How to Stop Your Drawings From Smudging

How to prevent your drawing from smudging header image. A drawing with various pencils and a sheet of tracing paper.

Believe it or not, this is one of the most common questions I’m asked. There are 5 obvious ways to stop your pencils from smudging. They are as follows:

Place some paper between your hand and the drawing surface. Cut a hole in some cellophane and place it over the drawing, then draw through it. Rest your hand on a (mahl) stick away from the surface as you draw. Use a fixative to seal the drawing surface after you’ve finished, and finally, always make sure your hands are clean.

We will cover all the methods, the best erasers, and explore the use of fixative sprays. Let’s crack on.

Stop Your Drawing From Smudging – best practice

The only surefire way to stop your drawing from smudging is to not touch the surface of the paper in the first place. 

Don’t fool yourself that if you are very careful that all will be well. Sometimes the smudging is so subtle that you don’t always notice it’s happening.

To check for damage, take an eraser and rub the paper where your hand has been resting. You’ll see the results immediately. Even the mildest grey will dull the ‘life’ out of the paper.

Further Reading: Repair Damaged Drawing Paper – 8 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork

It’s all a matter of habit. Get into the mindset of protecting the surface every time you work. Laziness is your number one enemy.

Place Some Paper Under Your Hand to Stop Your Drawing from Smudging

The classic way to guard against smudging is to place a piece of CLEAN paper under your hand while you draw.

Use a plain smooth paper, photocopy paper will do, or some tracing paper. Avoid creased or heavily textured paper, they don’t work so well.

Further Reading: My Kit List: Tried and Tested

Paper guards only work if you are careful enough to keep the paper dead still. If all you do is rub the paper over the surface instead of your hand you won’t achieve very much.

Flip the paper guard over now and again and see if any graphite has ‘lifted’. This method is far from foolproof, for it to work the paper must stay perfectly still.

Get into the habit of holding the paper guard in place with your free hand at all times. You might even consider securing the edges with low-tack acid-free masking tape to keep it in place.

Use a Mahlstick, or Rod, as a Support to Stop Your Drawing From Smudging

What the hell’s a Mahlstick? Well, it’s an old-fashioned word for a stick with a cloth or leather ball at one end. The old masters used them to lay across their paintings to support the hand.

You can buy them if you like buying all the kit. They aren’t cheap. This links to Amazon

You don’t need to go that far. You can use a length of dowel with a rubber ‘bung’ on the end. For extra peace of mind, you could tie some cloth around the end too.

a homemade mahl stick. An artists hand support used to avoid smudging the artwork
Homemade Mahl Stick. Dowel with a rubber walking stick ferrule

The advantage of having a soft tip becomes more obvious if you ever drop the stick. I’ve had a few near misses when I’ve let my ruler slip. 

I’ve seen some artists use a stick tied to the easel to keep it safe and handy.

Alternatively do as I do and just use a very long ruler.

I use a support only when I draw upright from an easel. It prevents me from smudging my drawing completely. On a flat surface, I wouldn’t bother, I lean on my left hand instead.

Use Cellophane to Protect Your Drawing From Smudging

I use cellophane to protect my work more than anything else. I buy A3 self-sealing cello’ bags, the same type you see displaying greetings cards, except much larger. 

I pop my sketch in, seal it and tape it to my drawing board. Then I tear a hole where I want to draw. 

Kevin Hayler drawing through a hole in the cellophane to prevent it from smudging
If you work outside you must take extra care

Not only can I rest my hand at will, but I can see the rest of the drawing at all times. I can also draw outdoors without worrying that my work will get spoilt.

You may be wondering what can go wrong outside? Birds for one thing! I’ve been hit many times and if it’s a seagull you’re in trouble!

Insects are the next problem. I’ve squashed countless bugs on my paper without thinking.

But the most baffling reason I like to have a cellophane wrapper is to guard against stray fingers. For some reason, the first instinct of many people is to touch the surface, rub it and look at their finger.

Before I discovered the cellophane, it used to drive me mad!

When I finish drawing in one area, I tear out a larger hole or use a new bag and start afresh.

I realize this won’t work unless you have a slower meticulous style like mine but the advantages outdoors are huge.

Now that’s how you stop your drawings from smudging as you work, so how do you repair pencil smudges?

How Do You Erase Pencil Smudges Safely?

You would think that rubbing out would be self-explanatory, but nothing is as simple as it sounds. There are many kinds of erasers and they’re used for different reasons.

A kneadable eraser is the most practical eraser for cleaning purposes. They remove the marks without ruining the paper surface and leave fewer crumbs behind. 

NB: Be careful blowing the dust away, you might spray spittle!

I often use a fan blending brush to flick the bits away. It works well with hard pencils but will smear very soft graphite, so be aware.

Blu-Tak kneads to the finest point and can lift off graphite with precision. If you have smudged some detail that can’t be redrawn, use Blu-Tak to dab the paper. You’ll be amazed.

Various erasers needed to correct drawing mistakes
The best erasers

Plastic erasers clean the paper but use them with caution. They are useful for erasing dark graphite but it’s way too easy to overdo it and buckle the paper. Hold one side of the paper and rub away from you. 

Rubber erasers are softer than plastic ones but crumble more.

Eraser pens are plastic but great for precision line work.

Battery erasers are fantastic for insanely detailed work. If you lose the sparkle in the eye and want to recover the white paper. Use this tool.

Make sure you have a clean eraser before rubbing. Dirty erasers leave heavy oily smears and they never come out. I always clean my erasers by rubbing them on my trousers before I use them. After all these years I do it automatically.

Use a Fixative, but Does It Really Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging?

Personally, I don’t fix my graphite drawings. I can’t see the point. 

A light spray doesn’t work that well, especially with charcoal and pastel, and heavy sprays change the tonal values. And there’s always the chance of getting random blobs of varnish on the paper.

Further Reading: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster

It’s a gamble. One I don’t like taking. Besides, it’s used mainly to fix the artwork prior to framing, and if you’re going to frame your work there’s no need to spray it in the first place. Graphite is as permanent as any medium can be. It will outlive your paper. Fading is not an issue.

The only time I’ve ever used fixative regularly was when I fixed chalk pastel to fix a layer before applying more color. Even then I never sprayed a final coat.

As for using hair spray, WHAT? ARE YOU CRAZY? If you want to fix some throw-away sketches, fine, but why would anyone spray hair lacquer over artwork that has value? Heaven knows what the chemicals would do to the paper in the long term.

Respected brands make fixative that’s archival, stable, and sprays evenly. Yes, it costs more but the price per drawing is pennies.

Finally, Clean Your Hands

It’s a bit cheeky including this one but it’s amazing how lazy we get. I end up using my fingers a great deal and it’s all very well smudging deliberately but intensely annoying when you leave a dirty great fingerprint behind just because you didn’t wipe your hands. 

Keep a cloth or wet wipes handy and keep your hands nice and clean. It’s a good habit.

Conclusion

Make your drawing routine habit-forming. The more actions you take on auto-pilot the easier it will be to keep your artwork clean and fresh. 

It’s far better to stop your drawing from smudging than it is to backtrack and rescue your work. 


I hope this article has been helpful. If so you might like to read these:


Keep in Touch

* indicates required

PIN IT AND SAVE IT

How to prevent your drawings from smudging. Cheetah drawing and pencils for pinterest