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.
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 this age of typing?)
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 6H (the hardest) to 8B (the softest).
The full range of graphite drawing pencils looks something like this:
6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B
The range varies slightly depending on the brand. The above range reflects the grades of graphite pencils made by Staedtler Mars Lumograph (my preferred brand), but I have seen other brands go up to 9H on one end, and 12B on the other.
The darkness of graphite varies from very light grey (6H) to very dark grey (8B), but not quite pitch black.
The hardest pencils create sharper, lighter, thinner lines, while the softest pencils create softer, darker, thicker lines. (Of course, this depends on the sharpness of your pencil as well, but generally speaking - it is much easier to create a sharper line with a hard pencil, and a softer line with a soft pencil.)
You do not need the whole range of graphite pencils, from 6H to 8B!
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 tend to use Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, but other brands such as Derwent and Faber-Castell work just fine as well.
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 often 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. This can be particularly irksome when trying to photograph graphite drawings.
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!
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 the area.
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 use them (I find that they often scratch my drawing paper rather than leave a smooth mark).
If you are going to work with charcoal pencils, I suggest that you buy an HB, 2B, 4B and a 6B, by a brand called General's.
You may come across charcoal pencils by other brands that are classified simply as 'soft, medium, and hard'. I don't use these because I find that pencils using the 'soft, medium, and hard' classifications tend to be less consistent and predictable than the General's pencils. General's pencils also have a wider range. For example, a General's HB tends to be harder (and therefore easier to create lighter marks with) than a 'hard' charcoal pencil. If you must use charcoal drawing pencils labelled as 'soft, medium and hard':
The 'soft' pencil is comparable to a 6B
The 'medium' pencil is comparable to a 2B or 4B
The 'hard' pencil is comparable to an HB
Brands of charcoal: My 'go to' brand of charcoal drawing pencils is General's.
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.
The drawing pencils that you choose depend 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, here are some pro's and con's of graphite and charcoal:
You need a full range of values, from white to pitch black. Charcoal darkens to pitch black, allowing you to create a wider range of values in your drawing. Graphite simply does not darken to the same pitch black as charcoal does.
You want to combine it with white charcoal, like I did in this tutorial. 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
You dislike the shine that graphite creates. Some artists love the graphite shine, others are neutral, and others quite dislike it. I personally dislike it, and only use graphite when creating drawings that consist mostly of lighter values.
Creating a drawing that consists mostly of lighter values. As you saw earlier in the article, lighter values produce less graphite glare.
You want a smoother drawing experience. The application of graphite on paper is definitely smoother than that
of charcoal. It is easier to draw light lines, and to shade smoothly and evenly with graphite. (You can certainly learn to do the same with charcoal, but it will take considerably more practice.)
I see what you're thinking ... you want the best of both worlds! This is actually a common question that I receive.
Graphite and charcoal do not layer on top of each other very well. However, if you are careful, you can use graphite next to charcoal. For example, you can use graphite for lighter areas of your drawing, and create a subtle gradation that 'turns into' charcoal (again, not layering one on top of the other, but making sure that one is right next to the other).
This is an advanced technique that I would use once you are comfortable using graphite and charcoal separately.
The best way to get to know what drawing pencils you prefer is to work with both! An excellent exercise to compare the properties of these two pencil types is to draw the same subject matter using graphite and then charcoal. Why not do this with me in my Realistic Drawing 101 course, while learning the essential skills and concepts of realistic drawing?!
If you have any questions about these supplies, you are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org