Tools of the trade: Pencils

"being an artist is the same as being a wizard,
only instead of a wand you use a pencil for your magic."

It can be said that drawing is the art of making a series of marks until they become something other than that. There are many things that you can use to make these marks, and many more things upon which to make them, and each of these play an important part in how this magical transformation is perceived in the end. Our personal favourite is the classic pencil and paper combination, and although it might sound like this should conclude our little article there is actually quite a lot to be said about these timeless mediums.

So, let's start with pencils. We have used a lot of different pencils over the years and the main factors that led us to our favourite leads are: shape, hardness and quality (and of course chewability, but we're not really supposed to chew our pencils so we won't say anything more about that).

You might be wondering why we say a pencil's shape is important to us, and luckily, it's quite an easy one to answer. Round pencils roll around, and sometimes they will roll right off your desk or drawing board and fall onto the floor. And although playing a spontaneous game of hide and seek with your pencil might be fun for some, this will also cause the lead inside the pencil to break and that's just no good. So, a pencil with flat sides is essential to us so that it doesn't roll off our drawing board. We also find a pencil with flat sides more comfortable to hold and easier to control when we're drawing wee details.

When it comes to the quality and hardness of a pencil it might help to give you a wee bit of technical info, which might sound a bit boring but it's worth knowing. A pencil is made using a mixture of graphite and clay which is then enclosed in a protective encasing, which is usually made from wood. The mixture of graphite and clay will determine how hard (H) or brittle (B) the pencil will be. When you buy a single pencil anywhere other than an art supply shop (or find one behind the sofa) chances are that it's a 'HB' pencil, and as you might have derived from its name, it's midway between hard 'H' and brittle 'B' which will give you a good all-round pencil. When more clay is added the lead will become harder, which will give you a sharper but lighter mark and this is good for linework and doing wee bits of detail (usually ranging from an H up to 9H as the clay content increases*), whereas adding more graphite to the mixture will give you a softer but darker mark which is good for sketching and shading (usually ranging from a B up to 9B as the graphite content increases*).

This is probably a good place to mention the quality aspect of a pencil. A good quality pencil uses graphite and clay that has been thoroughly grounded down to a very fine powder ensuring that it mixes well and contains no bits or lumps. If this is not done your pencil might contain some nasty little surprises hidden somewhere in its lead and this can have disastrous consequences. Imagine for a moment that you've been working on a portrait of a wee little faerie for hours on end. You've chosen a 2B pencil to add some very light shading on her cheek and then suddenly there's a solid bit of graphite in the lead, instantly turning the tip of your pencil from a 2B into a 9B, leaving the poor faerie with some very dark marks all over her face and thus ruining your drawing and her portrait. So, while one pencil might look as good as the next, this is not always the case and if you can afford to, we recommend investing in some good quality pencils that's been made specifically for artists. The shopkeeper at your local art shop should be able to tell you the best ones they stock. We personally like to use Derwent's traditional graphic pencils and if they are not available, we like to use Faber-Castell's 9000 range of pencils.

And that brings us to the most important thing to consider in a pencil, which is its hardness. When you're making a detailed drawing, you want to use a range of pencils that varies in hardness, so that you can capture all the different tones and shades. However, it's perfectly fine to use just one pencil when you are making some scribbles and sketches, and this one pencil is a good place to start when it comes to choosing the range you want to use for your detailed drawings. You might of course already have a favourite sketching pencil, but if not, we would suggest you try out a wide range of candidates to fill this important position...let's say from an HB up to a 6B (some art shops have a wee bit of paper next to their selection of pencils so that you can try each one). If possible, do a couple of sketches with each one of them. Make some big scribbles and some wee ones. Do some detailed bits and some rough bits. Draw a goblin, draw an elf, draw lots of little lines while holding the pencil at different angles. Do some shading while applying different amounts of pressure and do this at different angles as well. Finally make a wee note next to these saying which pencil you used before moving on to the next one in line. Once you've tried each pencil, compare all the sketches you made, and don't overthink it like we often do, just choose the one that looks the best to you, and the note beside it will tell you which one of these is your sketching pencil. If you're not able to sample various pencils a 3B would be a good choice to start with.

Now that you've found your sketching pencil, you are ready to choose the rest of your range. You can of course use as many pencils as you like when you make a drawing, but we would suggest starting with a range of three, which will give you your 3 basic tones: light, mid and dark (which we'll discuss in more detail in another article). Your sketching pencil should be just right for the mid-tones, so that one's already taken care of. For your light tones, use the pencil that's 2 steps down from this and for your dark tones use the pencil that's 2 steps up. So, for instance, if your sketching pencil (mid-tone) is a 4B, use a 2B for your light tones and a 6B for your dark tones, which means your range of pencils will be a 2B, 4B and 6B (as you can see in figure 1 below).

Figure 1

The trio of pencils that you end up choosing with this method should be a good starting point and will allow you to draw almost anything you can dream up. We rarely use more than 3 pencils for any of our picsee pictures (although that might be because we find it impossible to keep track of more than 3 things at a time), but in the end it comes down to personal preference, so if you ever feel the need to expand or adjust your range of pencils, you should most definitely do so. If you'd like a bigger tonal range (lighter light bits and darker dark bits) just add the pencil that's 4 steps up and the one that's 4 steps down to your current range using the same method as above. If we once again imagine that your mid-tone pencil is a 4B you will add an HB and an 8B, which means your new range of pencils will now consist of an HB, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. Or maybe you would prefer to add a pencil that's just 1 step up and one step down from your mid-tone, which will allow you to do smoother transitions from one tone to another, and this will give you a range of 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B and 6B. Alternatively, if you are happy with the number of pencils in your range, but would like the shadows in your drawing a bit darker, just move your entire range a step up, so a range of 2B, 4B and 6B will become 3B, 5B and 7B. And if you have lots of linework in your drawing and have to sharpen your pencil every 2 seconds to get a nice sharp line it might be best to move your entire range of pencils a step down, which will give you a range consisting of a B, 3B and 5B pencil (which happens to be a range a lot of people like to use and one we would recommend if you feel a bit unsure). The best advice we can really give you is to experiment and play around until you find the range that works best for you.

Our own range of pencils use to be much darker when we started out, but our drawings changed over the years and our selection of pencils followed. These days we do a lot more line work and a wee bit of lettering, which required a harder pencil, so we adjusted our range accordingly and you will probably do the same as you explore your own artistic style. We also like to use a slightly different range of pencils depending on the size of paper we use (we'll be talking more about paper in our next article). When we make drawings on paper that's bigger that A4 (or letter) we find that a B, 3B and a 5B pencil works best for us. And for drawings on an A4 sized paper or smaller, we like to use a HB, 2B and a 4B pencil (and since this range includes an HB, we sometimes also use a 0.5 HB clicky pencil to draw some lines and letters, but we were told artist shouldn't use clicky pencils, so don't tell anyone).

A Few Tips.

- Extra sharp and smooth pencils -

After sharpening our pencils, we want to make sure that the lead is nice and smooth all around and that it has a proper sharp tip. This ensures smooth shading and sharp lines, and here is the method that we use to do this. First, take a wee piece of scrap paper (which you should always have handy when you're drawing) and hold the pencil so that the angle of the pointy end is almost parallel with the paper (as seen in figure 2 - a below). Next, make some medium to wide (5-10cm) side-to-side strokes on the paper while applying just a little bit of downward pressure as if you were colouring or shading a section of the paper. While doing this slowly rotate the pencil in your hand - about two rotations should ensure that the sides of the lead are perfectly smooth all around. It might be tricky to do all of this at the same time when you first try this technique (which we'll explain in more detail in our article about shading). So, if you find yourself struggling, start by doing just 1 or 2 side-to-side strokes, stop, rotate the pencil a bit, and then repeat the process until you've done at least one full rotation of the pencil. Basically, you want to make sure that the entire surface of the lead has met with paper before you start drawing.

Now it's time to get the tip nice and sharp. To do this just use the same technique as above but this time hold the pencil at an angle of between 20-45 degrees (as seen in figure 2 - b) and if needed, do a few more rotations than before. The angle you use depends on how sharp you want the tip to be, which in turn depends on factors such as your technique, the style of your drawing and of course the hardness of the pencil. The best thing, as always, would be to play around and seeing what works best for you. If you are unsure, using an angle of about 30 degrees for all your pencils should be a good place to start. Whichever angle you choose, it is important to try and keep your pencil at the same angle throughout the process.

It is also important not to use a pencil that is too sharp because the tip will break (which can cause some nasty marks on your drawing) and it could even damage or cut the surface of your paper. In time you will learn what the perfect sharpness for each of your pencils should be, but a good trick we always use is to hold the pencil at a 90-degree angle (as seen in figure 2 - c ) and then draw a few little squiggly lines on the piece of scrap paper. If the tip doesn't break or cut the paper your pencil should be ready to start drawing...but just before you do, hold it up and give it a few good huffs and puffs like you are the wolf from the tale of the 3 little pigs. Not only will this make you look like an absolute pencil expert, but it will also get rid of all the graphite dust that might have gathered on it during this process.

Figure 2

We use this technique repeatedly while we are working on a picture to make sure our pencils are at their very best for every inch of the drawing. And we will quite easily do this up to 10 times before we need to use a pencil sharpener again, which makes our pencils last much, much longer than they would usually do, and that in itself makes this wee process worth mastering.

- Stop them from rolling -

As we mentioned earlier in this article, pencils that keep rolling of your desk or can be quite a problem, which is why most of our favourite pencils have flat sides. However, this is not always an option (for instance, we're yet to find any charcoal pencils that aren't round) but luckily this can be solved by fashioning a special anti-rolling device.

Figure 3

To do this you'll need some sticky tape and either a toothpick, matchstick or something of a similar shape and size. If you are using a toothpick carefully cut the sharp ends off so that they don't end up poking you and If you are using a match, carefully light and extinguish it so that it doesn't pose any danger, and then cut off the burnt bit (if you are a wee one DO NOT use matches and always ask an adult to help you with the cutting). You now have your anti-rolling device and all that's left to do is to tape it to the side of your pencil near the end as seen in the picture below (we always like to leave about 1-2 cm for chewing purposes but since we're not suppose to chew our pencils we will only mention this inside brackets).

Variations on the classic pencil.

Clicky pencils.

These are also known as mechanical or clutch pencils and they are mostly used for technical drawings, although we use them for our drawings quite often. They are filled with very thin leads which are then fed through the tip with a mechanical clutch by clicking the back like a snazzy pen. The leads are generally available in 0.7 and 0.5mm which means you can always draw a nice thin line, which is great for lettering, line work and the odd little detail. They are usually available in either HB, B or 2B, so if any of these fit into your range of pencils you can (and should) sneak one of these into your pencil case.

Charcoal pencils.

Charcoal is a wonderful medium to draw with, but it can be very messy. Luckily you get charcoal pencils which is basically compressed charcoal encased in wood. They are great for drawing very dark and dramatic pictures and are available in light, medium and dark. They can also be sharpened with a pencils sharpener unlike normal charcoal which is very, very useful. We love these and always have a medium one in our pencil case. Do keep in mind that charcoal has a matt finish whereas pencils can be a wee bit shiny, and this doesn't always look good together. So, unless you specifically want this effect it's best to use either charcoal or pencils for a drawing and not both.

Solid graphite.

This is basically a long flat bit of graphite with no wood around, so you can use the sides and the tip to draw with, which makes it perfect for very big drawings and although we've never made any proper drawing with one of these they can be a lot of fun to use.

Eraser backed pencils.

These pencils are usually made for writing and not for drawing. It is of course possible to find one with a good quality eraser on the back but based on all the ones we've tried we would not recommend these pencils for anything other than doing a crossword puzzle. The erasers tend to smudge and damage the surface of your paper. If you do want to use one, make sure you test it on the actual paper you'll be using.

Water soluble pencils.

These pencils look just like normal graphite pencils and drawing with them is similar as well (although they tend to be slightly softer). The big difference is of course that you can add water to your drawing to create a watercolour effect and adding a few brush strokes to this can create a wonderful artwork.


*A few manufacturers make pencils ranging from 10H to 12B. Some countries use a number grading system instead of the H/B scale where a #1=B, #2=HB, #3=H and #4=2H. We should also mention that there is an "F" pencil between an HB and an H in the H/B grading scale, but we don't really know what it's doing there and never found a use for it.

by the Picsees
Notes on Drawing Part 1: Pencils
Written by the Picsees and first published on March the 5th 2020
All the methods and techniques mentioned in this article are ones that we use when making our art pictures. Some of these are time tested and has been used by many artists for many years and some were made up by us because we needed a solution to a problem.
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