“The pencil is indeed a very precious instrument after you are master of the pen and the brush, for the pencil, cunningly used, is both, and will draw a line with the precision of the one, and the gradation of the other.” — Ruskin
This installment of my “Arts and Crafts Explained” series will discuss the most basic of art supplies: the pencil. You may be thinking, “What could she possibly have to write about this? Isn’t a pencil a pencil?” However, if you step into any art supply store, you will quickly realize there so many types and choices that you may not know where to begin. I am going to walk you through some of the different choices you have, and what they are used for, by answering some questions.
1. Why use drawing pencils vs. standard #2 school pencils?
Not all pencils are created equal. We’ve all experienced the angst of trying to sharpen a cheap pencil that has an off-center core, or one in which the lead continually breaks. When you are in the middle of creating your work of art, the last thing you want to deal with is a pencil that will not sharpen. You’ll also find that the texture of the lead in lesser quality pencils will vary greatly, causing an unevenness in the marks it lays down. The grit in cheap pencils can snag your paper and cause unwanted results. Most #2 pencils that you find sold with school and office supplies are not artist grade, so you will run into these problems. You can also find these problems in pencils sold as artist or drawing pencils if you buy off brand pencils or use those sold in low-cost, all-in-one art sets. In my opinion, you are going to be much better off buying your pencils from open stock at an art supply store, or in a set that only contains drawing pencils.
2. What do all those letters and numbers mean?
When you look at a pencil, you will notice that it has a number, a letter, or a combination of both marked on it. These numbers are used to grade the graphite in the pencil. Although commonly referred to as pencil “lead,” the core of a pencil is actually graphite mixed with clay and contains no lead. The graphite and clay are mixed in differing proportions to create different grades of “lead.” The grades indicate how soft or hard the core is. The photo below shows a good range in the pencils to the right.
Basically, H pencils have a harder core and B pencils have a softer core. So a 9H would have an extremely hard core, and a 9B would have an extremely soft core. Typically, you would use a harder core pencil for fine detail. It also tends to be lighter in color, as it doesn’t lay down as much graphite. It will not blend very well. A softer core pencil is used for shading and loose detail. It will smudge more easily and blends very well. It also tends to show up much darker. Which grades of pencils you use are a personal preference. I tend to use the 2B-4B pencils the most in my drawing, with a 6H for fine detail.
You can also purchase graphite sticks. These have no wood casing, and are often used for covering large areas quickly, or for large, loose sketching. They are kind of messy (they rub off on your fingers) but fun to use.
3. What brands do I prefer to use?
Brand choice is really a personal preference. Most of my drawing pencils are Sanford Design Drawing Pencils. I use them mainly because I am used to them, and they are easy to find in my area. If you get a chance, however, go to your local art supply store and talk to the sales clerks there. They may be able to put you on to a brand they like better. Just this week the guy at our store recommended that I try Grafwood Caran d’Ache pencils. I bought two, and so far they are working very nicely.
4. What kind of pencil sharpener should I use?
I highly recommend not skimping here. I prefer electric or wall mounted (old school style) sharpeners. Try as I might, I can never get the point I like with a handheld, and I often snap off the tip. A decent electric sharpener will last quite a while. If you are using colored pencils, you will go through them quicker than if you just sharpen graphite, but it is still well worth the replacement cost. I have an X-Acto brand electric sharpener on my desk right now that I have used heavily for at least four years. Many artists will also keep sandpaper nearby to sharpen the tip back up a bit.
5. What are those strange paper stick things?
You may have seen those white things that look like rolled up paper sold beside artist pencils. Those are Blending Stumps and Tortillions. They are very useful to blend shadows in a drawing. While you can make your own by rolling up strips of paper into a small stick, I find the pre-made ones are much easier to use and last longer. You use one by rubbing gently over the area you wish to blend and it smears the graphite around. (You can also use a finger, but you risk getting oils from your hands all over your drawing and you end up with black fingers.)
6. What about erasers?
You’ll notice that drawing pencils do not come with erasers. There are many types to choose from, and I recommend buying several kinds and see which ones you prefer. Personally I like to use the white Mars plastic erasers for graphite. They lift well. I also like to use a kneaded rubber eraser. You can mold it into very small shapes to get into tight areas. You don’t rub with a kneaded eraser, you tend to dab and lift.
7. Where do I find all this stuff?
Most big box art and craft supply stores will have a decent selection to choose from, but I encourage you find a smaller artist supply store near you if possible. These stores will often carry more varieties and more specialty items than the large craft stores. Also, they tend to employ people who actually work with the things they sell, so they can often give you tips and advice. I have found that nearly all larger college campuses will have a decent artist supply store somewhere nearby. If all else fails, you can order online at several different retailers.
To try your hand at drawing, browse through these free ebooks on pencil drawing from the early 20th century: How to Use a Pencil