Not all pencils are alike. The regular, everyday HB or #2 pencil is not the ideal pencil to complete a fine art drawing. It works fine to start off learning to sketch, but eventually you will want pencils that give you fine lines and dark shading. Below I explain the different grades of graphite pencils and review some of the best pencils for graphite drawing.
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Graphite Drawing Pencils
Graphite pencils are composed of a mixture of graphite and clay encased in a lacquered wood casing (usually cedar). You can also buy wood-less pencils which are graphite and clay coated with lacquer to keep your fingers clean.
Most manufacturers outside of the US use the HB scale to grade pencils. H represents the hardness of the pencil while B represents the blackness of the pencil.
Manufacturers also include numbers with the letters. A 9H would be the hardest and give you the lightest stroke. A 9B would be the softest and give you the darkest stroke.
F is a balance between soft and hard while HB is equivalent to your average #2 writing pencil.
Since there are no set international standards for pencil grades, there will be a slight variation between the different brands depending on which country they were manufactured in.
H and B Grades of Graphite Pencils
The H grades of graphite pencils contain a higher proportion of clay and make lighter marks. They stay sharp longer and can be sharpened to a finer point. A light hand is recommended since it is easier to scratch your drawing paper with these pencils, . The H grades are excellent for making very fine lines or light sketches, but they are difficult to erase completely from the paper.
The B grades of pencils have more graphite, therefore they are softer and make darker marks. They are much easier to blend because of their softness. B grade pencils are smooth and perfect for making dark shadows. They are easier to erase than the H pencils but they are also easier to smudge.
Pencil grades vary slightly among manufacturers, so you may get a slightly lighter or darker mark with the same number pencil from different brands. Over time you will mix and match your own set that you are comfortable with.
Comparing Graphite Drawing Pencils
There are many, many drawing pencils on the market. I have reviewed just a few of the more popular, professional brands below. It takes a bit of experimenting to find the brand or brands you like. These are just some general observations to get you started.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph
My favourite pencils to use and the favourite of many artists. They are well constructed and don’t break easily. Mars Lumograph come in a full range of grades from 9H to 9B.
Staedtler also manufactures a Mars Lumograph Black pencil in a limited range of 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. They are excellent for getting very dark shadows and backgrounds.
Staedtler graphite pencils are moderately priced and readily available. They can be purchased in sets of various sizes or individually as needed.
Derwent Graphic and Drawing Sets
A good set of pencils that come in a full range of grades. They are slightly thicker than most drawing pencils so it can be hard to get a fine line.
Their older sets tended to be a little inconsistent with the quality of the graphite, but Derwent seems to have solved that problem in their newer pencils.
Derwent drawing pencils can be purchased in soft, medium and hard sets as well as individually.
Faber Castell 9000
A high quality graphite pencil made in Germany. They are easy to sharpen and erase. They smudge less than other graphite pencils but are harder to blend.
Tombow Mono Professional Drawing Pencils
These Japanese made pencils are a little darker than most graphite pencils and do not smudge as easily. They come in a range of 6H -6B. This set includes the Tombow Mono eraser which is a pencil like eraser great for erasing fine lines for hair and whiskers and erasing in small areas.
Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Graphite Pencils
These are beautiful pencils to work with. They are woodless and water soluble to enable you to get soft washes of graphite. They are slightly heavier than other graphite pencils and feel good in the hand.
Caran D’Ache Graphite
These are premium pencils manufactured in Switzerland. They can be very pricey but are an excellent pencil. They come color coded for easier use and lay down smooth, even strokes and layers.
A reasonably priced pencil that comes in a range of 6H to 9B. They have a hexagonal shape and give a smooth, consistent mark. Good value for your money.
This is a great set to start out with. It comes with 7 graphite pencils ranging from 6H to 8B encased in a pretty turquoise lacquer. It also includes 4 woodless graphite pencils and 3 water-soluble graphite pencils. The pencils are smooth, won’t scratch your paper and can be sharpened to a fine point. Great for fine details or smooth, broad shading.
I always like to have a good quality mechanical pencil on hand. They are good for very fine lines as well as doing initial drawings of landscapes or buildings. Some artists do all of their drawings with a mechanical pencil. It depends on how and what you draw. I have listed three that I have used below but there are many other options available.
rOtring Rapid Pro
This is a premium and pricey pencil. It is used mostly for drafting but I like to use it to get extremely fine lines. The rOtring Rapid Pro is comfortable to use and comes with a sharpener under the cap. It is a solid, well manufactured pencil with a metal body that is easy to hold.
This is an award winning pencil that is more reasonably priced. It has a 0.7mm HB lead and is comfortable to hold. It has a triangular shape and grip dots for comfort.
Staedtler Mars 780 Technical Mechanical Pencil
Lower end of the price range but not lower on quality. A very good pencil for drawing, drafting or writing. Comes with a built in sharpener. This is the mechanical pencil I use most often.
These are just a few of the many pencils available to artists. You really have to experiment with different pencils to find the ones that are right for you.
All artists draw differently. Some are more heavy handed than others. Some artists like to use just a few pencils, others like to use a complete range.
Mix and match pencils from different brands to compile a set that you are happy with.
Avoid the cheapest of pencils if you can afford to. The lower end pencils tend to break or crumble more easily and often scratch your drawing paper and leave little clumps of graphite.
It can be annoying and frustrating to have your drawing ruined by scratches or inconsistent quality of graphite.
The type of paper you use is also important. Great pencils cannot make up for bad paper. For more information on what type of paper to use, see my post on choosing the best drawing paper.
I hope this information has helped you decide which pencils to buy. If you have used a pencil that you love let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.