Drawing Pencils

All drawing pencils feel different to work with, and have different properties that determine how your drawing looks. On this page I will introduce you to the pencils I use throughout The Drawing Source.

Graphite Pencils

Remember those yellow No. 2 pencils that we used to write with? Those were graphite pencils! (Do those still exist? Does anyone still write in typing age?)

What is the difference between artist-quality graphite and those yellow No.2 pencils?

The artist-quality pencils are more refined, and allow for smoother application onto paper.

Graphite pencils come in a series of "“hardnesses", or "grades," ranging from 9H (the hardest) to 9B (the softest).

The full range of drawing pencil grades looks like this:

9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, HB, F, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B

The darkness of graphite varies from very light grey (9H) to dark grey (9B), but not quite pitch black.
The hardest pencils create lighter, thinner lines, while the softest pencils create darker, thicker lines.

B O N U S: What grade of pencil should you draw with? 
Find out in this free downloadable guide!

You do not need the whole range of graphite pencils, from 9H to 9B!

When I work with graphite, I usually have an HB, 2B, and a 4B.

On the occasion that my drawing requires a very dark value, I may also use a 6B. If you are just beginning drawing, you may want to add a 2H for the lightest values in your drawing.

Graphite pencils are made of a mixture of graphite powder and clay filler. The ratio of the two determines what grade of hardness the pencil is. The more filler, the harder the pencil.

Types of graphite:
Graphite pencils come in several forms. They can be encased in wood; in pencil form but "woodless"; or in stick form, which you must put into a pencil holder to use.

Brands of graphite: I use Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, but other brands such as Derwent and Faber-Castell work just fine as well.

Working with Graphite

The application of graphite on paper is smoother than charcoal, and easier to gain control of. It can be very comfortable and enjoyable to work with, especially when paired with a smooth drawing paper.

Because of this, I sometimes recommend that beginners draw with graphite to build confidence and experience before moving on to charcoal pencils.

Keep in mind that graphite has a metallic sheen.

The shine, or glare, can be very apparent when you stand at an angle to a picture drawn in graphite, such as the one below:

As you can see, the sheen becomes more apparent where there are darker values. So, the darker the tones in your drawing, the more they will reflect light and produce glare.

While there are ways to minimize graphite glare, it is ultimately an inescapable quality of the medium. If you experiment with graphite and find that the glare is too much for you, don't fight it. You will lose.

If it bothers you too much, just don’t use it! Instead, use one of the many drawing pencils available to you that don'’t naturally have a shiny, metallic quality.

(I actually abandoned the above drawing because I was frustrated with the glare. Lesson learned! Graphite is better used for lighter value drawings. Notice that the lightest areas in the drawing above are not producing any glare!)

Always strive to work with your materials, not against them.
This will result in a much more enjoyable drawing process for you, as well as a better end result!

Tips for Minimizing Graphite Glare

as you can see in the image above: the lighter the area, the less glare will be produced. Choose to work in graphite when you are drawing a lighter image.

if you must use graphite for the dark areas of your drawing, instead of pressing harder with the pencil, slowly layer the graphite to darken an area.

Charcoal Pencils (My favorite drawing pencils!)

Charcoal pencils consist of charcoal powder mixed with a gum binder. This concoction is then compressed into sticks or encased in wood.

As with graphite, the amount of binder used regulates the degree of hardness of the pencil. The more binder used, the harder the grade of the pencil.

The hardness of charcoal pencils usually ranges from HB to 6B (from hardest to softest). A few brands go a step further and make 2H pencils, but I personally don'’t see a need for them.

If you are going to work with charcoal pencils, I suggest that you buy an HB, 2B, 4B and a 6B.

Vine and Willow Charcoal

Literally burnt twigs, these pencils are uncompressed charcoal, and can be used in much the same way as regular charcoal pencils.

The difference is that uncompressed charcoal is softer, lighter, and easier to spread and erase. (In fact, it lifts off the paper so easily that you really have to be careful not to disturb it!)

Vine and willow charcoal are particularly useful tools for filling in and evening out large value masses, especially when paired with a soft bristle brush.

Graphite vs. Charcoal

The drawing pencil that you choose depends on many factors. One pencil is not "better" than another: they all have different characteristics that are suitable for different kinds of drawings.

You will learn to choose the right medium for your drawings as you experience the qualities of the different drawing pencils, and figure out what kind of drawing you want to create.

Having said that, I offer you my own bias to consider. Charcoal pencils are my favorite drawing medium, for the following reasons:

I like to have a full range of values to work with, and charcoal darkens to pitch black much more easily than graphite does. (In fact, graphite just doesn't get as dark as charcoal does!)

While the application of graphite on paper is definitely smoother than that of charcoal, I don'’t like the metallic shine that occurs at certain angles to the light. Even though charcoal is rougher to apply and takes more practice to be able to create an even value, I prefer not to worry about glare reflecting off of my drawing.

Charcoal is a very versatile medium. It can be used by itself, or combined with white charcoal to give your drawing different looks and variations in temperature.

B O N U S: What grade of pencil should you draw with? 
Find out in this free downloadable guide!

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