Stories on the edge of familiarity

Why I Draw With a Mechanical Pencil: A Tale of Successful Rebellion

My art teacher in junior high didn’t understand art at all.

In one of our first classes, he told all of us never to draw with mechanical pencils. His explanation?

“Because you can’t shade with them.”

Guess who drew with mechanical pencils all the time?

Yeah.

I loved mechanical pencils from the first moment I understood how they worked. They kept their point, allowing me to focus on the fine, precise lines I prize so much without having to break my concentration to sharpen the darn thing.

See, for me, art is about rigour, the detail that makes up great beauty. A chord played at the right moment has far more of an impact than the very same chord played perfectly in tune, but at an inappropriate moment. Of course, this right chord at the right time can can often happen serendipitously, just as the melody that was played perfectly can fall to disharmony by sheer misfortune. Skill does not guarantee beauty; it only equips us to better recognized and take advantage of the opportunities that arise.

This definition has grown and adapted over time, but the core of it has always remained the same. Always that attempt to capture beautiful serendipity.

So, when my teacher told us that about mechanical pencils on that day of days, he was basically saying that I’d been doing it all wrong my whole life. It’s always very exciting when something like that happens. Not only that but, after seeing him placing an inordinate amount of focus on shading throughout the rest of the semester, I can say with certainty that he was telling us that art without shading was bad art.

My psychedelic dragon begs to differ.

The ironic thing was that he never actually taught anyone how to shade. He just assumed that everyone already knew how to do it, and taught us various other things with various levels of helpfulness.

He also had this focus on real things. Everything he taught us to draw or make existed in reality, and there was always a sense of having to draw things as they really were. I suspect this comes from how well he could draw various things accurately, and being proud of his ability in that area, but it was hard to be in an art class and know that drawing anything fantastical would be frowned upon (it was downright bizarre, now that I think about it).

Anyways, for my final project, I did what I could to create something that fit his standards. I drew something only mildly fantastical, as opposed to my usual, which was more like this:

 

Or this:

Instead of just doing whatever the heck I wanted, I included a person, as was required, as well as a foreground, midground, and background. I shaded to the best of my ability, but without smudging because I could never get the hang of that method, and with a mechanical pencil, because I had been trying since that firstish day to prove that mechanical pencils could make good art. It ended up being flat to my eyes, because it didn’t have any of me in it, but I did the darn thing, and I included all his darn specifications.

You will never, ever see that drawing because I threw it in the garbage the day I got it back from him, with a big, fat 65% written on the back of it. Granted, my fore- mid- and background were all pretty bad, but the thing he also mentioned as a big factor when I asked him about the mark was that my shading wasn’t very good.

But that wasn’t even the big thing. The big thing was that I had hated doing that drawing. I had hated making this terrible, lifeless thing, because a living thing wouldn’t have gotten marks. And then the thing that I did to get marks didn’t really even come through anyways. I was done with that class, done with that teacher, and done with trying to live up to his expectations. I cried that night before I went to bed.

Over the next few months, I thought really hard about his assertion that you can’t shade with a mechanical pencil. You see, when people tell me that I can’t do something, I immediately want to prove them wrong, especially if that something is something I already wanted to do in the first place. This thought came up often and, one day while I was at church, I decided to do something about it. For the first time ever, I started drawing something on purpose and purely from my own mind that would be properly shaded, and with a mechanical pencil no less.

I was thirteen years old.

This was the result:

Since then I’ve done more drawings with mechanical pencils that incorporate shading. Sometimes, it’s subtle:

 

Sometimes, it’s not:

 

The point is that I discovered that my art teacher was wrong about a lot of things, even if he did actually teach me the proper proportions of a face and could draw eyes rather well.

The first thing he was wrong about was that he assumed. He assumed that the students entering his class had certain skills, even though that class was made up of students from grade 7 to grade 9, and even though some of those students (I included) had been homeschooled for however many years previous to that, and so hadn’t been in an art class for a long time, if ever.

The second thing he was wrong about was the kind of atmosphere to bring to an art class. I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable doing art in his class, and I know that there is a much better way of doing things because I’ve had art classes before and since with teachers who inspired me to improve and try new things simply by how they interacted with me.

But the third and biggest thing that he was wrong about was what he had decided couldn’t be done.

Just because something’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Let the rebellion continue.

Let’s do the impossible.

11 Responses to Why I Draw With a Mechanical Pencil: A Tale of Successful Rebellion

  1. My ex-art teacher told us the same thing (when I was in form 1)… the “never to draw with a mechanical pencil concept” when I transferred to other school I took computer subject… but my love for art did not change and after reading Get Backers manga my passion for art grow stronger… and that’s where I start to draw manga… and eversince I become a mechanical pencil artist and collector… My ex-art teacher sometimes don’t understand why I disobeyed his teachings…. But one thing he’s wrong…. mechanical pencils can create art…. there’s nothing taboo in art for using mechanical pencils to draw… everyone has their own freedom of choice of drawing media they desire…

    • Indeed! Mechanical pencils can make beautiful art. It’s different from other pencils, due to differences in strengths and weaknesses, but that takes nothing away from its ability to create. :)

  2. I am not a big fan of shading. I never really got the hang of it. Nevertheless, mechanical pencils have always appealed to me due to the fact they do not need the pesky thing known as sharpening. In my opinion, they can shade. It may be a bit difficult due to the fact that these the points of these pencils, as opposed to the slanted sides of the points in the more commonly used pencils, resemble cylinders, however, that does not take away its ability to shade.
    In any case, your ex-‘teacher’ (I do not and shall not refer to him as your teacher due to the fact a teacher is only one when their lessons live on through their student who respects the lessons) was incorrect. Art is a form of expression, nothing is truly taboo in it. Art is what the artist wants it to be. It can be something as simple as a few cans in a design, or as intricate as what you make. Art is all about freedom, and that is where your former teacher was gravely incorrect. You can use anything in art, including mechanical pencils.

    • You’re right, they can definitely shade. I’ve done and seen some beautiful shading work with mechanical pencils. :)

      I almost wonder if his beef on mechanical pencils was because he considered shading to be this pinnacle of artistic ability. Mechanical pencils do, admittedly, have a smaller range of light to dark compared to a regular pencil, and they’re not as good at filling in large spaces as they are with small ones. They’re designed for writing, after all, and so anyone who considered shading to be indispensable to art would eschew them because of their limitations. But to say that because they aren’t geared towards shading you can’t do art with them is definitely going too far.

      There was one thing he did teach me that still lived on, and that’s human facial proportions. We learned that close to the beginning of the course, and they were darn handy. :D

  3. I agree! I’ve always had trouble with shading, and I personally prefer mechanical pencils to the regular wood and graphite kind. They allow for so much more control and detail, and don’t go blunt as fast. Most discussions about shading tend to veer towards ‘well, why don’t you use regular pencils or charcoal, then’, which doesn’t really deal with the actual issue at hand. Shading should be possible no matter the material or medium used. And you’ve clearly proven that as a fact here.

    Very satisfying to read, I’m relieved that there are more (and better accomplished) artists out there struggling or working around this issue.

    • Thanks! I think it would be awesome if people taught shading less like “use these tools for shading” and more like “here’s how you can do shading with all of these different tools” and discuss the pros and cons of each, what visual styles they work best for, etc. And if people talked about how to use multiple tools to get the effects you want.

      Because, yes, it’s true that mechanical pencils can’t do things the way that regular pencils or charcoal pencils do. But what if mechanical pencils do exactly what you want them to do? What if what you’re going for worked best with mechanical pencils as the base and the others as supplements?

      Ok, wow, this has given me so many ideas. Thank you so much for your comment! I… might be putting up another post about drawing soon. *heads off to ponder all these new thoughts*

      • Hah! You’re most welcome. I’m going to look forward to that post, if you decide to put it up. What little you’ve put up about your thoughts sounds fascinating. Shading would make so much more sense if people discussed how different tools and mediums would work together. Or maybe how to alternate between charcoal and mechanical pencils, or other instruments. They do each come with their own pros and cons, as you’ve noted here.

  4. I stumbled upon this and I have to say that since I prefer to use cross hatching to shade, I prefer the use of a good mechanical pencil!
    I can’t imagine doing what I mostly do – which is mostly technical concepts for furniture with anything but my trusty 0.5 to 0.9s
    My favorite MP is still a parker 51 my father gave me: simple, efective and the since it’s clawed it takes either 0.9 or 0.7s
    For fun I prefer the comic book style pin ups and that kind of work really benefits from an 0.3 lead with the 0.5 for some weight… and again the cross hatching does, in my opinion, lead to a more dramatic comic book effect.

    besides, the flat side of an 0.9 shdes nice and I still prefer the staedtler 2mm 2b for “real” shading. And it is still a MP…

    To each his own I guess, but overall, I do find that each job has it’s tools: for me it’s mostly mechanical pencils. The faber or staedtler pencils have their place on “fun” days, but overall I never got the hang of them

    • Heh, I love that people are still finding this post.

      I prefer doing everything with 0.7 lead. That way I only have the one kind to keep track of xD

      You’re right about to each his own as well as each job having its own tools. I find when we hit that elusive balance between two opposing pieces of advice that we end up doing the stuff we’re most proud of. Of course, the balance is different for each person and each situation, but if it was easy to figure out, we’d get bored :)

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to know people still like this post :D