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The ARTdiscount Guide to Pencil Lead

The ARTdiscount Guide to Pencil Lead

New to shading and sketching? Need to find out what levels of graphite pencils are right for the beginner’s steps in drawing?

These are crucial first questions to ask when looking for the right pencilsThere are so many different types of pencil to use, and understanding which ones will work for your projects is imperative in saving you time and money.

Coming to terms with the nuances of graphite sketching and shading can be in and of itself—a skill of deliberate patience.Add that to the overwhelming realisation that there are an incredible variety of pencils used for drawing, and they each have unique results on paper, it's understandable why so many beginners can feel overwhelmed.

If you're thinking to yourself; "I just want a basic kit to start with, then I can work my way to more comprehensive sets", that is perfectly understandable. But, hold off on that for just a moment!

In this article, we'll discuss some of the most common types of pencils used for sketching and shading to help you become familiar with them, and ultimately to help you determine which pencils will be right for you.

By the end of this article, you should be feeling less overwhelmed and far more informed about finding just the right pencils you want to invest in to get started.

The HB Shading Scale

Historically, graphite pencils were placed on a numeric scale similar to that of regulation pencils (for example, No. 1, No. 2, etc.). However, to differentiate between standard use pencils and graphite pencils used for artisan purposes, the scale for sketching and shading pencils was changed.

The graphite scale that is in use today is called the HB scale. Most non-U.S. nations utilise the HB scale even for common use pencils, as there is little difference in the hue or tint of the lead. The “H” refers to the ‘hardness’ of the pencil, whereas, the “B” stands for the pencil’s ‘blackness’. This can also be translated to the softness of the lead/clay mixture in use. The letter “F” is used for ‘fine’.

Traditionally, graphite manufacturers used this scale to describe the lead“HH” meant it was very hard and gave a light grey tint and “BBB” meant the graphite was very soft and very black.

Instead of using more Hs and Bs to describe levels, today most pencil makers add a number before the letter—“2B”, “4B”, “3H”, and so on. As the number increases, so does its designation—4B is softer than 3B, and 5H is harder than 2H.

Fun fact; the “HB” graphite pencil, which is in the middle of the graphite scale and represents the balance between the two, is actually the same as a traditional No. 2 pencil used by most educational institutions!

The “F” Pencil and What It is For

The "F"—or fine pencil—is essentially a HB pencil on the graphite scale, only it has a much finer point. This will give the appearance of a lighter shade, but is still actually the same as the HB.

The benefit of the F pencil is that it can be manipulated to create darker shades by simply pressing harder on the surface.The only difference is that it will shade in a tighter line. Generally speaking, pressing harder makes the line thicker, the F, however, has a smaller tip and thus is called ‘fine.’

The Pros and Cons of Using Different Shades

For the H pencils, the obvious advantage is that they can remain sharp for longer periods of sketching than the “B” pencils, which typically dull more rapidly because of their relative softness.

For smoother marks and general tracing, H pencils are ideal. They are also beneficial for adding indentation and texture to the paper. H pencils are going to fill more space than B pencils because you can press harder into the paper’s fibrous surface.B pencils, on the other hand, tend to reveal more of the paper’s texture than H pencils. 

In order to get a result that is both black and fills in the textured surfaces evenly, use a combination of both H and B pencils.

It is best to start with H to fill in and smooth the surface area, then shade over it with a B pencil. Flipping this order may have different results as the H pencil’s hardness may smear the soft black shading in an undesired manner.

What Graphite Pencils Are Right for You?

The answer to this question will vary on what you are trying to accomplish. Think about these factors to help you determine the best choices:

  • Think about how much pressure you apply to paper naturally. It may also mean disciplining yourself to be more deliberate about that pressure.
  • What is the texture of the paper? Many professional graphite artists will choose a smoother paper like a hot-pressed sketching paper, but some may prefer the characteristic texture of a rougher paper.
  • What is your overall approach to shading and sketching? Are you drawing on a horizontal flat surface? This may cause you to apply more pressure at a downward angle. Or perhaps from an easel, which limits the pressure you can apply.

Many artists have a natural tendency to put more pressure to paper. In this case, they may never need a B pencils darker than a 4B. Conversely, those who are light handed may want to go as soft as a 6B or 8B to achieve the same results.

As stated above, the paper’s texture will play a significant role in what pencils you use. Hot-pressed canvas paper, which has a smoother texture, will be better for using H pencils and will provide smoother, more even results when using B pencils.

Cold-pressed papers, which typically have more texture will be more difficult when trying to create smooth traces with an H pencil and have more uneven results with the B pencils.

Time to Draw!

This collection of drawing pencils for beginners should get you thinking about what it takes to achieve the results you want.

We recommend using as wide a range of the HB scale as possible, as well as trying your hand at both smoother and more textured papers, until you find the style that suits you. Art is all about experimentation—you never know what you're going to love until you try it!

Paul Worrall
Paul Worrall

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