Beginner’s guide to graphite drawing pencils

beginners guide to graphite drawing pencilsIf you’re new to drawing with graphite and wondering what are the best drawing pencils you should be using, this guide is for you!

In this guide, you will learn:

  • What the numbers and letters on a pencil mean
  • Which pencils you should use
  • Which pencils are best for drawing portraits and pencils for sketching
  • The reason why there are so many pencil grades
  • How the quality of a pencil can affect your artwork


Pencil Grades

pencil graphite value scale H to 9B RFA 4

The letters on a pencil will tell you its level of hardness or softness. For example:

H: Hard
F: Fine Point
HB: Hard Black
B: Black

Hard pencils produce light lines while soft pencils produce dark lines. Why? Because soft pencils deposit more graphite onto your drawing surface. The softer the pencil, the smoother the graphite.

The number beside each letter represents the level of hardness or softness. So a 9B pencil is softer/darker than a 2B, while an 8H will be harder/lighter than a 3H.

Here’s a list of pencil grades in order from lightest to darkest or hardest to softest.

9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B

Value Range

Each pencil is capable of covering a wide range of values. If you look at the first image, there are some gradients under each square. This shows you how flexible each grade of pencil is. Even though 9B is the softest pencil, you can still use it to draw an entire portrait with values ranging from medium grey to black. Although, it would be a big challenge since it would require a lot of effort to keep from shading your drawing too dark.


The Best Pencils For Drawing

Don’t be intimidated by the number of pencils I listed up there! Most likely, you’ll only need to use 3-5 of them. The pencils you need will depend on the type of drawings you do.

Architectural / Product Sketches / Technical Sketches

If you’re into drawing buildings, cars or technical sketches, a set of hard pencils will suit you well. Hard pencils don’t smudge easily, so your drawings will always be sharp and clean. You won’t need to sharpen your pencils too often because the graphite is hard enough to hold a sharp tip longer than any B graded pencil.

If you want to add dark shading to your drawing, pick up a few soft pencils so you can make your drawings pop out of the page.


Portraiture /  Animals / Realism

guide to graphite pencilsIn order to achieve realistic textures such as fur, skin or fabrics, you’ll need pencils that blend well and are flexible enough to reach the darkest of tones in order to convey a realistic sense of depth. A set of soft pencils will fit the job perfectly. If you don’t want to buy a full set, you can get a few individual pencils. When it comes to portraiture, my most frequently used pencils are HB, 4B, 6B and 8B.


Why You Should Use More Than 1 Pencil

Each pencil has its benefits and can help you get the job done faster! I could use a monkey wrench to drive 1000 nails into my patio deck, but it wasn’t designed for that job. A hammer is so much more efficient!

Here’s how each pencil below helps me get the job done faster and more efficiently:

HB: This pencil helps me shade the lightest areas of my portrait such as eyeballs and highlights without having to spend too much time focusing on the amount of pressure I’m putting on the paper and worrying if I’m shading to dark.

6B: Without any effort at all, I can easily shade large areas of a portrait or background with a smooth dark layer of graphite.

If you feel really strained after you finish a drawing, you might need to add a few more pencil grades to your toolbox, or learn how to use them more efficiently.


Graphite Quality

Graphite pencils are typically mixed with varying amounts of clay. Which means that a low quality pencil could contain many sand-like bits that feel scratchy and can damage your artwork.

If you can’t test a pencil before buying it and you want to be sure it won’t be scratchy, check to see that the packaging says it’s mixed with high quality, pure or smooth clay. Keep in mind that no matter how high the quality, you’re not going to get a 100% pure pencil.

Pencils that I’ve used and recommend are Derwent Graphic and Daler Rowney Graphic (not sketch).

Have a question? Leave it in the comments!

If you enjoyed this guide and know someone that would benefit from it, use the social sharing buttons below to share it with them :)


21 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to graphite drawing pencils”

  1. I took an art class in highschool for two years I wished I finished my third year but I didn’t really like the teacher too well. I always wondered what the numbers and letters meant. This helped alot. Now I can know and get better with using the pencils!!! Thanks so much.

  2. Thank you for the information.. It helped me a lot.. 💕💕
    I would love to read more about art basics..

  3. Shamika Wakefield

    yes, the price tag is way too high to suggest they want hobbyists to ever buy one, this looks like very low volume purchases by business customers, kind of like a demonstration unit, the price will probably never come down.

  4. It has been suggested that I use a 9b pencil to identify people on the back of my photos prior to archiving. What do you think or recommend?

  5. Emilee McClain

    Question, for beginners is it best to get standard Graphics Pencils, or Mechanical Graphics Pencils to start out with?

  6. I was looking to buy the Derwent Graphic Drawing pencils 12 count, and I saw that there was also a 24 count one. Which one should I buy? And money is not any problem for me so no need to take that into consideration.

    1. I think the 12 count tin is good for general light sketching and portrait drawing. I personally think the 24 count is overkill for me. If you don’t like or find it hard to adjust your pencil-on-paper sensitivity, you might enjoy having more pencils.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experience. I’ve dabbled in drawing/sketching all my adult life, I’m 51 now. I go into the arts/craft store and become overwhelmed as to where to begin with buying proper supplies for any idea. So this is very helpful. I tried your side profile tutorial and did a pretty good job. Thanks again for generously sharing your knowledge and if I become as good as you at any art form I promise I’ll do the same 😉

  8. I just finished acquiring your tutorials and am anxious to begin – I am 69 and have always liked art but my lack of drawing ability has mostly limited me to more ‘physical’ art like welding etc. I now feel optimistic about pursuing drawing since I better understand the philosophy of it.
    Amazon is now selling the Derwent 12 6B – 4H, less soft and more hard. Any comment?

    1. Darlene Nguyen

      Never too late, Jim :)
      I personally hardly ever use 8B and 9B. If you also plan to draw product sketches or architectural drawings then I think the 6b-4h set will be a good choice.

  9. Dear Ms. Nguyen: Thank you for the wonderful & educational tutorial that I know that I will benefit from, since I figured out that I could draw but have had no formal training, tutor. Doing just what came naturally & figuring out what didn’t the hard way , as well I will be sharing your site with my niece who has sketched since she was 12, but the amazing part is she is blind ( the optical nerves do not connect in the brain. She although has had the opportunity to go to school & I hope that she has continued with her drawing. We shall see I look to hopefully benefit from your experiences as well as your talent. Thank You again for sharing the gifts that God has blessed you with & I hope to be able to do the same one day.

    May you be blessed


    Ida L Boren
    aka ibJoyful writing & design

    1. Hmm, I remember replying to your message but I don’t see it here anymore…
      Sounds like artistic talent runs in the family! It’s amazing that she has such an interest in drawing, not letting obstacles such as sight get in the way of her passion. Very inspiring!

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