Graphite Drawing Pencils 101
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
What makes drawing pencils different from regular pencils? How do I know whether I should use a 3H or a 6B, and what's the difference? These are some of the questions I will be answering in this post about how to use drawing pencils to draw like an artist.
In this post we will discuss:
The Background of the Drawing Pencil
Pencils are great. They are probably the simplest tool available. They don't require an operator's manual or an exorbitant amount of cash to purchase. They are intuitive to use— a refreshing difference from many of the ever-changing tech tools surrounding us. Even toddlers instinctively know how to use them, as your construction paper, walls, and books can attest. If you are a human being, chances are you have used a pencil yourself. But have you ever wondered how they came to be?
Firstly, the word pencil comes from the latin word, peniculus, which means "brush." It's difficult to say how long the pencil has been around because few people thought to save one before it was all used up, but it's believed artists have been using the pencil since the Renaissance, although charcoal was the more commonly used medium for drawings. Because drawings were considered temporary and as a means to an end for painting, few cartoons (the preparatory drawings for a painting) exist, and even fewer in pencil.
By the 19th century pencils had become quite common, with artists such as Jean August Dominque Ingres and John Singer Sargent being frequent pencil users. Nowadays it is second nature for professional artists to not only use the pencil as part of their process, but also to sell finished work done solely with this little wooden stick.
What the Heck Does 4H Mean?
If you've ever picked up a set of drawing pencils, you may have noticed that each pencil has a different number and letter stamped on the side of it. So what do they mean? Simplistically, they refer to how hard or soft the core of the pencil is. Rather than actual lead, the pencil is composed of graphite, a naturally shiny mineral that gives off a grayish sheen when rubbed. When making the core of a drawing pencil, manufacturers combine graphite with clay and water. The higher the clay content, the lighter (H) the pencil will be. The lower the clay content, the blacker (B) the pencil will draw. The H on your pencil stands for Hard and will produce increasingly lighter marks the higher the number is. The B on your pencil stands for Black and produces increasingly darker marks the higher its number is. For example, a 5H will produce a lighter mark than a 2H, which in turn produces a lighter mark than a 2B. The F pencil stands for Fine and is meant to produce a thin line of medium value. HB pencils contain 50/50 graphite to clay content and are therefore the middle value pencil between H pencils and B-range pencils. Polymer or wax is sometimes used instead of clay, so if you see a pencil advertised as "Polymer blend," it means polymer is being used as a substitute for clay.
How Do I Decide Which Pencil To Use?
Quick answer: use the hardest pencil to fit your needs.
Longer answer: it depends on your taste and tendencies.
If you're new to drawing, having so many pencils to choose from can be a bit daunting. To make your choice even harder, there is no industry standard for pencil softness; the same numbered pencil among different brands can vary wildly. It's best to pick a brand and stick with it, then find a pencil that best fits your needs.
You can create the whole gamut of values with the same pencil. To illustrate this, I stretched each pencil to its value limits in the value scale below. Note the range of values within the same pencil. Also note the differences in texture between the H's and the B's. The top row shows the value achieved with medium pressure for each pencil. Anybody else see how my Derwent 7H pencil is naturally darker than my 5H? See, even within the same brand, there are hardness inconsistencies.
Some questions to ask yourself are:
Which pencil hardness is closest to the value I wish to achieve?
How much paper texture do I want to see?
Do I tend to have a heavy hand or a lighter touch?
Which pencil 'feels nicest' to me?
SOFT PENCILS (B's) PROS
SOFT PENCILS CONS
easier to make a mark
harder to erase said mark
take less time to make something dark
pencils dull more quickly
less strain on your hand
get unruly for a heavy-handed artist
create nice blacks
blacks accompanied by more shine
show off paper texture more
show off paper texture more
HARD PENCILS (H's) PROS
HARD PENCILS CONS
easier to erase
harder to make a visible mark
pencils stay sharp longer
yeah, because it takes ages to build up dark values
crisp and easy to control
susceptible to line 'trenches' in the paper from too much pressure
layer more matte
tend to be a bit grainy
lay down evenly and fill tooth of paper better
hides tooth of paper
If you want step-by-step practical advice, here's my method:
1) Block in with a 4H
I try to block in my drawing with the lightest pencil I can comfortably see. This lets me compose the placement of my subject and allows me to make adjustments with my eraser with ease.
2) Refine Shapes with a 2H
2H is the light power horse of pencils. It's easy to see and fairly easy to erase. Doing the next pass with a slightly darker pencil allows me to assert more accurate lines without the need to erase my 4H guidelines.
3) Define Lines with a 2B
Once I am confident of my lines, I add definition and flare to my strokes with a 2B. Once again, these darker lines remove the necessity of erasing my 2H lines.
4) Using a Range of Values, Shade
I'll start shading with my 2B. If it's too dark, I find a harder pencil. If it just can't quite get dark enough, I grab a softer pencil. Trust me, this becomes intuitive. If you're unsure, make a value scale of your range of pencils using medium pressure. This scale will help you determine which pencil will accomplish the value required best. Try to shade with a comfortable pressure. This will put less wear and tear on your tendons and make shading more enjoyable. If your pencil isn't getting the job done, switch it out for a more suitable hardness.
5) Polish off Lines with a 4B as Needed
Anywhere that needs an extra punch of contrasts gets the 4B treatment. I rarely go darker than that.
Here's the bottom line: It's certainly no science. The best way to determine which pencil is best is to experiment for yourself. Now, go out there and sketch, sketch sketch!
Different Pencil Manufacturers
Caran d'Ache Grafwood Pencils
founded in Geneva 1915
Caran d'ache means pencil in Russian
larger casing than most others so might not fit in your standard pencil sharpener
outside painted lighter or darker grey, depending on pencil grade-- makes it easier to locate desired pencil
super smooth lay down
4H to 9B range
$3.80/pencil at DickBlick
**My preference-- they're pencils that reassure you as you use them, worth the money
General's Kimberly Pencils
Made in USA
founded in 1860, called General Pencil Company since 1923
non-porous Ceylon graphite
9H to 9B (which are inexplicably calling 9XXB)
$1.07 /pencil at DickBlick
Note: The 9XXB is twice as much as the others. I have no idea why.
*My second choice-- They're green; they lay down fairly smoothly; and they're a good price.
Derwent Graphic Pencils
made in Keswick, Cumberland Valley, England since, reportedly, 1832
9H to 9B range
$1.29/ pencil at Jerry's Artarama and DickBlick
These are the pencils I started with. I find they have grainy bits in them sometimes. Not my favorite but more favorite than Staedtler, for some reason. It's probably because I've used them more, and Staedtler's was the 'common' pencil at my art school. Prejudiced am I? Maybe.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100
founder: Friedrich Staedtler recorded as making pencils in Nuremburg as early as 1662
$1.78 a pencil at DickBlick
not my favorite. I don't have an articulate reason, but my gut reaction when working is to pass over them, so there must be some reason. I'm not crazy; studies have shown that your brain can pick up on patterns before your brain can tell you why. Go look it up. :)
Pentel Super Hi-Polymer Lead in Pentel GraphGear 500 Mechanical Drafting Pencil
founded in Tokyo by Yukio Horie just after WWII
6H to 4B range
lead diameters from .2 mm to .9 mm, with different-colored pencils for the different lead thicknesses
Can get drafting pencil for $7.50 at Pentel or for $5.70 at DickBlick
lead refills from $1.25-$2.50, depending on hardness and diameter, at DickBlick
I use 2H and 2B almost exclusively for finished line drawings for paintings. These leads rarely break, never need sharpening, and are super smooth. I highly recommend them.
If you're looking for a decent pencil without paying a professional drawing pencils price, I would recommend the Dixon Ticonderoga line. It's a fairly decent pencil if you don't need to go too dark or too light. As I've demonstrated, you can get a surprising range of values from one lone pencil.
cedar wood casing, graphite & clay core
founded 1827 in Salem, Mass, mass-production began in 1872
2H to B range
you can get a 4-pack to a 96-pack on their website here
Sharpening your Pencils
Best pencil sharpener I've found is the AFMAT long point electric pencil sharpener. It is a cordless
rechargeable upright sharpener that makes super long sharpened points. What I love about this thing is that, unlike with my old one where it would sharpen until the cows come home and you've got nothing left but a little stub, this sharpener automatically stops when your pencil is at the optimal sharpen level, which you can adjust to fit your point preference. I also don't have to turn my pencil in my fingers while the blades are working. (Maybe most sharpeners don't require this, but again, my old one did. Annoying, right?) It has two-sizes of holes in the top, so you can sharpen your Derwents and your Caran d'Aches with the same snazzy sharpener. You can get one for $40 on their website here
I am also hearing good things about the Staedtler Mars Lead Pointer. It sharpens via a rotary method-- no power source needed except elbow grease. It takes a bit practice to learn how to use effectively and can be a bit dusty if taken on the go, but at $10.40, it's not a bad option. You can get it at DickBlick