If you’re new to the art scene (or maybe not), you might be shocked and confused by how many different types of pencils there are for artists. After all, a pencil is a pencil, right? Wrong. If you’re just diving into drawing, or are looking for a great gift to give to an aspiring artist, I’ll help you navigate through all the kinds of drawing pencils available.
Standard Graphite Pencils
Graphite pencils are by far the most commonly used pencils for drawing. Consequently, there are also more varieties of graphite pencils than any other. So what makes them so different?
You might notice that a set of drawing pencils has a stamped letter and number on each pencil, such as 2H, 6B, etc. These numbers and letters label how hard or soft the lead of a pencil is. These usually range from 6H to 9B. The higher the number H, the harder the lead– which means the pencil will produce a lighter line. The higher the number, with the letter B, the softer the lead, thus producing a darker line. So, for example a 4H pencil will be much harder and draw lighter than a 2B.
So you might be wondering what a standard #2 pencil is. To an artist, it would be labeled an “HB”, which sits right in the middle of the range.
Graphite sticks are very similar to standard pencils. The main difference here is that instead of a wood body with a lead core, graphite sticks are just what they sound like— solid sticks of graphite. The advantage of these is that graphite sticks give you the ability to produce thicker, bolder lines that pencils can’t match. Graphite sticks are also great for blocking in shadows and dark tones smoothly over a large area of your paper.
Charcoal pencils are also very similar to graphite pencils; except they trade a graphite core for a core made of compressed charcoal. Charcoal is much softer than graphite, and produces deeper, richer blacks. Charcoal pencils give you the depth of charcoal, with the control and precision that a pencil provides. These are usually used for impressionist drawings, quick sketches, or in conjunction with regular pencils to add a little more depth to a drawing.
Colored pencils are a staple of every grade school classroom—and professional colored pencils aren’t much different from your standard Crayolas. What you will usually find with artist grade colored pencils are leads that are much softer. These leads are often wax-based which allows for more pigment to be placed on the paper. While you can find many different shades of colored pencils, colors are usually layered on top of each other to produce different colors and blending effects.
Watercolor pencils are pigment-based and work much in the same way as colored pencils. The unique quality of watercolor pencils is that the lead dissolves quickly in water. This means you can apply different amounts of water to your lines to create a traditional watercolor effect, or dip the pencil directly in water to add very bold areas of color.
Many beginning artists find watercolors very intimidating. Watercolor pencils are a great jumping off point into the watercolor world, due to the increased control they provide as opposed to a paintbrush. These can also be used alongside colored pencils to add pops of very vibrant color or highlights.