Pencils are so common that we use them without thinking much about them.
When it comes to drawing, we become much more aware of the pencil as a creative tool, and we have a lot more choices for drawing than for writing. Selecting a wooden drawing pencil is an important and sometimes confusing task.
What should you use when precision is needed, and what do you use to create broad tonal strokes? Pencil selection is easier when you understand the numbering and grading systems in use.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on wooden graphite pencils.
The lead in a pencil is called that due to its lead-like color. Pencil leads are actually a mixture of graphite — a form of carbon — and clay. Pure graphite is brittle, so clay is added to reduce breakage. Graphite has been used since the 1500s.
There are two grading systems used to classify graphite (lead) pencils: the Numerical and the HB. Both systems refer to the degree of hardness or softness of the lead.
What makes the graphite soft or hard is the amount of clay that is added. More clay creates a harder material.
The hardness or softness of the pencil lead affects its feel — rough or smooth — as you pull it across the paper, and its appearance and smudge-resistance.
Softer leads will feel smoother, appear darker and smudge more easily. Smudge-ability is a highly desired quality for many artists and illustrators.
The Numerical (American) Graphite System
In the Numerical Scale, the graphite is designated by hardness of the lead. A Number 1 pencil is softer than a Number 4 pencil. The grade we use most often in the USA for general writing is the Number 2.
Hard lead creates a light mark with a low smudge factor, while soft leads create a darker mark that is much easier to smudge. Pencils using the Numerical scale will often have a ferule (a crimped metal ring) and a rubber eraser on the non-writing end, and are used most often for writing.
The HB (European) Graphite System
Graphite drawing pencils use the HB system. This system describes the hardness (H) or softness (B) of the graphite.
An HB pencil is approximately the same hardness as a Number 2 in the Numerical System. Increasing the number of the H factor increases the hardness of the lead. Increasing the number on the B side increases the softness. A 5B pencil is softer than a 2B, and a BBB is the softest and blackest of all.
There is no industry-wide standard for graphite systems. A 6B Derwent may feel differently than a 6B Staedtler Mars Lumograph. Be adventurous in trying out a variety of manufacturers before deciding which is best for you.
It’s a personal choice
Any pencil will make darker and lighter strokes depending upon the amount of pressure you exert. The harder the lead, the less range of pressure difference. You’ll discover that you can use a very light touch with a 6B pencil and draw a line as light as one made with a 6H with heavy pressure.
The question of which pencils to use for your drawings will depend upon your own preferences, and is as personal as one’s choice of a writing pen or favorite cookie. Try working with a variety of grades and learn which ones you prefer. There is no one right set of pencils for everyone.
The question of which pencils to use … will depend upon your own preferences, and is as personal as one’s choice of a writing pen or favorite cookie.
If you are making a technical drawing where precision is important, you will want to use a harder lead on the H side of the scale. If you’re drawing a portrait, you might want to use softer leads.
Different lead hardnesses will work differently on different papers. A rough paper — one with some “tooth” — will catch and hold more graphite than a smooth paper. Smooth papers will cause the graphite to smudge more easily.
Beyond the wooden pencil
For drawing, artists and designers have more options than wooden pencils. Mechanical, drafting or technical pencils, lead holders and graphite sticks are also common drawing tools.
Other than graphite, there are carbon pencils (one of my favorite dry media) and charcoal pencils.
If you’re not sure what pencils to purchase, begin with a starter set and try out each grade. Once you know which you like and its capabilities, and what paper you prefer with which pencil grade, you can purchase them individually with confidence.
Trust me. You will have favorites.