Recommended Drawing Pencils For Realistic Drawing22/09/2021
All drawing pencils feel different to work with, and have unique properties that determine how your drawing will look. This guide will introduce you to the most common pencils used for realistic drawing, discuss the ones used most often in my drawing tutorials (and why), and recommend high-quality brands for you to try.
First, to address the elephant in the room. What drawing pencils should you use for realistic drawing?
If you are a beginner, recommend that you start with graphite pencils. They are some of the smoothest and most easily erasable pencils to draw with, making them excellent for confidence-building when you’re learning to draw.
With some experience, you may choose to graduate with charcoal pencils, which require more technical skills to use effectively but have their advantages over graphite. Read on to discover the differences between graphite and charcoal pencils, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and which brands recommend.
Graphite pencils come in a series of ‘hardnesses’, or ‘grades’, ranging from 9B (the softest) to 9H (the hardest).
The full range of graphite drawing pencils looks something like this:
9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, 9H
The range varies slightly, depending on the brand. The grades above (and below) reflect the range of Staedtler Mars Lumograph graphite pencils.
Why are pencil grades important?
Because the grade, or the hardness, softness of a pencil, determines the range of values and type of line that the pencil can create. Let’s begin with the range of values:
If you picture a full value range (from white to pitch black), each pencil grade can create a segment of that value range.
In the diagram above, you can see that the HB pencil can create a certain segment of values. Within its value range is the ‘most comfortable’ range that it can create. This means that you can extend its value range by using a kneaded eraser to lighten values or layering your pencil marks to darken values, but it will take more effort to do that than to simply use a pencil that comfortably creates the value that you need.
The harder the pencil, the lighter the range of values that it creates. The softer the pencil, the darker the range of values that it creates.
Let’s compare the value ranges of two more graphite pencil grades. In the image below, the top gradation was drawn with a 2H graphite pencil. It ranges from the darkest possible value the 2H can create to the lightest possible value that it can create.
The bottom gradation was drawn with a 4B graphite pencil, and ranges from the darkest possible value the 4B can create to the lightest value it can create.
How do these gradations compare?
First, notice the vast difference in the range of values created by the 2 H and 4 B. The 2 H can comfortably create from a value 2 to a value 3 or 4 on the value scale, while the 4 B can create from a value 6 through 8. I had to use my kneaded eraser to create the lighter values of the 4 B gradation, while it was almost effortless to use the 2 H to gradate into the white of the paper.
Notice how much smoother the 2 H gradation appears as well, while you can see more of the paper texture in the 4 B gradation.
How does the grade of a drawing pencil affect line quality?
The hardest pencils create sharper, lighter, thinner lines, while the softest pencils create softer, darker, thicker lines. (Of course, this depends on the sharpness of your pencil as well, but generally speaking – it is much easier to create a sharper line with a hard pencil, and a softer line with a soft pencil.)
Do you need the whole range of graphite pencils, from 9 H to 9 B?
If you are new to drawing and are developing the sensitivity of your hand, you may want to add a few harder pencils, such as a 2 H, to make it easier to draw the lightest values in your drawing.
Graphite pencils come in several forms:
- They can be encased in wood – these are the most common form, pictured above.
- These graphite pencils are made of a mixture of graphite powder and clay filler. The ratio of the two determines what grade, or hardness, the pencil is. The more filler – the harder the pencil.
- They can be in pencil form but “woodless”
- They can be in stick form
Working With Graphite Pencils
The application of graphite on paper is smoother than charcoal and easier to gain control of. It can be very comfortable and enjoyable to work with, especially when paired with smooth drawing paper.
Keep in mind that graphite has a metallic sheen.
The shine, or glare, can be very apparent when you stand at an angle to a picture drawn in graphite, such as the one below:
As you can see, the sheen becomes more apparent where there are darker values. So, the darker the tones in your drawing, the more they will reflect light and produce glare. This can be particularly irksome when trying to photograph graphite drawings.
While there are ways to minimize graphite glare, it is ultimately an inescapable quality of the medium. If you experiment with graphite and find that the glare is too much for you, don’t fight it. If it bothers you too much, just don’t use it! Instead, use one of the many drawing pencils available to you that don’t naturally have a shiny, metallic quality.
Tips for Minimizing Graphite Glare:
- As you can see in the image above: the lighter the area, the less glare will be produced. Choose to work in graphite when you are drawing a lighter image.
- If you must use graphite for the dark areas of your drawing, instead of pressing harder with the pencil, slowly layer the graphite to darken the area.
Charcoal pencils consist of charcoal powder mixed with a gum binder. This concoction is then compressed into sticks or encased in wood. As with graphite, the amount of binder used regulates the degree of hardness of the pencil. The more binder used, the harder the grade of the pencil.
The hardness of charcoal pencils usually ranges from HB to 6B (from hardest to softest). A few brands go a step further and make 2 H pencils.
You may come across charcoal pencils by other brands that are classified simply as ‘soft, medium, and hard’ or ‘light, medium, and dark’.
General’s pencils also have a wider range. For example, a General’s HB tends to be harder (and therefore easier to create lighter marks with) than a ‘hard’ charcoal pencil. If you must use charcoal drawing pencils labelled as ‘soft, medium and hard’:
- The ‘soft’ pencil is comparable to a 6 B
- The ‘medium’ pencil is comparable to a 2 B or 4 B
- The ‘hard’ pencil is comparable to an HB
Willow And Vine Charcoal Sticks
Literally burnt twigs, willow and vine charcoal sticks are uncompressed charcoal. As opposed to compressed charcoal (which is found in regular charcoal pencils), uncompressed charcoal is much softer, lighter, and easier to spread and erase. In fact, it lifts off the paper so easily that you really have to be careful not to disturb it!
Willow and vine charcoal sticks are particularly useful tools for filling in and evening out large value masses, especially when paired with a soft bristle brush. You can also use it to tone your own paper.
Graphite vs. Charcoal
The drawing pencils that you choose depend on many factors. One pencil is not “better” than another: they all have different characteristics that are suitable for different kinds of drawings. You will learn to choose the right medium for your drawings as you experience the qualities of the different drawing pencils, and figure out what kind of drawing you want to create.
Can you combine graphite and charcoal?
The best way to get to know what drawing pencils you prefer are to work with both! An excellent exercise to compare the properties of these two pencil types is to draw the same subject matter using graphite and then charcoal. Why not do this with me in my Realistic Drawing 101 course, while learning the essential skills and concepts of realistic drawing?