Best pencils for drawing and sketching

Artists pencils for drawing and sketchingThere is a huge range of pencils to choose from which can be confusing.  This post will help you cut through the confusion and let you know what the best pencils for drawing and sketching are, and how to use them.  You’ll find out why you really only need 4 pencils.

Firstly, I’ll talk about pencils in detail – so you understand exactly what is involved in selecting the best pencils for drawing and sketching, and know how to use them.
If you simply want to know what 4 pencils you need to buy – scroll to the end!

Standard range of drawing and sketching pencils
This post is about your standard Graphite drawing and sketching pencils.  Even though wood pencil fills are generally called ‘lead’ they are actually made of a mix of graphite and clay.  Pencils that make darker lines (eg: B range) have more graphite, while harder pencils (eg: H range) have more clay.

Please don’t get confused with carbon pencils, charcoal pencils, water soluble graphite pencils or the vast choice of coloured pencils available.

The standard range of sketching and drawing pencils go through 9B to 9H and F.

9B

8B

7B

6B

5B

4B

3B

2B

HB

H

2H

3H

4H

5H

6H

7H

8H

9H

F

 

What do the letters mean?

The letter ‘H’ stands for Hard, the letter ‘B’ stands for Black, and the letter ‘F’ stands for Fine.

  • H pencils have a hard lead (more clay, less graphite) and remain sharp for a long time. They don’t leave much graphite (the stuff the pencil lead is made of) on the page resulting in a very light or pale drawing.  Because they are hard they tend to dig into the paper surface making them difficult to rub out, as even if the graphite is removed with an eraser the groove they made remains behind leaving ugly indentations over your page.  These are not usually the best pencils for drawing and sketching.
  • B pencils are softer (more graphite, less clay) and tend to get blunt very quickly. This is because they are leaving behind a lot more graphite on the page, which results in a darker drawing or sketch.  You don’t need to press very hard to leave a mark which means they don’t dig into the page leaving those ugly indentations made by H pencils.  Rubbing out with an eraser is far easier as the graphite tends to sit on top of the paper surface and is generally easily removed (this is dependable on the type of paper, but I’ll talk more about this in a later post). These are generally considered the best pencils for drawing and sketching.
  • F pencils have extremely hard lead and are only occasionally found in pencil sets.
  • HB pencils sit midway and are a nice average pencil to use. This is usually your common office or school pencil.

What do the numbers mean?

The numbers indicate the hardness or softness of the pencil within their particular range.

  • The H pencil range: The 9H pencil is the hardest and H pencil is the softest.
  • The B pencil range: The 9B pencil is the softest, and the B pencil is the hardest.

This means that pencil hardness travels from the softest on the left (9B) through to the hardest on the right (9H and F). The harder a pencil is, the lighter a mark it makes. The softer a pencil is, the darker a mark it makes.

This is a vast range of pencils to worry about when doing a fairly basic task such as sketching and drawing. 
You’ll be pleased to know you can quite happily ignore most of them.

Which pencils can I ignore?

The H and F ranges of pencils are used mostly by architects and drafts people or by artist/illustrators who prefer very controlled and finely detailed drawings.  The average drawer or sketcher can ignore this range of pencils in your quest to find the best pencils for drawing and sketching.

So this already cuts down your choice of pencils by about half. 

Tones, shades, lines and the smudge factor

  • Tones or shades
    • Before being able to choose the best pencils for drawing and sketching you need to understand the tones or shades that can be created by each pencil in the range. The image on the left compares the range of tones or shades you can create with different pencils.  You will notice how the very soft 9B pencil brings out the texture of the paper and is blacker in tone, while the harder HB pencil flattens the paper texture (you have to press harder) and is more silvery grey in tone.
  • Line quality
    • Different pencils will produce different quality line. This depends on the combination of pencil manufacturer and choice of paper.  There are too many variations to even begin writing about it.  It simply takes time and experimentation to find your favourite combinations.  The image on the left shows the different quality of line you can create with a 9B, 6B, 2B and HB pencil.  You will notice how the soft 9B pencil gives a soft fuzzy line, while the harder HB pencil gives a harder sharp edged line.

The Smudge factor

  • This is a great quality of pencil graphite and one you should be making good use of when drawing. Smudging with your finger can achieve beautiful results when smudging line or blending tones/shades.  Again it depends on your type of paper and the pencil you are drawing or sketching with.  The image on the left compares the smudge-ability of a very soft 9B pencil and a mid-range HB pencil.  The 9B pencil can be smudged a lot more as more graphite is left on the surface of the paper, less so with the harder HB pencil.

Which manufacturer should I choose to buy?

This often depends on your budget, but quality will affect the quality of marks you are able to create when drawing and sketching.  The best pencils for drawing and sketching are made by these manufacturers;

  • Rembrandt
  • Derwent Graphite
  • Faber Castell
  • Staedtler Mars Lumograph
  • Caran d’Ache graphite

As you can tell by the photos I tend to use a mix of pencils from different manufactures.  This is because over the years I have come to prefer the different qualities of the different pencils so tend to stick to those as much as possible.  They can of course be used interchangeably as you begin to learn about your pencils and what you can make them do.   Just so long as they are all graphite pencils.

Do beginners really need expensive pencils?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that as a beginner you can get away with cheap pencils while just ‘seeing how it goes’.  Low quality materials and tools usually end up in frustration and cause people to abandon a new hobby.  Cheap tools will limit the success you will able to have with your drawing.  Quality pencils will ensure you achieve the best results when beginning and this will encourage you to continue.

My advice when choosing the best pencils for drawing and sketching is to buy the best quality you can afford.  It’s better to buy fewer quality pencils than a whole set of cheap pencils – most of which you are now realising you won’t actually need!

Don’t be beguiled by the ‘value for money’ packs of 19 or so pencils (9B – 9H) you can buy in budget shops.  I wouldn’t even be tempted by the packs of quality pencils (aprox £13) that offer the whole B range + 2H and F.  Better to buy the 4 pencils I suggest at the end of this post.  At about £1.20 each they still represent a considerable savings allowing you to buy more of the pencils you’ll use on a regular basis.

So – what are the best pencils for drawing and sketching?

I would suggest the following 4 pencils are the only ones you’ll need and are the best pencils for drawing and sketching.

HB          I use this for very light line drawings on smooth paper.  It can work really well for preparatory drawings as it does not leave too much graphite on the page that could dirty any paint/watercolour painted on top.  It has limited tone/shading capability but it’s especially good if you’re a beginner and feel a little unsure when starting your drawings and sketching.

2B          I use this as my general drawing and sketching pencil.  It’s great for sketching out, planning and blocking in the main areas of tone/shade.  It creates lovely quality of line and can be smudged a little and erased with ease if you wish.  It’s still hard enough to sharpen to a point and use for the fine detail in drawings and sketches and creating the sharp edges to contrast with the soft areas in your drawings and sketches.

6B          Great for adding in substantially darker tones/shading that will make your drawings and sketches come to life as a contrast to the lighter shades and white paper.  This pencil has an excellent shading capability and creates some lovely rich dark grey tones. 

9B          I love my 9B pencils and they usually shrink in size very quickly.  Remember that the softer the pencil’s lead the more graphite it leaves on the paper and the more it needs sharpening.  This pencil will give you the darkest of shades, some beautiful smudging and blending qualities and rich and varied quality of line.  Just take care of its softness as if over used will result in drawings that lack sharpness and definition.

So that’s it.  Now you know. 

The best pencils for drawing and sketching are a HB, 2B, 6B and 9B.  Far better than buying a whole set of pencils, most of which will never be used.

Please read my companion post for top tips for drawing and sketching with pencil.