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How to Choose your Artist Pencils

By Jon, published on 22/03/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Arts and Hobbies > Drawing > What are the Best Drawing Pencils?

A man is only as good as his tools – Emmert Wolfe

Does that mean that top quality pencils will guarantee you a masterpiece pencil drawing?

Not necessarily.

You won’t find any art teacher recommending magic charcoals or paints, although plenty would recommend taking art lessons.

That is where you will find magic!

A few art classes will most certainly help you learn basic drawing and art fundamentals.

Before you enroll – or just after, you might consider investing in a few implements every visual artist requires for his métier.

You may wonder:

  • What would be considered a suitable starter kit for an absolute beginner drawing class?

  • Which pencils should you select?

  • Should you buy a kneaded eraser or an ordinary rubber?

  • What tools are used to create shading? A line drawing? A pen and ink drawing?

  • What size and type of graphite pencil would be best?

Oh, the questions a burgeoning artist might ask!

Posing them to any art supply store clerk might yield dubious results: is s/he there to sell things, or might she be an artist herself, and therefore knowledgeable on the topic of art supplies?

It is almost endemic to the field that each artist has his favourite brand of colored pencils and drawing paper.

You, the novice artist, have not yet developed such fetishes. You are still at the doodle stage, trying everything out, on the quest to see how this medium or other works for you.

As long as you are open to suggestion, let Superprof offer up a few…

Writing pencils are HB types; art pencils tend to be either H or B A pencil used for writing is substantially different than one used for art Source: Pixabay Credit: StockSnap

A Brief History of the Pencil

Let us take a short trip back in time, to discover the origins of what could arguably be called the most versatile communication device.

It is thanks to the discovery of a large deposit of graphite in Borrowdale that pencils came into widespread use.

It was found that this brittle material, tempered with clay to make it more resilient, left a more visible mark than lead, which proved effective for marking sheep.

Initially wrapped in string, these early writing instruments were improved by encasing them in wood.

The town of Keswick, near the original graphite mine in Cumbria, manufactures pencils to this day.

Other big names in the establishment of the pencil as the world’s elementary writing implement include:

  • Nicholas Jacques Conté, artist and army officer: The French were suffering a blockade of products from England. Under orders to extend France’s remaining supply of graphite, it was he who initially mixed clay with the mineral, in 1795. He is considered the inventor of the modern pencil.
    • He is also responsible for Conté sticks, a type of pastel color crayon still used among artists today.
  • Lothar Faber, industrialist: seeking to improve on the pencil’s utility and design, he experimented with the ratios of clay to graphite, yielding softer ‘leads’.

    • He is also responsible for the pencil’s hexagonal shape, meant to prevent them from rolling off his workbench.

Coloured pencils made their appearance on the art scene at the start of the 20th century.

These were the brainchild of Johann Sebastian Staedtler, which he formulated in 1834. Artists young and old have been drawing and painting with Staedtler products ever since.

Before then, artists would mix tones found in nature with an oil-based solution, form them and set them to harden, which permitted sharpening to as fine a point as desired.

Now that we know all about pencils, let us learn how to choose those that will render great works of art.

Coloured pencils make a great addition to any artist's kit Staedtler is famous for its line of coloured pencils Source: Pixabay Credit: Leorio

Choosing the Right Pencil Types

In spite of advances made in writing and drawing tools, the humble pencil remains indispensable, even today.

Even though digital drawing is the next wave in art, a Wacom drawing tablet could never replace the feel, texture and smell of a pastel crayon, or the weight of a sketchbook across one’s knee.

For art students, experimenting with each type of pencil is vital as they learn how to draw.

Graphite pencils, often mistakenly referred to as lead pencils, are grouped by their relative hardness:

  • H (Hard): these pencils have a hard, dry tip. They are excellent for tracing fine lines and very durable. However, they lack the darker effect of other pencils. This type of graphite is easy to erase.
  • B (Black): these have a greasy, soft point that tend to get used up rather quickly. Pencils of this type make thick, dark lines that are difficult to erase completely, unless you use a kneaded eraser.
  • HB (Hard Black): this is the most common pencil, used primary schools and art schools alike. They make for easy drawing, and errant lines can be erased with a common rubber.
  • F (Fine point): its composition lies somewhere between HB and H, meaning that it tends toward hardness. This is the pencil to use when you are learning how to draw eyes, or how to draw a face.

Clearly, the choice of pencil ‘leads’ is vast!

To help clarify the matter, follow this breakdown when making your selections at the drawing materials counter.

  • H-types are generally used for technical drawings: wiring diagrams and machine specifications.
  • B-types are used more in artistic endeavours: portrait drawing, still lifes, and the precursor to any caricature, manga or other illustration.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let us further muddy the waters…

What is the difference between a 2B and a 9H pencil?

For the H-series pencils: the higher the number – 10H maximum, the harder and more brittle the point.

For the B-series pencils: the higher the number – 10B maximum, the greasier and more malleable the point.

Because lines made with B pencils are difficult to erase, illustrators prefer to sketch using a 2H drawing pencil.

These pencil markings disappear quickly with a plain rubber eraser.

If your pencil portrait is plagued with a plethora of erroneous lines, you can make them vanish with but a few strokes, leaving your likeness of the human face intact.

From there, you would use a B pencil, more or less greasy, as your rendering requires, to finalise your work.

In learning how to draw animals, draw hands; any type of realistic drawing: there are no hard and fast rules on how to contour or outline, and there are no exact shading techniques to recommend.

As your style evolves from doodles and stick figures to pencil portraits, you will discover the right pencils for your style: for contour drawing, for shading, for outlining and for cross hatching.

Art Pencils: Brands and Quality

It is important to choose a well-known, reputable brand of pencils and colored pencils for your basic drawing lessonsJust as a painters need great brushes to make the most of their paints, a pencil artist needs good pencils to make great art.

Some ‘leads’ may be exceedingly grainy, inadvertently making tiny furrows on your drawing paper. Later, as you paint your drawing with watercolors, these lines would be revealed, creating an undesirable effect.

Another reason to invest in quality pencils is that the lead is less likely to break off, saving you money in the long run.

No two pencils will have exactly the same hardness, even if they are from the same manufacturer.

It is therefore important that you spend a bit of time trying out various pencils before settling on any particular ones.

While shopping around for pencils, you may benefit from sellers’ advice.

Or, if you are wary of sellers – whose primary job is to move inventory, you could talk to other portrait artists or art school enrollees in the store, who might have more experience buying quality goods.

If you are an absolute beginner, you might investigate a few name brands with strong tradition and good reputation in the art world.

These are a few name brand art supplies that have stood the test of time and proven themselves repeatedly:

  • Faber Castell: these pencils should be a part of any artist’s basic kit, especially the 6H and the 8B
  • Derwent also offers quality graphite pencils. These graphite pencils are available from 8H to 9b
  • Staedtler: the Mars Lumograph models are particularly high-end. The 6H and 8B are especially sought after, in art circles.
  • Kooh-I-Noor: Also a well-known brand in art instruction. Their 1500 series makes any perspective drawing a work of art.

Hard pencils are more suited to technical drawing applications H-type pencils are generally used for technical drawings Source: Pixabay

Round Out Your Drawing Skills

If graphite pencils are elemental in any artist’s arsenal, other implements are equally essential, to draw anything from simple shapes to the human form.

With other media, from charcoals to hematite, you can learn other drawing and sketching techniques.

Hematite Pencils

These pencils are pigmented with varying degrees of iron oxide found in the same-named rock.

Colours derived from this type of rock range from ochre to beige, including orange. You can buy hematite in pencil form; also as chalks and pastels.

This type of art instrument is recommended in drawing portraits of a living model, because it allows for deep, rich textures.

You might be interested to know that the great master, Leonardo da Vinci, was a proponent of using hematite when creating his works of art.

Why not have a framed painting of his on your wall, to inspire you?

Charcoal

This medium is an absolute must if you are learning how to draw!

As their name implies, charcoal – pencils, sticks or crayons, is made by thoroughly charring wood in a form.

This char is then combined with gum or wax binders, to achieve varying degrees of hardness and darkness.

The more binder content, the less dark the markings.

A charcoal pencil makes for great crosshatching. Depending on the type of paper used, it will also be possible to obtain the finest lines.

Rough texture will retain more charcoal. Charcoal on toned paper, especially when used in conjunction with Conté crayons, provides brilliant contrast.

Drawing with charcoal makes it possible to get a realistic design and work facial expressions.

Once finished, you will have to use a fixative to ensure the holding of the drawing in time.

The main drawback of working with charcoal: it is messy.

The Pierre Noire

Made of ampelite, otherwise known as cannel coal, this black stone pencil yields a deep, dark and dull black effect.

This drawing tool was very popular during the Renaissance art movement.

It is excellent for face drawing, dimensional drawing and any type of drawing that calls for refinement and precision.

Used for figure drawing, its effect is comparable to charcoal, while being less messy and offering more exactitude.

Non-Photo Blue Pencils

A drawing rendered with such a blue pencil has the unique property of disappearing when scanned or copied.

These are the pencils of choice for the illustrator or cartoonist.

Step by step drawing done in blue line prior to the inking of sketches makes those first, tentative strokes invisible once the  drawing is scanned into a computer for rework.

Another advantage of the blue pencil? It is easy to erase and disappears completely, even without being scanned or photographed. Ideal for creations you want to share over an interactive whiteboard application!

Mechanical Pencils

We would be remiss if we did not mention this alternative to the graphite pencil that you have to sharpen.

The ‘leads’ for these pencils are available in different hardnesses and thicknesses, to suit all pencil drawing techniques.

However, the time consuming task of changing leads during your drawing tutorial would serve not just in foreshortening your inspiration, but in taking time from your lesson.

Still, some who are learning to draw prefer mechanical pencils. You might be one of them but, remember: in the long run, this writing instrument can be more expensive than simple graphite pencils.

Finally, to maintain your pencils, do not forget to invest in a good sharpener, but also a tool to blur, the appropriate gums and a sketchbook.

With all of this drawing material, you will have no issues with indecision.

You will be able to draw a landscape, draw a face, draw animals, draw a still life, draw the human body and even draw cartoons.

You only have to learn drawing basics; and then, you can create paintings on canvas!

Happy Drawing!

Looking for drawing classes in the UK? Search for a private tutor on Superprof:

  • Drawing class London.
  • Drawing lessons Birmingham
  • Drawing lessons Glasgow
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