What is a Blending Stump or Tortillon?

A Terrific Tool for Precise Blending on Your Drawings

Artist's hand and sketch.
Craig Cozart / Getty Images

What tool are you using to blend pencil or charcoal drawings? Your finger? A raggedy old cloth? If you have not added a blending stump, or tortillon, to your art supplies, you might want to consider it.

This small roll of tightly twisted paper is preferred by artists for precise blending. It gives you more control of your drawing and allows you to soften lines or smudge shaded areas as you see fit. The tortillon is a very handy tool, so let's get a few tips for choosing and using one.

What is a Blending Stump?

A blending stump is commonly referred to as a tortillon (pronounced tor-ti-yon). This is a drawing tool made from tightly rolled or twisted paper. Commercially sold blending stumps are often shaped directly from paper pulp with a point at each end.

The name 'tortillon' comes from the French "tortiller," meaning "something twisted." They may also be referred to as torchons, which is actually French for "cloth" or "dishrag." 

How to Use a Tortillon

Artists use tortillons to blend and smudge pencil and charcoal on paper. You can hold it like a pencil, charcoal, or pastel, whatever is most comfortable.

Blending stumps tend to be used a bit too often in realist drawing. The tortillon's paper fibers drag graphite across and into the surface of the paper. This creates a fine but even layer of graphite with no white paper left to reflect light. This can make the surface very dull.

  • It is useful when creating illusions of texture, such as velvet. Be aware that going too far can easily make a drawing look lifeless.
  • Blending stumps are very useful when creating graduated highlights in textures such as hair. This allows the artist to blend, then sharpen the drawing with a pencil line and erased highlights.

After blending, you will notice that your tortillon becomes 'dirty.' This occurs naturally because it's picking up particles from your drawing. To clean it, use a sandpaper sharpener (or pointer) designed for pencils and similar art supplies. A scrap of standard sandpaper or a nail file works as well.

Buy vs DIY

You can generally purchase tortillons from art supply stores. They are sold individually or in sets and range in size from 3/16 to 5/16 of an inch at the tip. Most tortillons are about 5 inches long and this allows for a good grip.

Tip: You might also find tortillons sold in a set along with other basic drawing tools like kneaded erasers, chamois, and erasing shields. This can be a great option for the beginner because it allows you to practice with a variety of tools at a reasonable price. You can always upgrade later if you find something very useful in your work.

It's very easy to make your own tortillon. It's as simple as rolling up a tube of blank copy paper and creating points at the ends. Some artists have perfected the DIY tortillon and cut a specific shape from a sheet before rolling the tube. You will find many variations by doing a search for 'DIY tortillon.'

Make-up applicators and cotton swabs can also be used as alternatives, but results vary according to the absorbency of the chosen material. You can also try wrapping a piece of rag or scrap fabric over a stick, knitting needle, or dowl.

A piece of rag or scrap fabric wrapped over the finger is often used to create the same blending effects. The drawback is that a fingertip is far less precise than a pointed tortillon.