Are Graphite Pencils Good for Sketching?

Are Graphite Pencils Good for Sketching
Are Graphite Pencils Good for Sketching

The answer to one of the most compelling questions is also one that's the hardest to answer. Are graphite pencils good for sketching is also among the toughest to answer. But to be honest, the best pencil that's good for sketching comes down to personal opinion.

The reason is simple, and it all has to do with trying every pencil you can get your hands on. Now, why am I stating this? I want to tell you why this has to do with the levels of lead hardness.

Every successful artist in the world is going to be asked this question. You'll never get a similar answer, but you will hear name brands being thrown around a lot. One good example is the famed Blackwing pencils that Walt Disney and his famous animators used.

The reality is that expensive pencils are often quality pencils that last longer because of how they're made. But it also has to do with brilliant marketing too.

Hearing that a particular pencil is good, also being used by famous artists is a big motivation for aspiring artists. These artists want to emulate their favorite idols and often feel the tools they use to better work.

I can sum up this kind of thinking in an expression I heard years ago. This expression often goes: The suit doesn't make the man', which is a harsh reminder of learning a skill.

Learn how to successfully combine paper collage and sketching in my new drawing course. Click Here For More Information: Creating Textured Drawings.

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What Are Graphite Pencils Used For?

For the most part, graphite pencils are used for writing and sketching. Because art isn't always part of a school's curriculum, you see more often the graphite being used for writing.

It's not until you start looking into the world of sketching that graphite is a widespread medium used. Graphite is one of the oldest sketching materials next to chalk and charcoal and was first used in the 1600s.

It wasn't until later in that century, in 1795, that a French inventor found a way to formulate graphite into a rod form. By varying the amount of graphite and clay, the degree of softness or hardness could be achieved.

These rods were sandwiched inside wooden cylinders, and thus the graphite pencil was born. Of course, the inventor's name is Nikolas-Jacques Conté, and he intended his invention for artists.

What graphite does for sketching is what most artists love about using these pencils.

With the variety of softness to hardness range, the amount of graphite that is laid down is variable.

A graphite pencil is a go-to favorite for those who learn which pencils they end up liking the most. And this is perhaps why it's so hard to pin down, which is better than the previous hardness.

Sketching Pencils Guide:

To give you a good idea of what range that pencil softness to hardness guide it easy to cover. Actually, using them in person is also part of the learning process.

Since there are so many brands and types of graphite produced, the quality of graphite can vary as well. Here is how the scale works for graphite pencils.

• The greyscale (Numeric scale)

Here's how it works with the numeric scale. The hardness of the core is clearly marked on the pencil. These are pencils that have higher amounts of clay over the amount of graphite. Clay that is added to graphite makes pencils harder.

This scale starts with 9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, and F. The softer the lead, the faster the lead gets deposited onto the paper. Because of this reason, these pencils need to be sharpened more often.

• The grey to black scale (HB scale)

Since this is referred to as the HB scale. These are the kinds of pencils that indicate the darkness level. They add the H' to indicate these are hard leads to indicate the blackness and hardness level in one. For example, you might see ‘HH' for a pencil that is very hard. Or a pencil that is marked ‘BBB,' which would indicate that it's very black. This list includes: HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9xxB.

There are also variations in the 9B level that include 9H or 9B variants. Keep a lookout for European-made pencils that use the HB scale. Of course, the softness of HB graphite does vary from country to country.

If you have access to Japanese graphite pencils, you'll find that these pencils are softer and darker than European brands.

What Are Graphite Pencils Used For?

Graphite pencils are used for all sketching forms, from the simple outlines of a drawing to the final touches. It's a universal tool that can be utilized in a variety of ways.

The primary foundation lines made it easier with a highly sharpened pencil, but shading also enhances the shadows created. Graphite's one of the few materials is easy to use and quick to lay down for instant sketches.

Depending on what kind of graphite pencil you use, the lead's size and shape can be adjusted. Using a razor knife or pencil sharpener, the graphite tip is used as a paintbrush to make small or large strokes.

Some pencils take more work to put the color onto your paper, whereas softer blends are effortless. Graphite can be used to draw simple outlines for the start of a watercolor drawing.

Some artists prefer to use graphite pencils to map-out their oil paintings, while others love them for mixed media artwork. There is no wrong way to use a graphite pencil, and it can be wielded on canvas and paper alike. Since it makes a universal tool for drawing and sketching, lines can be erased or blended to any degree. Graphite pencils are the foundation of any starting point of sketches as long as they've been around.

Which is Darker: HB or 2B?

In terms of darkness, it might sound as if HB will be darker on the graphite scale. The truth is hard to spot unless you are aware of how the HB scale is set. Of course, 2B is darker in reality since it goes on a scale up to 9 for darkness.

HB is dark, but you have to put a lot of graphite onto your paper to achieve this. You can get a darker effect using a 2B pencil with less graphite used in return.

The problem is that graphite layers don't stick well to each other, so paper often needs a fixative spray. After the spray has thoroughly dried, another layer can be laid down.

This can be avoided by using a darker pencil that has a higher HB number. This way, your layers of graphite don't find themselves falling away from your paper surface so quickly.

The darkness also depends on the amount of blending and the texture of your paper.

Particular paper that has a bite will readily accept graphite since it transfers onto the paper surface texture.

As this texture is filled with graphite particles, it may take more effort to get a solid color. Using a blending stump, spots that didn't get into your paper's deep areas can be filled or colored-in.

Which is Darker: H or HB?

There is a difference between these graphite pencils since they are from different scales. One of them is from the numeric scale, and the other is the HB import scale.

Unless you know these two types of pencils, it would be hard to tell which is which. Any H' scale is a graphite pencil is rated for the level of clay that's added for hardness.

HB graphite pencils have less clay, so the color will be darker.

So, of course, HB graphite is ultimately darker but is the lightest on the HB color scale. If you compare these two sides by the side, you will find they nearly appear at first glance to be the same.

Upon closer inspection, the HB is darker by one whole shade. Depending on the amount of pressure you use on the paper, you could get the same shade. The ‘H' graphite will then look just like the HB graphite in that case.

Using different amounts of pressure on all of the ‘H' level pencils, the lead will always leave a darker line.

Many artists like ‘H' graphite are because they can apply light pressure with lighter lines results.

The added clay is a plus for those who prefer the resistance and don't need to use a lot of pressure to produce a lighter line.

What is the Darkest Lead?

The darkest lead on the graphite scale is rated at 9B. This also will indicate that the lead is softer too.

There is virtually no clay in 9B pencils, so you get the maximum amount of lead deposited onto the paper. You might find that some pencils will use other additives to make the lead appear darker.

Various manufacturers like to add their own spin to the darkness scale.

You may see companies like Uni Mitsubishi or Staedtler that have 10B, 11B, and 12B graphite. These may sound darker, but not always. Japanese graphite is known to be one of the darkest, and perhaps is adding charcoal to their graphite to make it appear darker.

This wouldn't make it a pure graphite pencil, but the darker color is noticeable. For the most part, the darkest that graphite will go is the standard 9B on the HB scale.

If you want darker, you'll have to switch over to something other than graphite or is mixed graphite. An excellent example is the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black series.

These have excellent black quality with a combination of carbon mixed with a binder. To be honest, they aren't actually graphite pencils at all.

What are B Pencils Used For?

These pencils are mainly used for sketching and shading. Because all of the ‘B' pencils have a different value of darkness, various kinds of shading can be produced.

This also allows artists to use just the right shade to give their sketches a particular look. Trying to get a darker shade has drawbacks too.

Graphite, as you may already know, has a habit of becoming shiny. This is tricky to control but not hard to solve.

You can do a couple things to remove the shine from B graphite drawings. You can use a matt spray fixative. There is also a shading technique that lays down graphite in layers.

These layers are applied at different angles, so the shine is less obvious. Ultimately, you can try using a blending stump, but this will increase the shine more or less. I recommend blotting the graphite using a textured paper towel first.

Afterward, you can go ahead and use matt sealant like fixative spray or, in a pinch, some non-glossy hair spray. Using any of the B' pencils gives you a wide range of light Vs. dark.

It's better to use a set of pencils so you can have a better selection. But for experienced artists, some will prefer to use a couple medium pencils that do all the shading.

What Does B Mean on Pencils?

Pencils manufacturers will put a letter on their graphite when a color is graded. The B' stands for black, and the scale is numbered to tell you how light or dark the black is. Most of the pencils you see in the US don't adhere to this rule all the time since a standard pencil just tells you the hardness. For example: In school, you would often see the Orangey-yellow No2 pencil on your desk.

For most artist pencils that come from Europe, these graphite pencils change into the HB scale. This now gives a clear indication of the light to dark scale. As opposed to the hardness, American pencils are meant to be used as writing tools. Any of the No2 pencils would last a long time because of the high amount of clay added. The higher the number on these pencils also starts to see softer lead.

The difference between a No2 and No4 pencil is pretty easy to spot. Using a No4 pencil is soft like butter, whereas the No2 feels scratchy at times on the paper surface. Actually, the darkness level for US pencils only goes up to No4. If you want to have darker graphite, you'll need to refer to the Brinell scale that indicates HB graphite levels.

Which is the Darkest Pencil?

On the HB scale, the obvious color that will be the darkest is 9B. That's for graphite scale, so the dark color you get is only as dark as the brand you buy. If you want to have a darker color, you'll have to choose mixed graphite brands. These are brands that have higher amounts of carbon added to make the graphite appear darker. Now, this isn't a bad thing, but some artists are particular about using graphite.

You might say these are called the graphite purists and are identifying with the historical significance is observed. If you look at all of the classic artists who used graphite pencils, the list is endless. The darkest pencil you use is obviously your choice and should define your personal style. This way, you aren't stuck with a look that gives your drawing the exact shade of dark that you like.

Which is the Darkest Pencil in the World?

Some pencils are very dark, but they are not explicitly made with graphite inside them. I recommend using the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black series that gives true black colors that work just like a pencil. You might also consider using charcoal, which is pretty black but is not technically a pencil color. There is a brand called General's Carbon that provides a very nice black. Click here to view this product on Amazon 

If you can get your hands on Kimberly 9xxB. Click here to visit Amazon

Now, these pencils are graphite with carbon added to give a darker black. So check these out if you're looking for fabulous brands that still give you graphite mixtures in pencil.

What do Professional Artists Use to Sketch? 

All artists will have their favorite brands that they learn about from experimentation. Sometimes, other artists will recommend art supplies to others because they're excited about how well these art materials are working. If it comes down to brand names, you can't beat the European brands like Staedtler or Faber Castell. That doesn't mean that they're the best, but they do produce quality graphite pencils.

Most professional artists are using a variety of pencils in their collection of drawing tools. You might see several different sets of pencils used that all produce different shades and effects. Assuming that any starving artist will have limited funds for good drawing pencils, there are bargain brands. I've found after years of not having enough money for good pencils, the cheap sets you can find deals.

These are the kind that is sold at the dollar store and aren't too bad. Hopefully, this article finally solves this question about graphite pencils once and for all.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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