Choosing the Right Graphite Pencil

Pencils lie on a production line at the manufacturing plant

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The humble graphite pencil might seem like the simplest of drawing tools, but when you hit the art store, the range of graphite pencils available can come as something of a surprise. Learning which type of pencil is right for you can take trial and error, but this article boils down the basics for you.. The good thing is, pencils are relatively inexpensive, so you can experiment to find what suits you best.

Pencil Components

Pencils have cores made from powdered graphite (not lead) fired with clay, which varies 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.


High-quality artist's pencils deliver reliable, even tone at carefully graded hardnesses, and are less prone to breakage, but 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 and uncentered cores tend to break on sharpening.

Wood-Cased 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 Pencils

Many artists swear by clutch pencils, which are like mechanical pencils for artists. 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, allow for interchangeable hardnesses, and though initially expensive to buy the handle, refills are competitive.

Other Types

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.

Graphite Options

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 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.

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