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What are Graphite Drawing Pencils?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Graphite drawing pencils are an art medium specially designed for drawing, as opposed to the writing pencils that are in common use. They are made with graphite, which is also called black lead or plumbago, mixed with clay. They come rated by hardness: the more clay mixed with the graphite, the harder the pencil; the more graphite, the softer. Many famous artists have sketched and drawn with graphite, along or with other media, including Ingres, Miró, Eakins, Cézanne, Delacroix, and Rodin.

Hardness

There are two pencil-rating systems, a US one and a European one. The US system is numerical, while the European system, based on a lettering scheme, is the one generally used for artist’s pencils. The European rating system works like this: pencils are rated for hardness (H), blackness (B), and whether they have a fine point (F). The rating 9B is simultaneously the softest and darkest; 9H is both hardest and lightest. There are 20 ratings of graphite drawing pencils in the full range, though many manufacturers offer sets with a range of only 18, or selected pencils from within the entire range.

9B8B7B6B5B4B3B2BBHBFH2H3H4H5H6H7H8H9H

Sometimes, ranges of pencils are given the following names:

  • Technical B to 9H Hard
  • Designer 6B to 4H Medium
  • Sketching 9B to H Soft

This fixed rating system has proved useful in other disciplines. Research laboratories use pencil hardness to test certain types of coatings in what is called the “Film Hardness-Pencil Test", also known as ASTM D 3363. This test uses the pencils 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, and 6H in an attempt to objectively rate the hardness of the film by testing for gouging and scratching. The test has been critiqued on the basis of both the variations in hardness between the same rated pencils produced by different manufacturers and change in pencil lead hardness over time.

Variations

Woodless graphite is a pencil-shaped drawing tool made only of the graphite/clay mix, with a thin paper wrapper. It is available in 9B, 8B, 6B, 4B, 2B and HB, and it can be used pencil-fashion or the wrapper may be removed to give a very broad drawing surface. Colored graphite pencils can be used in two ways: dry, they provide very subtle colors, but wet them, and the color becomes more vivid.

Technique

Graphite drawing pencils share techniques with other drawing media. Outlining, hatching, crosshatching, and stippling, for example, are all used. The wide range of leads and the possibility of mixing media — either other dry media, like charcoal and pastel, or wet media like ink wash and watercolor — extend the range of possibilities.

Accessories

Among the accessories for this form of art media is the pencil lengthener, which is a device slipped onto the end of the pencil to make it easier to grip and allow the small tip to be used rather than thrown away. There are also pencil grips to decrease writing fatigue and caps to protect the lead. Erasers and sharpeners are also important materials. Vinyl erasers may prove most effective for erasing the range of graphite marks from a variety of surfaces.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for HomeQuestionsAnswered, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon332518 — On Apr 29, 2013

Pencils were made from graphite. Lead pencils were invented in 1564.

By feasting — On Feb 20, 2013

@DylanB – You could use a paper stump. It's made of paper that has been rolled up tightly into the shape of a fat, short pencil.

The whole thing is made of paper, and you use the tip of it to smudge your drawings. This gives you more control, so you can blend the graphite in certain areas while leaving others as they are.

You can even work a dark shadow into a lighter one by starting in the darkest spot and pushing the paper stump outward. It makes a really controlled, realistic smudge.

You can find them in art supply stores and hobby shops. They last a long time, because they actually work better after you have broken them in and they have become saturated with graphite.

By DylanB — On Feb 19, 2013

Does anyone have any tips on creating realistic shadows with graphite pencils? I've been smudging them with my finger, but I have a large finger, and I always smear the lead further than I actually want. I can erase the smears on the outer edges of the drawing, but when they overlap an area of lighter shadow, they mess everything up.

By giddion — On Feb 19, 2013

I use graphite pencils when I'm drawing in my sketchbook. I've been able to create some very realistic drawings of eggs and apples with them.

The softer and darker pencils are great for creating dark shadows. If I make them too dark, I can erase them pretty easily.

The harder pencils are great for making fine, detailed lines. The marks they make are pretty hard to erase, though, so it's best to be sure about what you want to draw before you start when using these. If you press down on the paper with them at all, then the pencils can make slight ruts in the paper that will be impossible to remove.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 18, 2013

I had to buy some graphite pencils for my drawing class in college. For some reason, the teacher didn't have us buy a whole set, though. She gave us a list that skipped around a bit.

We had to buy 2H, 4H, 6H, B, 2B, 4B, and 6B. I believe that she may have just wanted us to get a feel for the difference between the pencils, and by having us skip a few numbers, we could see more of a difference in darkness and softness.

By yournamehere — On Sep 20, 2010

Where exactly do drafting pencils fit in here? I love the way those things look, but can I use them to do the same kind of drawing as with graphite pencils? Or are they only for architecture and engineering?

By googlefanz — On Sep 20, 2010

It's so cool to see what you can do with a simple pencil. There's an artist who lives on my street and does pencil portrait drawings, and she is uncannily accurate. She sometimes includes charcoal in her pencil drawings, and that creates such an atmosphere; I can't even describe it. Before I met her, I had no idea that a pencil drawing portrait could be that well-executed -- I always pencils with doodles, not portrait sketches!

By Planch — On Sep 20, 2010

Thank you so much for this guide -- this will be great for explaining the differences in drawing pencils to my students.

A lot of them come into class not even knowing that there's something else besides the classic no.2 pencil, and of course there are so many more types.

I'm going to be teaching a module on drawing with graphite pencils as well as sketching and drawing graphite portraits, so this article will definitely get a lot of use.

By the way, I'm trying to decide whether to have them use Staedtler pencils or Crayola pencils? That would you say?

By lori43 — On Sep 14, 2010

It's amazing how much different the type of pencil you use makes a difference in the look of what's been drawn. Using a number 2 pencil for every conceivable thing, as we are taught to in elementary school through high school, does not allow for a large variety in tone. I suppose the variety is only really needed for artistic purposes, but it's just strange to me that the number 2 pencil is so ingrained into the mind of the student when it's uses are really quite limited, as far as uses for a pencil.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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