On this "Pencil Drawing Supplies" page:
- what pencil leads are actually made of
- the brief history of how pencils were made
- an explanation of the American and European systems for indicating pencil hardness and softness
- when to use harder or softer pencils
- what the two basic types of pencil leads are and their characteristics
- how to care for art-quality pencils
- what pencils to buy and who are the manufacturers to trust
I did this drawing with a 4B; an HB; a special pencil with extra graphite for buttery blackness; and an ordinary pencil eraser.
Pencil sketches are done with graphite, and oily mineral that leaves a dense mark when rubbed on paper, first discovered in 16th century England. Taken 1st for a form of lead, by the 18th century was determined in fact be crystallized carbon and was named "graphite" for its use as a writing medium. The confusion with lead continues today, when we refer to "pencil lights" instead of graphite.
By the late 18th-century manufacturers had figured out how to mix crushed graphite with potter's clay for writing and for pencil drawing. When cooked together, the mixture became stronger: the greater the proportion of clay, the harder the lead. Today pencil lets are encased in cedar, which is soft enough for easy sharpening, but hard enough for pencil quality.
Manufacturers have their own standards for hardness and offer bigger or smaller hardness ranges.
In Europe, "H" stands for "hard" and "B" stands for "black" - because the softer the pencil, the black or its mark.
The middle-of-the-road, not-to-hard-not-too-soft grade is "HB". While graphite pencils are easily available in a range as wide as the one here, you will most generally find pencils in only the HB, 2B, 4B and 6B grades.
In the United States, however, the grading is done with numbers; which is why an average office-supply pencil in France is an "HB", and why in the States it is a "Yellow #2". There is an additional graphite pencil grade of #2 1/2 (US) or "F" (Europe); the "F" is for "fine", as it sharpens to a fine point for writing.
United States > Europe
#1 > B
#2 > HB
#2 1/2 > F
#3 > H
#4 > 2H
A hard lead makes delicate, fine lines and is extremely precise; this is why it is generally used for technical work or architectural design. A soft lead, on the other hand, is generally better for drawing that calls for agile, forceful strokes and very apparent shadows. Artists seldom use hard graphite, although it can come in handy for lightly blocking out a project before you begin.
There are basically 2 categories of graphite leads:
- the first kind gets inserted into refillable pencils;
-the second kind doesn't, and gets used as a conventional pencil.
Refillable pencil containing a thick graphite lead.
Graphite leads for refillable pencils for pencil drawing range from 1 mm to 6 mm thick. Depending on the manufacturer, they come in 3 or 4 levels of hardness. For artistic pencil drawing, the thick one is more practical, as it permits making either a fine or a dense line.
Graphite pencils for pencil drawing are manufactured in many forms other than that of the conventional pencil shown above: "all lead" pencils, rectangular sticks, rounds sticks, square sticks, hexagonal (is that a word?) sticks. It is the advantage of graphite combined with potter's clay that makes these many varieties possible. In fact, it is because it is so solid that the wood casing is no longer necessary.
Why is it useful to skip encasing the graphite in wood? Because this way, the thinnest leads don't even need sharpening, and the thickest ones make a stroke denser than anything a pencil could produce. There is also the advantage of being able to set the graphite flat against the paper for wide strokes.
For our purposes, we will be referring to conventional wood-cased pencils for pencil drawing, but the section on pencil drawing technique will apply as well to all types of graphite pencils.
There are two things you should be aware of, however.
The first is that there is a difference between office-quality and artist-quality pencils, and it isn't only the price. Do invest in good quality. You will learn more and with greater sensitivity because your materials can do more.
The second is that graphite, while strong, is also brittle. Don't cast your pencils around as if they were made of steel, but keep them carefully in the box they come in, or in a box you get for them. If you find you have a good-quality pencil that nevertheless seems to keep breaking as you try to sharpen it, it is undoubtedly because somebody dropped it and the lead got broken inside the wood casing. This applies to charcoal pencils as well.
Let's make it simple. By the best-quality conventional graphite pencils you can, artist quality. That means for example Staedtler ("Staedtler Mars Lumograph" pencils) or Derwent ("Derwent Graphic" pencils), both available internationally, will do you. Office-quality pencils will not do you.
In most decent art supply stores you should be able to buy small flat metal boxed sets with a range of hardnesses. If they don't have them, then buy every pencil hardness they have available by the same manufacturer. It is a modest investment and worth it - within a few weeks of drawing, you will quickly see which pencils suit you best, because they will be the shortest ones you have!
If you really don't want to go crazy buying pencils, get yourself an HB, 4B and a 6B, and that could be a good start for playing around with the different pencil hardnesses.