Drawing Pencils Numbers Explained: With 18 Examples

Drawing Pencil Numbers Explained

Understanding The Graphite Grading System

Have you ever wondered what those numbers are on the back of drawing pencils? What do they stand for? Are they important? 

What are the differences between the different types of pencils? The numbers of the backs of pencils indicate the kind of graphite that the pencil contains, and they are essential for artists to understand. Different types of graphite produce various kinds of marks. 

So, using the right pencil for the correct drawing is very important. For example, if you are drawing something technical like a machine, then you’d want to use a harder lead that doesn’t smear easily. This will allow you to get all of the fine details. But, you’d probably also want to use a softer lead to add dark areas on your drawing. 

The point here is that for each effect you want to achieve, and subject you want to accurately portray, there is a type of graphite you should use. This drawing pencils numbers explained guide will tell you anything and everything you need to know about different types of graphite and how you should use each of them.

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What Does HB Stand For On A Graphite Pencil?

In an HB pencil, the H stands for hard, and the B stands for black. What does that mean? It means just what the name implies. It’s a graphite pencil that is relatively hard and dark. HB pencils are also known as #2 pencils, which is the most common type of graphite pencil in the world. When you were a kid, you probably used #2 pencils all the time in school. It’s the pencil that most people in the world are most familiar with, which is why it’s one of the most popular drawing and sketching pencils. An HB pencil is kind of middle of the road in terms of hardness and darkness. Since you’ve probably used this type of pencil more than any other type, it should be on that you are very comfortable using.

What Does H Stand For On A Graphite Pencil?

The H in a graphite pencil stands for the hardness of a pencil. Pencils with an H in their classification have more clay in their lead, which means they make a lighter, more delicate line. The harder the pencil, the lighter the marks it will make, and the more difficult it will be to blend. For technical drawings, harder leads are ideal. For drawings incorporating a lot of shading softer leads are better since they are easier to blend. If you want a harder pencil, then a higher H is what you are looking for. For a softer pencil, a lower H should be what you reach for.

Drawing Pencil Numbers
Drawing Pencil Numbers E

What Does B Stand For On A Graphite Pencil?

The B on a graphite pencil stands for blackness level. Pencils that have a B in their classification will have more graphite in their lead, which means that they will make darker marks than other pencil types. When drawing, you’ll need to incorporate a wide range of values to achieve a realistic look. That means using lighter and harder pencils for fine details, and softer, blacker pencils for deep shadows. For pencils using a B, the higher the B, the softer that the pencil will be, which means a darker mark.

What Is The Difference Between An H And An B Pencil?

H pencils are harder, and B pencils are softer and darker. Understanding the differences in graphite pencil grades will give you the ability to use the right tools for the right job. One thing to keep in mind is that just because you start your drawing with one type of pencil doesn’t mean that the entire drawing has to be executed with that same type of pencil. In fact, you should always mix and match your pencils while you are working so that you can create a variety of effects on your drawing. You should use harder pencils for details and softer ones for blending in shadows and adding depth to your drawings.

Graphite Numbers Explained

One method of grading pencil hardness is the number system, developed initially in the United States by Nicholas Conte. Since the number system only ranks pencils in the middle range of hardness, it is primarily used for describing writing pencils. With the number grading system, the higher the number, the harder the lead. So higher numbers mean creating lighter, more delicate marks that are more difficult to blend. Should you avoid drawing with pencils that have a number grade? No, there’s no reason to avoid using pencils graded with numbers when you are drawing. In fact, the first pencil you probably ever drew with was a number 2 pencils.

Pencils that are graded with numbers are not a unique pencil that has different qualities than pencils that are classified with letters. Pencils graded with numbers are simply graded in a smaller grouping. What does that mean? Well, a number 1, 2, 3, and 4 pencil corresponds to a B, HB, F, and H pencil. See, they aren’t different, they are just categorized in a different way.

9H: What Type Of Drawings Is A 9H Used For?

A 9H pencil has the hardest pencil lead that you will find in a graphite pencil. It’s known for being able to be sharpened to a fine point, then holding that point for a long time. 9H pencils are best used for fine detail work. If you are trying to put a lot of graphite down on paper with a 9H pencil, you are going to be fighting a losing battle. But, if you want to draw something with fine lines, then a 9H pencil is ideal since it creates light marks that are very difficult to smudge. It can be used for technical drawings, but it’s best to use is for preliminary work. 9H pencil lead is hard to see, and even if you use a lot of pressure, you aren’t going to succeed in producing a dark line. That’s why you should use it for preliminary work, then go over that work with a darker pencil.

8H: What Type Of Drawings Is A 8H Used For?

An 8H lead is very hard, but not quite as hard as a 9H lead. What should you use an 8H lead for? You can use it for anything that you use a 9H lead for since the two are very similar in terms of hardness and the types of marks that they create on paper. The only real difference is that an 8H lead is slightly softer than a 9H lead, which means it will produce marginally darker lines and that it is somewhat more likely to smudge.

7H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 7H Used For?

7H pencil lead is still quite hard, but with it, you are starting to get to the point where marks made with it are a little more easy to see than with harder pencil leads. That means that you can use a 7H pencil for preliminary work, but it will also produce marks that are just dark enough to work for a finished drawing. If you want a light, fine line drawing, then a 7H pencil should do the trick.

6H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 6H Used For?

Like other hard graphite lead pencils, 6H pencils work well for preliminary work, as well as for fine line drawings. Being a harder lead pencil means that a 6H still won’t produce a very dark line, but if you are aiming for a light drawing without heavy lines, then it could work well for you. If you need darker lines, then it’s better to keep moving along to softer pencil leads.

5H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 5H Used For?

5H pencil lead is slightly softer than 6H, but the differences between it and even 9H lead are still quite small. 5H pencil lead should be used the same way that other hard pencil leads are used. It should be used for preliminary drawings, or for fine detail work. A finished drawing in 5H is possible, but it will still have very faint lines.

4H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 4H Used For?

With 4H pencil lead, you are starting to get into graphite that is a little more suitable for drawing with. 

The lines are still fine, but they are a bit darker and can be seen more quickly. 4H graphite should be used for detail work, and if you apply enough pressure, you should end up with fine lines that are just dark enough to be easily seen by the average person.

3H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 3H Used For?

When you get to 3H pencils, you are finally getting into pencils that can be used to complete a drawing while adding light to mid-tones. A 3H pencil won’t allow you to create very dark blacks, but it will enable you to develop greys and mid-tones that work well when you are creating a technical drawing that requires detail. A 3H pencil is also an excellent choice if you want to lightly sketch in a drawing before inking it, or even before painting over it. Just remember that if you are painting over graphite, you’ll need to seal it in place with matt medium or another clear sealant before painting on top of it. Graphite will rise to the surface of a painting eventually, which will ruin it.

2H: What Types Of Drawings Is A 2H Used For?

What can you use a 2H pencil for? Take everything that was said about 3H pencils above, then apply it here. Really. 2H and 3H pencils are very similar, with the only noticeable difference being that a 3H is slightly harder. That means that it makes marginally lighter marks than a 2H pencil. But, for all practical purposes, they are interchangeable.

H: What Types Of Drawings Is An H Used For?

An H pencil corresponds to a #4 pencil on the American grading system, which places it a few spots further up the hardness scale over a #2 pencil. While an H pencil will create lighter lines than the more common #2 pencil, it is possible to create lines that are moderately dark by using a lot of pressure. If you like to have a detailed sketch done before you do a finished drawing or painting, an H pencil can work very well for you. It’s still a hard graphite lead, but it’s softer and can be used to create darker lines than other hard pencils.

HB Or F: What Types Of Drawings Is An HB Or F Used For?

HB and F pencils both produce similar values, but they do so for different reasons. HB pencils have a small amount of clay mixed into the lead, making it hard while still allowing it to add dark values. An F pencil has less graphite, making it hard, and allowing it to create a full range of values. Both of these pencils are popular with artists, and they complement each other well when used together.

B: What Type Of Drawings Is A B Used For?

When you get into the B scale of pencils, you start getting into pencils that are softer and produce darker lines. A pencil that has a B grade is slightly softer than a typical #2 pencil that you are probably very familiar with. If you are looking to add mid-tone shadows to a drawing, you should start by using a B pencil and then progress to softer and harder pencils as you need to add more and more intense shadows.

2B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 2B Used For?

When you want to start to add darker values to a drawing, but aren’t ready to commit to adding really dark values yet, a 2B pencil is a great option. Be warned, 2B pencils are soft enough to smudge if you accidentally rub them. That’s true for the rest of the B pencils that are going to be mentioned here. If you are working with softer pencils, workable fixative is a must. Always remember that when using a workable fixative, use it in a well-ventilated area. The fumes can be harmful, so never use workable fixative indoors without sufficient ventilation.

3B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 3B Used For?

When you are looking to go a bit darker than a 2B pencil will allow, a 3B is the next option you should reach for. 3B pencils are known for producing dark lines, and for being relatively easy to blend. A 3B pencil, with sufficient pressure, can produce reasonably dark values giving you the ability to create the darks that are necessary for a drawing to look 3D. If you want genuinely black values, though, you will need a softer pencil.

4B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 4B Used For?

4B pencils should be used for adding moderately dark black. This type of pencil should also be used when you are looking to create moderately dark blacks that blend. 4B pencils smudge easily, so you have to be careful when using them. But, that same softness that lets them smudge easily also makes them great for blending.

5B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 5B Used For?

Using a 5B pencil will let you add dark values that are getting close to the darkest values that graphite can produce. Getting graphite to create pure black is difficult because of the sheen that it has. But, with the right pencils and sufficient pressure, you can get close to creating black. A 5B pencil isn’t the pencil to use when you are trying to create black. It is the pencil you should use when you are trying to add dark shadows and blend them between lighter areas and darker areas on your drawing.

6B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 6B Used For?

6B pencils are past the midway point of B pencils in terms of softness. They will allow you to create reasonably dark areas, are easy to blend, and are soft enough that you can lay down a lot of graphite quickly. Like other soft, dark pencils, you should use a 6B to help bridge the gap between lighter and darker values in your drawing.

7B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 7B Used For?

Once you get to the 7B range of pencils, you are getting into pencils that are quite soft, blend easily, and can make very dark values. 7B pencils should be used to render in areas of your drawing that are in deep shadow where very little light reaches.

8B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 8B Used For?

8B pencils are the second softest and darkest graphite pencil that you will find, and their use should be reserved for rendering in dark shadows. You can use an 8B pencil to complete an entire drawing as long as you aren’t trying to create any highlights or mid-tones. If you are drawing a dark scene, then using an 8B pencil along with an eraser to lighten areas that are lighter in value.

9B: What Type Of Drawings Is A 9B Used For?

When you are ready to create the darkest values that graphite is capable of producing, then you are prepared for a 9B pencil. 9B pencils should be used for the darkest values in your drawings. They smear and blend easily, and you can put down a lot of graphite with a minimal amount of pressure. This makes a 9B pencil great for laying down dark shadowy areas. Many young artists struggle with creating the darkest black areas in their drawings. This is a mental hurdle that has to be overcome because, without truly dark regions, a picture will always look flat. When you want to create the darkest values possible with graphite, you’ll need a 9B pencil.

How To Create A Tonal Scale

As an artist, creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth, while drawing on a two-dimensional surface, requires practice and skill. It also requires a full range of values. Take a moment to look around the room around you. What do you see? You see areas that are in shadows, but you don’t just see a universal level of darkness, do you? 

No, you see a full range of different values ranging from a slight shadow to an area nearly devoid of light. What about highlights? Are all of the highlight pure, bright white? No. They are also comprised of a range of values. The point to all of this is a simple one, if you want to draw a realistic, three- dimensional looking drawing, you’ll need to draw with a full range of values. How many values? Believe it or not, you should be drawing using 9 different values. 

One of the best ways to practice this and get a feel for different values is to create a tonal scale. How do you do that?

1. Choose a sheet of paper. While any paper will do in a pinch, using a smoother paper will give you more precise control as you add graphite to create values.

2. Get several different pencils ready. Ideally, you’ll choose 9 different pencils, using a mixture of soft and hard pencils.

3. Draw out 9 different squares. These squares can be drawn by hand and messy, or if you are a perfectionist, you can use a ruler and at-square to draw perfect squares.

4. Number the squares 1 to 9.

5. Starting with number 2, you are going to start adding graphite to each square to make each square

darker than the one before it, but lighter than the one after it. You’ll want to use harder pencils for the lighter values and softer pencils for the darker values. You won’t put anything in the first box because position #1 is for pure white on the value scale.

6. For many people, it helps to do a value scale in stages. Leave box 1 blank for the lightest value. In box 9, use a 9B pencil to create as dark of an area as possible.

7. In box 5, you are going to want to use something like a 5B pencil. This is your midpoint. Then proceed to render the square in order using different types of pencils.

8. The hardest part of doing a tonal scale is ensuring that each square is either darker or lighter than the ones next to it.

9. Repeat the first 8 steps until you are able to produce a tonal scale that goes from 1 to 9, lighter to darker. If it takes you 100 times, then that’s what you do, you try it 100 times. Remember, there’s no such thing as too much practice, so don’t feel bad if it takes you several attempts to get this right.

How To Create A Lead Pencil Swatch Chart And How To Use It

A tonal scale is meant to show values progress from lightest to darkest. A swatch chart is similar, but the focus here isn’t on getting the different values in order. You are merely looking to create a reference point that you can look at. The point of creating a lead pencil swatch chart is to give you a visual reference guide that you can use when you are drawing. Here’s how you do it.

1. Choose a sheet of paper. Once again, any paper will do, but a smoother paper works better.

2. Get out every type of graphite pencil that you own. Ideally, you’ll have everything from a 9H to a 9B.

If you don’t, you can always go back and add more swatches later once you get more pencils.

3. Draw a square for each of the pencils that you have. If you don’t have every type of graphite pencil,

then it’s a good idea to leave some space on the paper so you can go back and add more squares when

you have more pencils.

4. Label each of the squares with a specific type of pencil. Using ink here is ideal.

5. Take one pencil at a time and color in the square that matches the type of pencil. Try to use uniform pressure so that you will be able to see how each kind of pencil responds when it is used under similar circumstances.

6. If you plan to keep your graphite swatch chart to use a reference, make sure to spray it with a workable fixative to prevent any unwanted smudging.

Now that drawing pencil numbers have been explained to you, you should be able to utilize them more effectively when you are drawing. It’s incredible just how different each type of graphite it, and once you understand how to use them, you’ll be able to create a full range of values in your art. While it will take time to learn about each type of pencil mentioned above, it’s time well spent. Plus, keeping this guide handy will give you a quick reference that will help you to choose the right pencil when you are drawing.

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Ian Walsh is the creator and author of improvedrawing.com 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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