How to Draw Without Smudging: 7 Practical Tips

Learning how to draw without smudging is a right of passage that every graphite and pencil artist will have to overcome at some point. 

How to Draw Without Smudging? There are several simple methods you can use to prevent smudging when drawing with graphite. Using a workable fixative is excellent for avoiding smudging. Artists can also employ simple, practical solutions such as turning their drawing around, or resting their hands on a tissue. All of these methods are proven methods for avoiding smudged and spoilt drawings.

In this post, I will outline several methods you can use to prevent smudging before you begin drawing. So read on to discover how these could help you.

Protecting your Drawings when Blending and Shading

How to Draw Without Smudging
How to Draw Without Smudging

Like everything else that has to do with art, getting better at this will involve learning proper technique, having the right tools, and practicing. 

What makes graphite and charcoal so popular amongst artists? 

There are probably quite a few reasons, but one that's at the top of the list is the ease with which they can be blended. With inks, you have to use stippling or cross-hatching to indicate shadows. Or, you could use an ink and wash effect, but then you're getting into painting.

Speaking of painting, you can create some tremendous blended effects when painting, but none of that will be as easy to do as working with graphite or charcoal. That's the other reason that graphite and charcoal are so popular. They are straightforward to use. 

You don't have to do any prep work. You get out a piece of paper, your pencils, then get to drawing. Below you'll learn about various techniques that you can use to prevent unwanted smudging of your drawings. Once you learn them, you should draw without the fear that you will accidentally ruin your drawings by smudging them.

How Do I Keep My Drawings From Smudging?

Learning how to draw without smudging is essential if you want to create intricate graphite or charcoal drawings that don't end up ruined when you accidentally smudge them. Graphite and charcoal both can be blended, and in the hands of an experienced artist, a fantastic amount of gradations in tone is possible. Unfortunately, that same versatility is also one of the problems artists run into when working with these mediums. Blending is excellent, unwanted smudging, much less so.

How many artists have spent time working on a fantastic drawing only to realize that their forearm or wrist had been inadvertently smudging it as they worked? It's an amazingly frustrating feeling, and it can ruin your day. In some cases, you can go back in and correct the problems caused by smudging, but at other times the drawing is so badly smudged that it's easier to give up and start over. If this has happened to you in the past, and it felt disheartening, you're not alone. 

Any artist who has seen a lot of hard work go for naught due to their drawing smudging will be frustrated. It's only natural. Now what you have to do is figure out how to prevent the problem from happening again the next time you draw. As long as you can learn from your mistakes, then they aren't mistakes so much as they are lessons.

One option that you might want to consider to keep your drawings from smudging is to use something that doesn't smudge. Many artists find drawing with ink very rewarding, and this is something you might want to consider. You could also try a mixed media piece using a combination of graphite and ink. 

The downside to using ink is that you lose that incredible ability that graphite and charcoal have that allows you to blend them. So, let's assume that switching to ink isn't the answer. What else can you try then to prevent your graphite and charcoal drawings from smudging accidentally?

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How Do You Keep Pencils From Smudging When Drawing?

When drawing with pencils, smudging is a significant concern. Fortunately, it's something that you can manage if you learn some simple techniques, and you follow them carefully. To be honest, if you're going to work with graphite or charcoal, learning how to avoid smudging your drawing isn't something that you should do. It's something that you need to do. 

If you don't, then you'll probably end up frustrated more than a few times when you found that a drawing you have been working on for quite a while ends up ruined by smudging.

The first thing that you should add to your shopping list if you want to prevent unwanted smudging when you're drawing is a workable fixative. Workable fixative is inexpensive and easy to use, and it should be part of your standard drawing equipment. Some artists use hairspray as an alternative, but this is an imperfect solution. 

There are three essential rules to remember when using a fixative. First, make sure that you only use workable fixative when your drawing. Once you've finished, you can use permanent fixative. Second, make sure that the fixative has thoroughly dried before you start to draw over it. Third, make sure that the area where you are spraying the workable fixative is well ventilated.

What Can I Use Instead Of Fixative?

Both workable fixative and permanent fixative should be staples in the toolkit. For any pencil or graphite artist, Workable fixative can be used during the course of your drawing to prevent smudging. As its name implies, workable fixative can be drawn over, making it perfect for protecting a drawing in progress.

Only apply a permanent fixative when your drawing is finished. But, what if you don't have any workable fixative around? Is there anything else that you can use instead of fixative to prevent it from smudging?

There is, at least, their kind of is. Hairspray has been used by artists for years to work as a substitute for workable fixative. Will it work? Yes. Is it an ideal option? No, because it causes the paper to yellow over time. Why would you want to use hairspray then if it causes the paper to turn yellow? Well, you can use it if you are working on sketches that you want to keep from smudging so you can preserve them. Keeping a sketch journal, or even a pile of old sketches around is a great way to keep ideas for projects you may want to work on in the future.

You might want to use hairspray as a fixative for a graphite drawing that will be painted on top of. If the paper turns yellow, it won't matter if you have painted over the top of it that keeps you from seeing it.

Of course, using graphite as a base for a painting makes sure that you don't use it when doing an oil painting. Graphite will seep through oil paint and ruin the painting. 

It won't happen right away, but graphite will start to rise through an oil painting layers a few years down the road, ruining it. Acrylic painting forms a plastic layer that prevents this, so it isn't a problem when working with acrylic paints. If you want to use graphite under an oil painting, make sure that you put a matt medium layer over it. This will create a seal over the graphite that will keep it from seeping into the oil paint.

Draw From The Top Of The Page Down

When figuring out how to draw without smudging, sometimes the most straightforward solutions are the best. What causes smudging? It happens when your hand, wrist, or forearm are rested on the page on top of graphite or charcoal, smudging it as you move along. You could try to draw without resting your arm on the paper, but that takes away a lot of your control.

Not only will your arm getting tired quickly, but it will also be challenging for you to maintain enough control to draw fine details. So, you need to rest your arm on the paper as you draw. But, if you worked from the top of the page down, then you wouldn't be resting your arm on anything but plain paper!

But what if you're the kind of artist that likes to sketch everything out before you start any rendering? That's no problem. Here's what you do, go ahead and sketch out your entire drawing, but do it using a harder lead and putting down lighter amounts of graphite or charcoal. Then, once you have your initial sketch down, use a workable fixative on it. 

As long as you don't have a lot of graphite or charcoal on the paper, the workable fixative should be more than sufficient for keeping it from smudging while you start to render the drawing. You should still be careful when working on your drawing since smudging is still possible with workable fixative, but you shouldn't run into any problems as long as you work from the top down.

Rest Your Hand On A Tissue

If you're looking for another simple, low-tech method to keep your drawings from smudging while you work on them, try using a tissue to rest your hand on. You can use a tissue or even a regular piece of paper to rest your hand on to prevent your hands movements from smudging your drawing. The key to getting this to work is to ensure that the tissue or paper does not move once you have it set down on your drawing. If the paper moves, it will have the same kind of effect that your hand moving on the paper would have had.

When using a tissue or a paper to rest your hand on, don't be alarmed if you see graphite or charcoal sticking to it. This is normal and shouldn't affect your drawing. If it does remove a little of the graphite or charcoal, you can always go back and tighten the drawing up later. 

Perhaps the best way to use a tissue or paper to rest your hand on to prevent smudging your drawing is to use it in conjunction with a workable fixative. Workable fixative doesn't prevent all smudges. If it did, then it would be permanent fixative instead of workable fixative. Working with a tissue or paper under your hand to prevent smudging is imperfect as well. If you combine these two methods, you can almost guarantee that you won't have any unwanted smudging when you are drawing.

Move Your Drawing Paper Around

Many artists make a common mistake when working on a drawing is forgetting that nothing is preventing them from moving the paper around while they work. Unless, of course, the paper has been taped to the table. If you're the type of artist that likes a nice crisp border around your drawing, securing it with tape to your table is an easy way to accomplish this. 

But, the drawback of doing this is that your paper is now stuck in a stationary position. That means that instead of moving your paper around to get to different parts of your drawing, you'll have to move around instead. That's when smudges happen.

What can you do to correct this problem? If you want to tape your drawing down to keep the paper from moving when you don't want it to provide a nice clean border, then tape your drawing down. But instead of taping your drawing down to a table or desk, tape it down to a drawing board. If you don't have a drawing board, it's no problem; you can tape it down to a piece of cardboard or Gto any other type of solid, flat surface. You are giving you the benefit of a secure paper and a clean border while still maintaining the flexibility to move your drawing around as needed while you work on it.

Moving your paper around while you work on your drawing gives you a lot of flexibility. You can jump from one part of your drawing to another and move around frequently, helping to keep things fresh and exciting. One thing to keep in mind about moving your paper around is that this doesn't have to be a mutually exclusive method for preventing smudging. In other words, feel free to incorporate a workable fixative and a tissue to rest your hand on as well. In the battle to prevent your drawing's smudging, you have to do anything you can to maintain the upper hand.

Wash Your Hands Frequently

This might seem like a straightforward concept, but many artists end up smudging their drawings because their hands are dirty. When you work with either graphite or charcoal, you're going to pick up some of it while you're working. It's virtually impossible not to. Once that charcoal or graphite is stuck on your hand, you may unwittingly smear it across other parts of your drawing. When this happens, it's much worse than merely smudging your drawing because now you're adding more pigment to the paper and smudging it.

Solution number one: Make sure that you are continually checking your hands for any graphite or charcoal that could stick to them. It can be a little annoying having to do this, but it's not going to be anywhere near as annoying as accidentally smudging and ruining your drawing. It's also going to be challenging to get in the habit of doing this. But, once it becomes a habit, you'll be grateful for it since it will help to prevent you from accidentally messing up your drawings.

The most obvious way to clean your hands is to get up, walk to a sink, and wash them frequently. It's easy, doesn't take a lot of time, and it can help to keep you from ruining a lot of hard work by accidentally smudging your drawing. While this is simple enough to do, the truth is that most of us don't want to get up and walk over to a sink regularly while we're working on a drawing. A simple solution here would be to get some baby wipes and keep them handy. Then you can take one out whenever you notice your hands are getting dirty, clean them up, then get back to work.

How To Stop Charcoal Drawings From Smudging?

Every artist knows that graphite smudges. But, when it comes to drawing mediums that smudge, nothing comes close to charcoal. Charcoal is fantastic because it allows you to create deep, dark blacks while also blending your drawings and producing a fantastic range of values. Unfortunately, that same ability to be blended also makes charcoal a medium that tends to smudge quite easily. Does this mean that you should avoid using charcoal? Of course not. It just means that all of the techniques you use when working with graphite to prevent smudging will have to be taken to another level when working with charcoal.

The first step in avoiding smudging when working with charcoal is to choose an appropriate surface to draw on. Graphite can be used very quickly on smooth and rough surfaces, but charcoal doesn't do well on smooth surfaces. Is it possible to work on a smooth surface with charcoal? It is, but it's far more challenging to prevent smudging. Charcoal is easier to control and generally works better on a surface that has more tooth. In fact, the charcoal paper is specifically manufactured to provide charcoal with the tooth that it needs. Other types of paper you might want to try using include cold-press watercolor paper, sandpaper, pastel paper, and rough drawing paper.

The next thing that you'll need to do when working with charcoal is to become quite liberal in your use of workable fixative. Workable fixative won't prevent all smudging, but it's kind of like a safety net used by a high wire walker. The high wire walker doesn't want to fall into the safety net, but you can bet that they're happy that it's there. Workable fixative should be used in the same manner for charcoal. It won't prevent all smudges, but it can help to prevent some of them. Using it with other techniques and equipment can help you keep your charcoal drawings from becoming a smeared mess.

What other techniques should you be using to prevent smudging when working with charcoal. Everything that you use to keep graphite from smudging can be used for charcoal. You can move the paper around to keep your arm from resting on it, and you can always try to work from the top down. Using a tissue paper or scrap paper to rest your hand on is always an option since you should always have scrap paper lying around.

Learn To Exploit The Blendability Of Graphite And Charcoal Instead Of Letting It Ruin Your Drawings

Both graphite and charcoal can be blended, allowing artists to create a wide range of values that blend seamlessly into one another. There aren't many mediums that offer the versatility and ease of use that graphite and charcoal boast, which is a big reason they are so popular. Most artists start out using graphite, and many artists decide to stick to graphite due to their familiarity with it and how simple it is to use. Many other artists start to branch out and end up coming across charcoal and stick to it for many of the same reasons they loved working with graphite.

Unfortunately, the very attribute that makes graphite and charcoal popular can also make it very challenging to work with. While you can blend both of these mediums to achieve some fantastic effects, you could accidentally smudge them quite easily as well. Can this be frustrating? Absolutely. Does getting frustrated help you to solve the problem? Not at all. That's why you're far better served to spend your time learning different techniques for preventing the problem. You'll run into some bumps in the road, and some of the lessons may be painful and frustrating. But the good news is that learning how to draw without smudging is possible, and once you do it, you should be able to create detailed graphite and charcoal drawings without having to worry about them becoming a smudgy mess.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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