I’ve tried quite a few pencils, papers, erasers, and other tools over the years, and here are the best I’ve found. I’ve tried to list them in the order of how you might need them as you progress.
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Graphite Drawing Pencils
Pencils come in grades that range from 9B (very soft) to 9H (very hard). A good starter set would be 4H, 2H, HB, 2B and 4B. You can buy drawing pencils in sets or individually. I currently use Derwent Graphic for sketching.
A Good Hand Held Pencil Sharpener
A small plastic one will do but make sure it brings your lead down to a full long sharp point. The Kum Two Stage Long Point Pencil Sharpener is the best I’ve found, and it’s inexpensive and comes with a second set of blades.
The Kum sharpener has two holes. One sharpens the wood and the other sharpens the lead. This arrangement works well and creates a very long and sharp point, and it’s easy on the lead, which leads to fewer broken tips.
However, for reasons no one fully understands, sometimes you’ll come across a pencil with a lead that just keeps breaking. When this happens to you, it’s best to look at it as a sort of test of your patience by the Muses of Art. After the twelfth break or so, with the Muses giggling in you ear, you may decide to throw that pencil away, and that’s okay. That’s what I do too.
Kneaded erasers are very easy on the paper and lift graphite subtly. You can shape them to erase shapes and textures into graphite too. They’re very important and I’ll have a heart attack if there ever is a worldwide kneaded eraser shortage.
So, you can imagine my horror lately when I’ve found kneaded erasers hardened in the package, or dried up after several weeks of not being used. This is a new thing, and not because I’m using ancient erasers from my supply hoard. So I’m going to be harassing the manufacturers to get the story, and I’ll fill you in when I do.
I’m not recommending a brand because I’m a grumpy old woman who is so upset about her $.39 erasers, that I don’t feel inclined to do so.
Rectangular Vinyl (Plastic) Eraser
These erasers cleanly erase very dark graphite, but always use the kneaded eraser to lift most of the graphite first or you can permanently rub the graphite into the paper. I like the good ol’ Alvin Vinyl Eraser. It’s big, rectangular, cheap, and gets the job done.
Electric (Battery Powered) Eraser
The inexpensive Helix Automatic Cordless Eraser has a ergonomically designed body that fits your hand and stays out of your way. It’s important for these erasers to fit the hand well, because you use them in delicate situations. You regularly take them into areas were you’ve already done a lot of work, so you don’t want a clod-hopper of an eraser, you want a slim-line precision tool.
I’ve read all sorts of feeble reviews of these erasers, so let me go over a few points with you. First of all, the eraser nib goes into an eraser holder. The holder pinches tight around the nib when you push it into the body of the electric eraser. When you push the button, the eraser spins the nib and, tah dah, erasing goodness ensues!
The trick is to put the nib into the holder so it’s the right length. If it’s too long, it’ll wobble when it spins. If it’s too short, you’re in danger of digging the holder into the paper when you use the eraser. So, you have to find that perfect length.
Once you’ve got the length figured out, you can spin the nib on sandpaper and sharpen it to a point. See where I’m going with this? You’ve got yourself an eraser you can draw with! I’ll just leave you to imagine the possibilities.
Get a blow-bulb to blow away graphite dust and eraser crumbs. Look in the pharmacy in the “infant” section for a blow-bulb type of “nasal aspirator.”
There are some really bad drawing papers out there. Really bad. If you have to buy drawing paper from a big box store like Walmart, and they don’t have any name brands, at least try to find one marked ‘drawing paper’ and ‘medium surface.’ Honestly though, don’t expect to be able to draw very dark values on it. Just use it for light sketching and line drawing.
I use Canson Classic Cream and Strathmore 400 Series drawing pads. These are good papers with enough ‘tooth’ to hold the graphite so you can create texture and deep values on them, and some pretty darned good art too.
The size of you pad of paper is kind of important . If it’s too big, you won’t want to take it with you on trips, or out in the backyard to draw the flowers. An 9 x 12 or smaller pad works the best for me.
These come in a plastic body and you can sharpen the eraser’s end into useful shapes, like a point or a wedge, to create special effects. I like the Tombow Mono Knock Stick Eraser.
Tombow MonoZero Eraser
The Tombow Mono Zero Eraser is small round tipped eraser that erases small areas extremely well. I’m glad they finally got around to inventing this. I use it all the time.
Small Sharp Knife
Use it to shape erasers into cool new erasing tools.
A small Filbert brush will inspire you to try new blending, shading techniques, and textures. You can make it a better graphite blender by cutting the bristles down to about 1/8″, at the same angle.
I always buy the Blick Masterstroke Golden Taklon Brush, Filbert, Size 2. This is a very small brush for blending details, like flower petals. A larger brush in the same style works very well for larger areas. The larger brushes benifit from a trim to shorten their bristles too.
Upgrade Your Pencils
I use Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils for my fine art drawing. Keep your Derwent Graphics for sketching, as I do, but if you want to create some extraordinarily fine textures and gradations, you need to try Grafwoods. Each grade is absolutely pure, meaning there are no darker notes of graphite in it at all.
There’s a bit of a learning curve to drawing with these pencils, so be prepared for some practice time. And they are pricey, but the time they save because of their grade pureness alone, is worth their $2+/pencil price to me.
Upgrade Your Paper
I use Arches Hotpress Watercolor Pads. Arches is an interally sized, 100% cotton, archival paper, and it’s very tuff stuff. The texture can carry very deep dark black, but also extremely delicate details. You can also take an electric eraser to it, dig through layers of graphite, and draw right over that spot again, blending it back in without a hint that you previously jackhammered-out that part of the drawing. I love Arches hotpress watercolor paper, and I use it on all my ‘for posterity’ drawings.
However, I’m always testing new papers. Strathmore has a multi-media and a watercolor paper that I’m currently testing. If a new paper ever does ‘turn my head,’ I’ll let you know.
Use A Matte Fixative
Use a protective spray finish on your drawings. Don’t skimp on this. Your drawings are worth it, and one can lasts a while. For graphite drawings, use the kind marked “archival,” “matte finish,” and “for pastels and charcoal.” I use Lascaux Fine Art Fixative. It’s not the least expensive brand, but it’s the best.
Upgrage to a really fine battery powered eraser.
I had a beautiful Sakura Eraser for 30 years and used it on hundreds of drawings. I used it for nearly twenty years before I wrote my book, then I used it for all the drawings in my book, I used it for all the drawings here on the blog, and so much more. Sadly, last summer, I left the batteries in it, they exploded and it died.
Here beside me now is my new Sakura Eraser. Nothing has changed about it at all. The body is the same. It feels the same in my hand. Well, one thing is different, my dog Dot doesn’t run from the room when I use it. I guess the old one had started making a sound that only she could hear. Ah, life goes on, and life is good.