Sunday, August 2, 2009

Powdered Graphite & Denatured Alcohol

With the upcoming portrait drawing workshop on August 14th, I am posting part my recent correspondence with Gary Brookins, the cartoonist from the syndicated comic strip “Shoe”. Here you will find a brief description on how I use powdered graphite and denatured alcohol in my drawings.

Gary Brookins to Paul
Hi Paul-

I came across your work on your Web site several months ago, and really liked what you're doing . . . very nice work. I am especially intrigued by your pencil portraits, and was wondering if you can give me a brief description of your process? How you mix the washes? What brushes do you use to apply them? Are they put on before or after your "drawing" stage with pencils? Which leads do you use (2H, HB, 2B, 4B, etc.) Anyhow, I'm planning on taking your one day workshop in Raleigh in November. But I would like to try some of your techniques before them, if you don't mind passing them along. (Many years ago, I did a lot of graphite drawing, often spending a hundred hours or more on a drawing.)

You can look at some of my work at:

Thanks, Paul.
Gary Brookins

Paul W. McCormack to Gary

The process is difficult to describe without writing a short book. I love "Shoe", so let's give it a shot.

Washes are mixed with denatured alcohol and powdered graphite. Cretacolor powdered graphite works the best as it's more forgiving...DO NOT buy Generals. Using a watercolor palette and some old watercolor brushes the graphite is diluted with the alcohol and applied in the same way as a watercolor glaze. Be sure to test the value first on a piece of scrap. You can tell the wash is dry when the yellow tinge of the alcohol is gone. Using a large flat wash brush you then brush off the excess graphite, this will even out the tone.

The above is done after a fairly tight line drawing has been executed. Paper of choice is Strathmore 3 ply Bristol plate 400 or 500 series. The heavy ply will keep your surface from buckling.

Using the powdered graphite my washes are built up to a light, halftone and dark. This begins with the simplification of light and shadow splitting the form at the bedbug line. My darkest darks are then established with a Nero pencil. This pencil has a bit a charcoal added to the graphite achieving a much darker dark than a 6B graphite.

Now that I have my darkest dark and lightest light (the white of the paper) established I proceed to render with graphite pencils. I use a range from 4H to 4B being careful not to press too hard. Too much pressure or too many layers will give the surface a shine and uneven finish.

Hope to see you at one of my workshops.


Gary Brookins to Paul

Thank you for your response. And in much less than a short book, you described the process perfectly, where even a cartoonist could understand it! I'll let you know how it works for me.

I would love to take the three day workshop in August, but I don't think I can fit anything else into my schedule . . . we have several big things going on up through September, and it's doubtful I can squeeze anything else in. However, if things change in the next couple of weeks, and it looks like I can do it, I'll get in touch. Otherwise, I will be taking the one in Raleigh in November.

Thanks, Paul. I appreciate your help.



  1. As Borders bookstore is closing in Ohio, I decided to buy the book "Strokes of Genius" and I was fascinated by "Julianna and Charlotte" a pencil and powder graphite on bristol plate drawing. I had to look-up your work to feast my eyes. I have always rendered, and never used this method. I'd like to try, and hope to use this technique as a grisaille underpainting for oil. I have never painted in the classical way, but I'm determined to learn since college didn't teach me to paint this method. ...and I feel inadequate without this background. I wish I could take classes in your workshop, but Ohio is far from your studio. I'm not going to ask a bunch of questions, as I think it's unfair since I'm not taking your classes. If you feel O.K. to comment if I'm on the right track I would be so grateful. Mostly, thank you for gracing the pages of books and magazines with your work.
    Thanks Poppy

  2. I don't recommend using powdered graphite with oils. Try doing an open grisaille with ivory black and or raw umber with turps or mineral spirits.


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