines fine and delicate, whilst making darker more expressive marks in the background and on the body.

Watercolour Graphite Pencils

Great fun. A pencil you can draw with and then add water to so you get a watercolour effect. They tend to be graded soft, medium and hard.

If you haven’t come across them yet, you can now also buy waterbrushes which have a refillable plastic body and different sized detachable brush heads. They’re a good option to go for if you want to get out and about, do a bit of sketching and travel light at the same time.

Derwent do a Line and Wash Sketching Set, which has a variety of graphite pencils, as well as 2 watercolour pencils and waterbrush. If you’re not sure whether a pencil is watercolour, look for a brush emblem on the front.

Graphite Sticks

The graphite from your pencil without the wood surround, usually covered in a plastic coating so your fingers don’t get dirty.

I love working with graphite sticks. They’re very soft to use and give you a beautiful dense line dark grey line.

You can also buy chunky graphite sticks which are especially good for large drawings – try using the sides to make sweeping lines or flat on the paper to create large areas of shading quickly.

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Willow Charcoal

Great for life drawing or producing big sketches, as willow charcoal gives you a thick, black, bold line. Very messy as the sticks are brittle and tend to snap and also create a lot of residue. Be prepared to get it all over your hands and face! I would recommend wearing an apron or shirt so you don’t get it on your clothes. I have seen people wearing latex gloves but really it’s not necessary. Art is not a clean subject and getting messy is part of the fun, so throw yourself into the spirit of it.

You’ll need to spray your work with fixative after it’s done to fix it to the paper, otherwise it’ll smudge and come off on anything it touches. Top Tip: If you can’t find a can of fixative, hairspray works just as well!

Charcoal Pencils

A less messy version of willow charcoal as it’s encased in wood. Charcoal pencils come in soft, medium and hard grades and render a lovely thick black line. Great to use is you’re not so keen on willow charcoal. A lot of the larger sketching sets also include charcoal pencils which is great.

Red Chalk

Also known as Sanguine, this is a lovely earthy red colour. It comes in the form of a chalky pastel, often called conte crayon, which is a bit misleading as it is definitely chalky, not waxy. You can buy them singly or in a set with similar flesh tones. They’re also popping up in sketching sets (take a look at the WHSmith 10 piece sketching set which has it in pencil and chalk form). I wasn’t much keen on willow charcoal when I attended life drawing classes at college and picked up one of these as an alternative. I instantly fell in love with it and have used red chalk ever since. It was only a few years ago that I discovered a lot of the old masters used red chalk for their drawings too, so I feel I’m in very good company! I recently discovered a watercolour pencil version while on holiday in the Lake District this year.


You can use any type of pen – even a biro.

I would recommend fine-liners, which range from 0.1 (very fine nib) to 0.8 (thick nib).

Some are waterproof which is great if you want to add a wash of colour afterwards. I personally like using the ones that aren’t waterproof so that I can add a wash of water and smudge the pen lines to create a bit of shading (like in the sketch on the right).

You may find the idea of using a pen a bit scary because the marks you make can’t be erased but actually that’s the beauty of it. Whatever lines or marks you make become part of your finished piece, adding character and more interest.

Using a pen also means you have to be more observant as there’s no option for rubbing out.

I heartily recommend using a pen, especially for quick sketches.

Erasers and Putty Rubbers

Erasers are for rubbing out mistakes in pencil drawings.

Putty rubbers are for removing charcoal and chalks and they’re much softer, pliable and good for adding highlights.

I am not a fan of erasers. I generally find that rubbing out makes you less confident. You end up relying on the rubber to make changes instead of taking more time to be observant.

Throw it away, that’s what I say. Be brave, look more and think before putting down your lines. If you make a mistake, try incorporating it into your drawing.


Newsprint – lightweight, large in size and very cheap. Good for sketching and life drawing, rather than finished pieces.

Cartridge Paper – sturdy and comes in different weights. If buying by the sheet, sizes range from A4 to A1/A0 Also available as spiralbound sketchpads in varying sizes.

Hardback sketchbooks – choose one of these if you can afford it as they’re sturdy and will last a long time. If not a sketchbook with a card cover will work just fine. They come in a range of sizes from A6 (small) to A3 (large) and also portrait or landscape format. Small ones are perfect for carrying around in a bag or coat pocket. Tuck a pen or pencil in the spine and you’re good to go!

Drawing Exercises to Try at Home:

Once you’ve got a few different drawing materials together, have a go at the following exercises……..

Select an old shoe or boot and make 3 different sketches as follows –

  1. EXERCISE 1 : Draw your subject using either an HB or 2B pencil.
  2. EXERCISE 2 : Now make a 2nd drawing using either willow charcoal, charcoal pencil or red chalk.
  3. EXERCISE 3 : For your final sketch, use a pen – fineliner or biro.

See how the different materials affect the outcome of your work. How much detailing can you put in? How delicate or heavy can you make your lines? How much work do you have to put in to create very dark areas? Does the material you’re using influence the size of your drawing?

When you sit down to make a drawing, one of the first things you’ll need to decide is what you’re going to draw with. Whatever you choose is going to affect the outcome of that drawing and this exercise is designed to help you get to grips with that.


Browse WHSmith’s selection of Art and Craft materials for more information

Heather Harding

Heather Harding – Art, Crafts, Textiles & Fashion I love drawing, painting, printing and textiles. I’m a very instinctive person, always wanting to reach out and touch, taste or sniff things! I’m drawn to images and textures, constantly staring at colours, imagining drawing or painting things in my head when I’m out and about. I’m a terrible hoarder really, always collecting things because I like their shapes, texture or colour – pebbles, bits of wood, patterns off packets, bits of fabric, leaves when they’re changing colour, articles on art, interiors and fashion.

I’m in and out of art galleries a lot, poring over books and researching artists on the internet that I’ve just come across. I don’t have an all time favourite artist, there are far too many to like, it’s more ‘flavour of the month’ with me. My favourite drawing at the moment is “Poldi” by Egon Schiele.

My proudest moment? Making it through 6,500 amateur artists to be selected to take part in BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge which aired earlier this year. It was a fantastic achievement, great fun and intensely nerve-wracking all at the same time. I made it through 3 episodes before going out. Painting Blenheim Palace did me in. It was too big and so many columns! I didn’t warm to it at all and had a bad painting day with that one, although my other challenges were fine. My friends and family all think I was robbed, being kicked off at that stage. Bless ’em. (I agree!!!).

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