Which Pencil Should Artists Use for Shading?

Softer pencils are usually best for general shading needs

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

It's hard to pick just one pencil that's perfect for shading, but many artists have a couple of go-to graphite pencils. In general, you should 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. Here's an exploration of your possibilities for the best shading pencils.

Best Pencils for General 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 scrap paper to see which suits you best.

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

Good Pencils for Darker Shading

Whether you're shading or not, many factors are at play in each type of pencil, which is why we have so many to choose from. If the B and 2B aren't giving you the intensely dark shading you want, you have options, but there are drawbacks to keep in mind.

The 4B is a good choice for darker shading. It's 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 and tends to look grainy, skimming over the surface of the paper.

Burnished graphite—shaded very heavily—can look very shiny. Harder pencils contain more clay, so they look less shiny than results from a very soft pencil. It's a good idea to consider 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, even shading. However, they too have drawbacks.

Pencil grades from HB through H, 2H to 5H get progressively harder and are easier to keep sharp. They are also grayer and less shiny because they contain more clay. These harder pencils can easily dent the paper, so when you're shading you should have a very light touch.

Layering Soft and Hard Pencils

If hard and soft pencils have their own uses in shading, what if you combine the two? Layering while shading is a neat trick that artists use 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 advice about the best pencils to use for different applications. These recommendations offer you a good foundation so you aren't staring blankly at your pencils and wondering which to pick up. But the best way to know which is right for you is to try it 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.

Play around with these recommendations, do some shading swatches, 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'll get to know your pencils and be able to quickly select the right one for the effect you want.