The leads of drawing pencils are made with ground graphite and a filler, and the ratio of one to the other determines what grade of hardness a pencil is. The type of filler used depends on the brand.
The “harder” grades (F – 9H) contain more filler, and the “softer” grades (HB – 9B) contain less. While the correct ratio of filler to graphite for each hardness grade must be well known, I’ve never found two brands of drawing pencils that use the same formula, and one brand’s 2H pencil can be the same as another brand’s 4H. I’ve even found huge variations in consistency between different lots of the same brand, so it’s a good idea to test each new pencil.
Drawing Pencil Grades
The following table shows a comparison of some of the most common drawing pencils available in the US. I’ve judged them by the quality of the filler used and by how each grade looks on paper. I’ve listed approximate prices, too, but a good pencil saves you a ton of frustration and that’s worth quite a bit!
Some brands don’t make the full range of grades, so you may have to mix and match if you want a full range to draw with. For example, I currently use Staedtler Drawing Leads in a mechanical holder and use Derwent Graphic Pencils to complete the range.
Pencil Brand and Quality Comparison
|Cretacolor Fine Art Graphite Pencils||2H – 9B||Average||Avg.||.||.X|
|Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Pencil
Not the best for beginners. You need some experience to handle well.
|HB – 9B||Excellent||High||X.||X.|
Excellent drawing pencils.
|4B – 4H||Excellent||Avg.||X||X|
|General’s Kimberly Drawing Pencils||6B – 9H||Poor||Low||.||.X|
|Prismacolor Turquoise Pencils
Good starter set because of price. I bought this brand for my first full set of drawing pencils.
|6B – 6H||Average||Avg.||.||.X|
|Prismacolor Turquoise 2mm Leads
These leads are inexpensive and have a good range. I use them for mid range values, but the 6B is not nearly as “soft” as Staedtler’s 4B lead.
|6B – 6H||Average||Low||.X||.|
|Staedtler Lumograph Drawing Pencils
Excellent drawing pencils.
|HB – 8B||Excellent||Avg.||X||x|
|Staedtler 2mm Leads
My current choice for dark (soft) 2mm leads.
|4B – 4H||Excellent||Avg.||X||.|
|Drewent Graphic Pencils
Excellent drawing pencils. My current choice for wooden pencils.
|9B – 9H||Excellent||Avg.||X||X|
|Tombow Mono Professional Drawing Pencils||6B – 4H||Average||Avg.||X|
Drawing Pencil FAQ
Do I need a pencil in each hardness?
Not at first. A good range for a beginner is 4B, 2B, B, 2H, 4H. If you’re more experienced and moving into fine art drawing, though, you’ll need a full range of leads to create different effects.
What do you think about the ultra small (.5 mm) leads for mechanical pencils?
I don’t use them. They don’t come in the full range of hardness and, more importantly, I use very sharp leads to create many of the textures in my drawings and these small leads are too blunt for that, and they’re too fragile to sharpen.
Graphite is shiny. Is there anyway to avoid that?
No, but there are a couple of things you can do to make it less of a problem. First of all, don’t squash the paper grain by hatching too hard. Instead, apply the graphite in layers. Use a sharp soft lead first, but don’t try to cover all of the paper in one pass. Then lightly go over that hatch with a sharply pointed harder lead. This will help you cover the paper evenly, which will give you a dark value without ruining the grain, and the grain will “interrupt” the shininess of the slick graphite making it less noticeable.
Finally, after a drawing is finished, spray it with a matte fixative. That cuts down on the shininess considerably and keeps the work from being inadvertently smeared. Any shininess left after fixing is usually only visible at certain angles so, if the drawing is hung on a wall, shininess is usually not visible at all. For the best possible presentation, fix your drawing, have it matted, and hang it out of direct sunlight.