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Stippling: a beginner’s step-by-step guide

Stippling can be used to create interesting effects – and it's a lot easier than you might think! Have a go at stippling with our simple step-by-step drawing guide


If you’ve heard of the art technique stippling, but you don’t know what it means, don’t worry: there’s a lot of confusion around the term.

Stippling is a mark-making technique that is primarily a drawing technique, but it’s one that can be employed in painting too.

It gets confused a lot with a painting style used by certain Impressionist artists called Pointillism, but this (more on this later in the article) – but the two methods are different.

Stippling can produce gorgeous drawings that create a shimmering, optical effect, and it’s perfect for describing light and shadow.

It’s a type of drawing that takes time and patience, but is far less complex than it looks and is something completely open to beginners.

Keen to get started? Read on: in this article, I’m going to talk you through the essentials of stippling, along with a step-by-step tutorial to help you get started.

What is stippling?

Stippling has its roots in Renaissance printmaking. During this time, artists found a way of suggesting tones of light and dark by using tiny little lines and dots.

This is the key to stippling: fundamentally, you’re using line to create the visual effects of value. By value, I mean degrees of lightness and darkness.

One simple way to get used to this idea is by creating a value scale. In the picture below, I drew three different scales using pencil, marker pen and stippling.

In each value scale, I created darker values using the same method: by applying one layer of the medium on top of the other. In this case of stippling, this simply means the dots get more dense and built-up.

Stippling drawing vs painting

Stippling is essentially a type of linear drawing, but it’s one that touches upon a painterly method called Pointillism.

Pointillism was an innovative style of painting developed in nineteenth-century France by a group of Impressionists, including Camille Pissaro and Georges Seurat.

Building upon colour theories developed by scientists of the day, these pioneering artists discovered that apply discrete but evenly distributed dabs of colour would create an optical effect that made their paintings appear to shimmer with light.

These could be mixed optically – so by overlapping dabs of red painting and yellow painting would produce an orange effect.

This is a thrilling technique to explore – but is the subject of another article entirely. My advice is to start with some stippled monochrome drawing before moving on to complex, colour-filled work.

Tips for stippling

  1. Keep your marks steady, light and regular. Don’t fall into the trap of impatiently dabbing randomly: your marks will appear messy and you’ll lose the optical effect that makes stippling so unique.
  2. Be patient. The tutorial below took me a good eight hours. Stippling is a marathon, not a sprint! Take tea breaks if your hand starts to ache (like mine did), and your concentration wanes.
  3. Don’t draw any outlines, except in pencil. You’ll also be tempted to trace around the edges of your subject, but this undermines the nature of stippling and the finished result won’t look as good. If you need to, draw dotted lines instead, as I do below.
  4. Stippling is an additive process. This means you can only darken – like watercolour painting, there’s no way of making areas any brighter once you’ve applied your marks.
  5. Work small. Unless you have an ambitious artwork in mind and you’re in for the long haul, keep your stippled artwork small in scale. Mine is A4 in size.
  6. Distinguish between edges and gradients.
  7. Your subject will have some hard edges, and some soft transitions of light. In the two value scales below, you can see how I’ve created a card edge, and a subtle gradient.

Equipment need for stippling

The tools and materials you’ll need for stippling are very basic, and you can pick them up online, or from an art or stationery store.

  • Any lightweight paper of your choice. For my demo, I used some pastel paper, simply for a bit of extra colour.
  • A hard pencil such as an HB, H or 2H. Don’t use anything softer, as you will smudge the drawing as you work.
  • A pencil eraser to remove your drawing at the very end.
  • A marker for your stippling. There are lots of great choices out there – for example, you’ll find ultra-fine markers in the Sakura Pigma Micron range, which are perfect for delicate drawing such as this. I recommend finding something that’s fairly inexpressive, and will produce uniform marks – I used the finer end of an N45 Tombow Dual Brush marker.

Here are some products which we’d recommend and where to buy them:

Derwent Graphic drawing pencils

If you’re used to sketching using a pencil, you may already have a set of drawing pencils. However, stippling is different to other drawing techniques because you need to use a pencil with a firmer nib. You can use softer pencils for this, but your dots won’t be as precise. Your pencil marks may smudge if you’re using a softer nib too. For this reason, we’d recommend buying a set of graphic pencils such as the Derwent Graphic B-9H pack. These pencils have been created with graphic designers and illustrators in mind and they are a good choice for stippling.

Sakura Pigma Micron range

The Sakura Pigma Micron range is perfect for stippling. These pens are specifically designed for drawing fine lines and other intricate details. The fineliner pens are lightfast, so they won’t fade when exposed to natural light. They’re also designed not to bleed through paper, which is very useful! This Sakura Pigma Micron pen set includes three pens: two fineliners (0.1mm and 0.5mm) and one wider brush pen. These pens are also brilliant for any illustration projects you might be working on, as they allow you to draw precise lines.

N45 Tombow Dual Brush marker

The N45 Tombow dual brush marker is widely used for calligraphy and brush lettering, but it’s a great choice for stippling too. It has dual tips – a finer tip on one end and wider brush tip on the other. The fine tip is ideal for stippling and you could use the other end to experiment with different mark making techniques. The ink is water-based, so it’s odourless. It’s also water soluble, so you could also blend the marks with a wet paintbrush to create some interesting effects. Bear in mind that this ink is not lightfast and may fade if you display it on your wall.

Winsor & Newton Designer gouache

If you do want to try out stippling painting in wet media, my advice is to use Winsor & Newton Designer Gouache applied with a thin miniature brush. Gouache is a fast-drying medium that dries to a flat, opaque finish. Thin the paint to a milk-like consistency with water and try to keep your hand out of any wet areas of painting. This is a great paint set to buy if you want to get into gouache painting. The set includes a range of vibrant colours for you to experiment with. You can also buy individual tubes of gouache paint separately if you need to. If you’re looking for more recommended paint sets, take a look at our guide to help you find the best gouache paint set.


You Will Need

  • Lightweight paper
  • A hard pencil, HB, H or 2H
  • Pencil eraser
  • Marker, ultra-fine if possible
  • Gouache paints, optional

Total time:

Step 1

Start by choosing your subject matter. Choose a reference subject that’s simple, but offers you a wide range of values. Don’t choose anything too complex – now is not the time to attempt that family portrait you’ve been thinking about.

Fruits have been used in still life art for centuries, so I decided to take a photograph of an apple on a tabletop on my smartphone. Then, using the editing tool, I removed the colour from the image.

This produces an image that only has light and dark values, which is exactly what you’re trying to replicate in stippling.

Monochrome apple photo

Step 2

Before you start stippling, draw a thumbnail sketch of your subject in either pencil or marker pen.

I decided to do two thumbnail drawings: one with a 2B pencil, one with the brush end of a Tombow marker pen.

Both do a perfectly fine job, but I prefer the simplified results of the marker drawing. Only four values are used, but they’re enough to communicate the image of the apple.

Don’t skip this step: it will help you get a visual grasp of the values in your subject: its brightest areas (the top crest of the apple) to its darkest areas (the concave area and the stalk).

If you can get this preparatory drawing right, you can enter your stippling process with maximum confidence. A final word of warning: this is going to take you a while.

Stippling thumbnail drawings

Step 3

Unless you are an absolute maestro at drawing, you should definitely draw out your subject in pencil before you start.

This is like the scaffolding on which you build your stippled drawing, so work carefully and precisely. This layer of drawing will be erased at the very end of the process.

In my drawing, I didn’t just draw out the apple but the edges of the shadow it cast, along with the pool of shadow behind it.

However, these lines are only place holders – they roughly indicate the soft, fuzzy transitions of the shadows.

Stippling step one

Step 4

And we’re off! I’m describing this initial round of stippling as the ‘blanket layer’: a basic layer that you will throw across, most likely, the majority of the surface of the drawing.

Here, you can see I’ve applied it everywhere except for the upper dome and right-hand side of the apple, since these are the brightest areas in the reference photo.

Brace yourself: at this stage in the drawing, you’ll feel like you’re at the start of a very long race. But be patient, and keep your stippled dots as neat and uniform as possible.

Stippling step two

Step 5

In this second layer, we’re going to build up the drawing by adding a layer of midtones – across the apple, the cast shadow and the rear shadow.

To do this well, search for the empty gaps between your first layer of dots. Apply your second round of dabs neatly and carefully.

Don’t panic: as the drawing progresses, you can start to work more quickly.

If you need to, draw dotted lines around the edges of your subject to fix it in places. But don’t draw any solid lines: that’s cheating!

Stippling step three

Step 6

Now look for your darkest tones, and focus on applying your marks here.

For my picture, that’s concave hollow in the apple, and the stalk. I’m not staying 100% faithful to the photo – instead, I’m tweaking the shadows for an extra sense of design.

By now you’ve probably noticed that if you darken one area of your image, you’ll need to darken another. That’s because value is relative, and changing one area will have an effect on another.

Remember, once a layer of stippled tone has been added, it can’t be removed, so if you darken one area, you’ll probably need to darken another.

Stippling step four

Step 7

Thought your drawing was complete? Wrong!

By now you’ll have a fully-formed image, but it’s highly likely you’ll need to go in and darken specific areas for extra detail.

At this stage, you’ll be able to work more intuitively. Keep stopping to assess your picture in relation to the reference subject. Are the values correct? Do certain areas need darkening in value?

For me, this meant adding extra layers to the stalk and top of the apple, and making the edges of the shadows less hard-edged.

Also, I had to add a very careful spattering of stippled marks to the brightest area of the apple, just to darken it ever so slightly.

It’s up to you how many extra layers you add to make your picture darker and heavier. Personally, I liked the airiness of my drawing, so I decided to stop at this stage.

Stippling step five

Step 8

Well done: your stippling drawing is complete.

Actually, you’ve still got one final but very satisfying stage in the process, which is erasing the pencil underdrawing.

When you do this, your artwork will appear brighter, lighter and as if it’s been filled with fresh air.

A word of caution though: if you’ve done your drawing with ink or a ballpoint pen, leave it to dry for an hour. You don’t want to spoil your art by smudging wet ink while you’re erasing.

I hope I’ve shown you how stippling isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might first look – providing you have an understanding of values, and you’re willing to put aside a few hours (possibly with an aching hand at the end), you can produce some absolutely wonderful results.

After this, why not experiment on different coloured papers with different colour pens or paints? You could even apply light colours on a dark surface to produce an image in negative.

Stippling step five

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning this fun art technique! Have a go at using stippling to create your own stunning artwork. Looking for more drawing ideas? Learn how to draw a horse, how to draw a bird or how to draw a tree.

Stippling – finished drawing