The Best Pencils for Drawing and Sketching

Top view of colored pencils frame arranged on white background.

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While pencil drawing may seem simple, there are several factors to consider when choosing which materials to use. Some pencils are made of charcoal, while others are made of lead, and even among lead pencils, there is great variation in firmness and color. Selecting the right pencil for your needs is the first step in creating a successful project.

Standard Graphite Pencils

The most common pencils are standard graphite pencils, which come in a variety of hardnesses. These are usually labeled from 2H to 6B. The higher the number beside H, the harder the lead of the pencil, and the higher the number beside B, the softer the lead. Pencils with firm lead are ideal for stippling, a technique that involves making very small lines, almost like dashes. Stippling is often used in portraiture to sketch the irises of eyes and to create the impression of stubble and fine facial hair.

Graphite Stick Pencils

Graphite stick pencils are made up of solid sticks of graphite, usually with a plastic coating to keep your fingers clean. These pencils can produce thicker and bolder lines than standard graphite pencils and are ideal for blocking in shadows and dark tones on a large space of drawing paper. Graphite stick pencils are a must-have for most types of drawing. Because they produce clear, bold lines, they are perfect for hatching, a shading technique that can be either light or heavy. Hatching is done by making small lines bunched together to create a fill color. Cross-hatching is done by applying a second layer of bunched lines perpendicular to the first. It is a great way to add darker shades to your portraits.

Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal pencils are made of compressed charcoal, which is soft and produces deeper and richer blacks. These pencils are good for impressionist drawings and quick sketches. Scumbling—moving the pencil in small, circular motions—is a great technique to use with charcoal pencils. By varying the pressure as you draw, you can create depth and texture.

Colored Pencils

The colored pencils that most artists use are softer than regular classroom pencils. Their colors are made up of wax or oil in combination with a variety of pigments and additives. There is great variation in the quality of colored pencils available to artists, so you should experiment with a few different options before selecting one for your project.

Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils are water-soluble and can be mixed with standard color pencils to add vibrant colors to sketches and drawings. These pencils are also perfect for mixed-media projects involving watercolor paints and acrylics.

Choosing the Right Paper

Pencils, in all their variations, will behave differently depending on the type of drawing paper (or another surface) you use. All drawing papers have what is known as a “tooth,” or surface texture, which ranges from rough to smooth. Smooth paper is better for pen and ink drawings and mixed media. Rough paper is better for pencil and charcoal sketching because it holds more pigment. Experiment with different degrees of "tooth" to find the best paper for your project.

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