Before You Buy Graphite Pencils

Graphite pencils lie on a production line at the manufacturing plant
Ralph Orlowski / Stringer / Getty Images

The humble graphite pencil might seem like the simplest of drawing tools, and so it is - but when you hit the art store, the range of graphite pencils available can come as something of a surprise. If you are just starting out, the low-cost, quick solution is to choose select a 6B, 4B, 2B, H and 2H from a reputable artist's range. A serious beginner might want to go for a full set in a tin, or try clutch pencils. Pencils are relatively inexpensive, so experiment to find what suits you best.

What's Inside a Pencil?

Pencils have cores made from powdered graphite (not lead) fired with clay, varying in hardness. The type of graphite used in pencils is relatively soft and malleable, a little like lead, and was mistakenly thought to be a form of lead when first discovered. The misnomer stuck and many people think that pencils once had lead cores, though they never did. Graphite leaves a small, smooth particle on the paper that has a slight sheen.

Pencil Quality Varies

Pencils can vary widely in quality. Irregularities in substandard or poorly processed graphite can lead to unpredictable tonal range, and even worse, scratches in the paper. Uncentered cores tend to break on sharpening. High-quality artist's pencils deliver reliable, even tone at carefully graded hardnesses, and are less prone to breakage.

    Wood-Cased Artist's Pencils

    The familiar 'graylead' pencil has a graphite/clay core encased in cedar wood. These range in hardness from around 9b (very soft) up to 9H (very hard indeed) depending on the brand. Most artists starting out will find that a selection of 2H, HB, 2B, 4B, and 6B is more than adequate to start with. If you are interested in doing extremely fine, realist tonal work, you might want to include all the pencils from 4H to 6B, or even buy a boxed set.

      Clutch and Mechanical Pencils

      Many artists swear by clutch pencils. Timber-cased pencils change their size, weight,  and balance as they are sharpened, which can be a problem for artists who draw a great deal. Clutch pencils have a constant weight and size and though initially expensive, the refills are competitive. I prefer the 2mm diameter leads - the .5mm ones break too easily.

        Progresso Pencils, Graphite Sticks, and Graphite Crayons

        Progresso Pencils are thick graphite pencils with no wood casing but a layer of lacquer to facilitate clean handling. Useful for broad, expressive work and shading over incised detail or where a visible paper tooth is desired. Graphite sticks or crayons are chunky, crayon-like pencils suitable for large, vigorous work. They can be messy to handle but are great for tactile, involved mark making in large-scale works and life drawing.

          Powdered Graphite

          Powdered Graphite is a hands-on drawing medium, applied to the paper with fingers or a rag. It can be used in drawing for soft, loose mark making, or to prepare a toned drawing surface.

            Carbon Blends

            Carbon pencils are made from lampblack (derived from burning oil), delivering a smooth, dark black line. Variations available include blends of carbon, charcoal, and graphite. The particle size varies depending on the source, soot providing a fine even particle, charcoal often being rather coarse. Carbon and Compressed Charcoal pencils can be useful for obtaining a true black which is not really possible with graphite. Test for compatibility before applying to your drawing.

              Chalk and Pastel Pencils

              Black conte pencils are made from a carbon and alumina chalk blend. These have a smoother, creamier consistency than pastel. Hard pastels are also available in a pencil format, and manufacturers are constantly experimenting with media. White pencils are either colored pencils or pastel pencils and are made of various combinations of pigment, chalk, clay, gum, and wax. Other media pencils are not always compatible with graphite, and should be tried on a test piece first.