Pencils for Drawing - Choosing, Sharpening and Care

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Here are some tips on choosing and using the best-known and most widely used drawing implement - graphite pencils. There is advice on which pencil grades to use for expressive drawing, how to choose pencils, how to sharpen them for best results and how to

There is a vast choice of drawing materials. This article concentrates on the best known - pencils.

Types of Pencils  There are several types of pencil, named according to the nature of the inner core which is the part that makes the mark. "Lead" pencils are the best known, though the "lead" is actually graphite mixed with clay. Charcoal pencils have compressed charcoal as their core and make soft black marks on paper. Carbon pencils are very black too, but more dense than charcoal. There are also pastel pencils, watercolour pencils, those which make water-soluble marks...All these have their place in drawing, but for this article I will deal with the graphite or "lead" pencils.

Choosing Pencils Please don't think any old pencil will do just because you're a beginner - good materials give better results, which in turn will encourage you. 

Choose pencils which feel good as they move across the paper - some pencils glide smoothly, others feel gritty. There are no right or wrong choices here, just try them and use what feels best to you. Personally I prefer a pencil which grips the paper slightly, but you may disagree, so do experiment. The shop may provide scrap paper to try the pencils, or take some with you but in fairness to the shop, only make a few small marks before purchase.

"Lead" pencils come in several grades according to how hard or soft the inner core is (determined by the proportion of clay to graphite - the more clay, the softer the result .) The "H" grades are, as you might expect, hard, make a light line and are good for technical drawing but not really suitable for expressiveness as there isn't much variation in the marks they make. They usually run from 9H, the hardest, through 8H, 7H etc., to H which is softer but still too hard for artists' drawings.  The "B" grades are the softer ones (the B stands for Black!) and are far better for this purpose. They run from 9B to B - the higher the number, the softer the pencil core. Grades 9B down to 4B will give lovely velvety dark tones and will smudge easily, which can give beautiful results. For general purposes either 2B or 3B is most versatile - these will give precision but also good gradation of dark tones. Pencils vary with the make too, so a 2B from one manufacturer may give a different result to another, so again, try them out. The ordinary pencil you find in the kids' school bag is usually HB (or possibly F, meaning Fine) which is in the middle and though it can be useful, it isn't as expressive as something a little softer.

Sharpening Pencils  If at all possible, avoid mechanical "pencil sharpeners". These are best for children of course, for safety reasons, but for adult use, unless extra safety precautions are necessary, a sharp blade gives a far more sensitive point to work with. It doesn't wear down as quickly as a machined point and is much more satisfying to use. A Stanley type knife is best - the weight of it will help as it shaves off the wooden casing of the pencil. A lighter craft knife or scalpel in a holder will do, but make sure the blade is sharp. A blunt blade will cause injury as well as not doing the job you intended. Actually, if you can sharpen children's pencils for them with a knife, they will learn to use a sensitive drawing tool and be all the better for it. 

To sharpen a pencil, don't use the knife like a potato peeler! Hold the knife and pencil as in the photo. If you're left-handed, just use the opposite hands. The golden rule is to keep the knife quite still - the blade at a shallow angle, nearly horizontal, with the sharp edge away from you.  With the other hand place the pencil under the blade, and pull the pencil back towards you, against the blade. Use the thumb of the pencil-holding hand to push against the blade as you pull the pencil towards you. Keep the pencil at a shallow angle to the blade so it shaves off long slivers, and rotate the pencil in your hand until you have a nice long sharp point. Finally, gently hone the tip of the lead itself against the blade, rotating it as you go and again keeping the knife quite still. It takes a bit of practice and the lead may well break the first few times, but it is worth persevering. A fine long pencil point will enable you to see your work more clearly and make sharp precision marks as well as using the long point on its side for broad tonal areas.

Keep sharpening your pencils, or have several ready sharpened so you don't have to keep stopping. It's easy to get lazy and put up with fuzzy lines when a little preparation makes all the difference to your success.

Caring for Pencils   Try not to drop them on the floor or the leads will break. Store them in a cushion-lined box for the same reason, preferably fixed together with an elastic band to prevent them rattling against each other in transit. Remember to sharpen at the other end from where the pencil grade is printed.

Care in choosing, sharpening and looking after your pencils will reward you with more success in your drawings.


1 comment

Judith Barton
Posted on Feb 27, 2012