Which Pencil Should I Use for Shading?

Softer Pencils Are Usually Best for Shading

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Artists working in pencils have a great range of graphite to choose from. From hard (H's) to soft (B's), you may have 12 or more pencils at your disposal and each has its own strengths for different applications. Which should you use when shading a drawing? 

It is hard to pick just one pencil that's perfect for shading, but there are a couple go-to graphite pencils that many artists use. In general, you'll want to use a B pencil, but even that recommendation comes with choices. Depending on the look you're going for, another pencil may be a better option.

As with any art medium, choosing your pencils wisely can make an impact on your drawings, so let's explore your possibilities for the best shading pencils.

The Best Pencils for Shading

Generally, the B pencil is good for medium to light shading. The 2B is nice for medium to dark shading. You should be able to get a good range of tone (value) out of both, from quite light through a nice dark. Try each on a piece of scrap paper to see which suits you best.

Many artists like to use one of these mid-range pencils for pretty much everything. They allow you to control the lightness and darkness by shading more or less heavily. However, sometimes you might want more intensity or find that you can't get your mid-range pencil to go as light or dark as you hoped. For these moments you can turn to another pencil.

Good Pencils for Darker Shading

Whether you're shading or not, there are many factors at play in each type of pencil. That is why we have such a variety to choose from. If the B and 2B are not giving you the intensely dark shading you want, you do have other options, but there can be drawbacks that you'll want to keep in mind.

The 4B is a good choice for darker shading. It is soft enough to give a good layer of graphite quickly without going blunt too fast. The 6B pencil is good for very dark areas, but it's very soft and blunts quickly so it's difficult to use for detail. Because it blunts so easily, it tends to look grainy, skimming over the surface of the paper.

When burnished—shaded very, very heavily—graphite can look very shiny. Harder pencils contain more clay, so they look a little less shiny than a very soft pencil. For this reason, it's a good idea to always consider the sheen when choosing your pencils.

Good Pencils for Lighter Shading

While the softer B pencils are generally considered the best for shading, there's no reason to discount the harder H pencils. The HB and H are good choices for fine, light, and even shading. However, they too have their drawbacks.

The harder grades of pencil—from HB through H, 2H to 5H—get progressively harder and they are easier to keep sharp. At the same time, they are also grayer and less shiny because they contain more clay. These harder pencils can also dent the paper very easily, so when you're shading you will want to have a very light touch.

Layering Soft and Hard Pencils

If hard and soft pencils have their own uses in shading, what if you were to combine the two? Layering while shading is actually a neat trick that artists can use. It allows you to get the advantages of both pencils while minimizing their disadvantages.

  • Shade an area with a hard pencil (e.g, HB or H) to flatten and smooth the grain before shading with a soft pencil (e.g., B or 2B). The harder pencil gives the softer one a nice, smooth foundation, making this is a great approach for medium to heavy shading.
  • Shade over an area of soft pencil with a hard pencil to smooth and even out the graphite. This technique creates a more even surface appearance between the different types of pencil.

Get to Know Your Pencils

Other artists can give you all sorts of advice about the best pencils to use for different applications. These recommendations can give you a good foundation so you aren't staring blankly at your pencils and wondering which to pick up. Yet, the best way to know which is right for you is to try it for yourself.

Each artist has different techniques, some of us have a lighter touch while others may really pound in the graphite. Likewise, each set of pencils has its own qualities. The best way to know which of your pencils are perfect for shading your drawings is to practice.

Do some shading swatches, play around with these recommendations, and adjust your pencil choices to suit your needs. Remember, too, that each drawing may require different choices or approaches. With time and experience, you will get to know your pencils and be able to quickly select the right one for the effect you want.