How To Prevent Pencil Smudges While Drawing

Smudges are your worst enemy when drawing with a pencil.


You’re in the middle of drawing a pencil portrait, confidently filling out the shadows and adding detail when… BAM. Your own hand betrays you, and a giant smudge mark appears. Many of us have been there; I know that I have. With a medium like pencil, it is incredibly easy to smudge a drawing, both while you’re working on it and after you’re finished. So you want to know how to prevent pencil smudges in your pencil portrait  – or any pencil drawing for that matter? The following are techniques that I use to prevent pencil smudges in my own artwork.

How To Prevent Pencil Smudges – Technique 1: Keep your hand away from the drawing itself.

Most importantly, whenever possible, work from left to right across your paper – if you’re right-handed, that is. For you lefties out there, just do the opposite and work from right to left. You want your hand to be as far from the bulk of your drawing as possible. The base of the palm of the hand that you use to draw and the side of that hand along your pinky finger are your smudging arch-nemeses. These are the areas that most often are used to steady your pencil as you draw, so they end up resting on your paper.

As the drawing progresses this becomes more and more of a problem because the graphite of your pencil is not permanently attached to your drawing paper, meaning that when you rest your hand on the drawing without thinking to steady yourself, you will come away with a thin film of graphite residue in the mirror image of whatever you are drawing. If you catch this slip right away, just wash your hands thoroughly with soap making sure to remove the pencil markings, dry your hands completely, and then continue with your drawing.

If you don’t realize what happened right off the bat, soon you will see a faint copy of your drawing in the next place where you happen to set down your hand. Either that or you might forget that your hand is resting on the pencil drawing, slide your hand slightly to get a different angle with your pencil, and then end up with a pencil “skid mark.” Not ideal. Moral of the story: NEVER set your hand down on top of your pencil portrait. If you catch yourself with it down, pick it up cleanly without sliding it and wash your hands well. Always make sure that you that have a great eraser handy.

How To Prevent Pencil Smudges – Technique 2: Use a protective sheet of paper.

How To Keep A Pencil Drawing From Smudging

Here I am working on one of my portraits. Notice the protective sheet of paper doubling as a photo reference.

If you’re like me and you can’t help resting your hand to steady your pencil, there is still hope. All you need is a clean sheet of paper (regular printer/copy paper works great, and it’s cheaper than drawing paper too). Place this sheet of paper carefully on top of your pencil drawing next to the area that you plan to work on. Now you can feel free to rest your hand to your heart’s content with this layer of protection between you and your pencil portrait.

A word of warning: The no sliding rule still applies. Hands are not the only things that can leave skid marks, so, when moving your protective sheet of paper, be sure to lift if cleanly up from the drawing and place it back down gently in the new area. Also make sure that you check the back of the paper from time to time. Since small amounts of graphite particles can stick to the paper as well, you may need to replace it with a fresh sheet periodically.

Bonus: Since I draw pencil portraits from photos, I use a printout of the image that I’m drawing as my protective sheet. This way, I keep my pencil portrait smudge-free, and I can refer to the printout as needed for details in the drawing. It’s a win-win situation.

How To Prevent Pencil Smudges – Technique 3: Apply fixative* when the drawing is complete.

If you have completed your pencil portrait and worry about post-completion smudges, you may want to apply a fixative – a spray that provides a non-removable (so test it on a sample drawing first!), colorless, and completely transparent finish to your drawing. The fixative sets the graphite and helps to seal it, limiting the amount of residual graphite particles.

There are many different brands of fixative, which you can find at your local art supply stores or online, so test out a few until you find one that works for you. Never spray fixative on a masterpiece until you’re tried it on a sample drawing (in the same medium on the same type of paper) first – the spray won’t come off after it goes on, and you need to know how much to apply, whether the brand will discolor the paper that you’re using, etc.

*Note: Fixative is not always necessary and can alter the final look of your portrait, so consider before use. If you are going to mat and frame the drawing right away, it may not be needed.

There you have it – a smudge-free pencil portrait is only moments away when you follow these simple rules. My last advice: Always remember to be on the lookout for little smudges before they grow, keep a good eraser handy, and check your hands periodically for signs of graphite; your pencil drawing will only be as clean as your hands.

Photo Credit:

Anniversary Portrait For My Parents


This is an pencil portrait that I drew for my wonderful parents’ 30th wedding anniversary.

I drew this pencil portrait from a photo that I took while they were visiting here in Arizona.

Here’s the original (Black and White.)

Original For Anniversary Portrait

Unfortunately, the bright Arizona sun caused quite a bit of glare on their glasses. I was able to take the glare out in the final anniversary portrait, however, which lets you see their eyes so much better.

If you need a great gift idea for an anniversary, let me know, and I will draw a custom pencil anniversary portrait from a photo that you cherish. It doesn’t matter whether this is a gift for a 50th anniversary, or the very first, an anniversary portrait like this will make anyone feel special. (End shameless plug . :) )

Let me know what you think! I’d really appreciate your comments. If you like this portrait and you think you know someone who would appreciate having this as an anniversary gift idea, please share with them.


Newt Gingrich Portrait

I drew this portrait of Newt Gingrich for the Western Center for Journalism, a non-profit political organization. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

Mitt Romney Portrait

I drew this portrait of Mitt Romney for the Western Center for Journalism, a non-profit political organization. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

Ron Paul Portrait

I drew this portrait of Ron Paul for the Western Center for Journalism, a non-profit political organization. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

How To Choose A Photo For Your Custom Portrait

It can be argued that the most important part of creating a pencil portrait that truly turns your moment into a masterpiece is choosing the right photograph. Sound stressful? Don’t worry! Here are a few helpful tips about how to choose the proper photograph:

1. Above anything else, choose a photo that you love, one that when you look at it you can’t help but smile. You can follow all of the tips that come after this one, but if you don’t truly love the photo then why memorialize it in pencil? I can tell you that, personally, when I draw a portrait of myself and my husband from our wedding day, I will put some of my artistic brain on hold and go for the one that brings me the most joy to look at.

2. Size matters. When I draw portrait from a photograph, this is my motto: the bigger the better. The more that I can zoom in (when it’s a digital photo, which is ideal) on the corner of a person’s eye – or whatever feature it happens to be – to see just the right shapes and shadows, the better. In the case of a printed photo, size and quality are even more important. As an artist (and a former mathematics major… can anyone say detail-oriented?) I choose to really invest the time to get details correct on the portraits that I draw, but I can only include what I can see. If you take a moment to compare two examples from my portfolio, you will see what I mean:



(In order to see a larger version, please click on each portrait.)





When the Western Center for Journalism commissioned me to draw portraits of the 2012 GOP candidates, I had to choose my photos from the limited selection of those that were available and non-copyright protected. Above you can see the portrait of Congressman Ron Paul on the left, drawn using an 1195×1500 pixel photo for reference. On the right is the portrait of Speaker Newt Gingrich, drawn using a 249×267 pixel photo. Both portraits turned out, in my opinion, quite well; however, the detail in the portrait of Paul is significantly higher than that of Gingrich, whose portrait seems a little softer and not as sharp.

The long and the short of it is that no matter what photo you choose, I will work with you to create a beautiful end result. The question that you need to think about in choosing your photograph is whether it contains the detail that you desire, and, if not, whether there is a similar photo –that also makes you smile just to look at it – which would work better.

3. The darker the photograph, i.e., the more shadow and less contrast, the less detail that I will be able to put into your portrait. Again with the detail! It may sound like a broken record, but at the heart of each tip for choosing your perfect photograph is the visible detail contained within it. We all know what makes a visually pleasing photo – being able to see the people in it. So take the time to look through your photos and find one isn’t too dark to see properly. With digital photos, it is not difficult to adjust the contrast and lightness, so this is not as much of an issue as with print photos. If you are attached to a darker print photo, it can be scanned into the computer and adjusted as well, so feel free to contact me with questions.

4. A photograph that is washed out from too much flash or sunlight is not ideal for the same reasons as a photograph that is too dark. The excess light takes away important shadows that suggest detail and three-dimensional space, which is what really makes a good portrait seem lifelike!

5. Do you have permission to use this photograph? Due to issues with copyright-protected images, I am unable to produce a pencil portrait for you of a photograph that is not yours or which you do not have permission to use. During the order process you will need to check a box verifying that you have full rights to the photo(s) that you upload.

6. In the ideal photograph to use for a portrait, the faces of the people in it will be relatively close together. No worries if there is a little distance though. I can always move things around to make a more pleasing composition if people are too far apart. Example: If a bride and groom had a beautiful photo, but the bride was 5 feet tall and the groom was closer to 6 and a half, I would either drop the groom down or move the bride up (to get the same effect)  in order to make a more pleasing composition. **Changes like this will not be made without consulting with you first. I would not want to make such a drastic composition change without customer approval.

7. You can pick and choose head shots from multiple photographs. It is always ideal to just use a single photo due to the authentic interaction between the people in the photo, the consistent light source, etc., but if, for example, you have two children and your favorite picture of your oldest child was different from your favorite picture of your youngest, I could combine both photographs to create one cohesive portrait. If you choose to use multiple photographs, please make sure to explain in detail the combination that you want when uploading. Also remember that when using multiple photos it is very important that the photos be of the same quality – generally the same size, etc. – so that they meld together well in the final portrait.

So what conclusions have we come to? Be mindful of the size and the detail, but in general: If it’s a beautiful photograph, chances are good that it will make a beautiful portrait. Pure Pencil portraits capture memories that will last a lifetime, so make sure that you choose a photograph that you will want to remember forever. As always, if you have questions or want to run a potential photo by me, please just fill out a contact form and I will do my best to answer your questions and let you know my thoughts about a specific photograph.