Not sure what artists graphite pencils to buy? Here’s what to look for and what I recommend.

Graphite is one of the first drawing materials many of us are exposed to. Think of those yellow school pencils we start writing with. Those common pencils hold a special place in my heart and I consider them to be one of my favorite art materials. Why? Because they are easy to find, versatile, and they encourage spontaneity. As you build your own drawing habit, however, you’ll most likely want to explore some of the artist-grade materials available. It can be confusing at first, seeing those large sets of professional pencils on the rack of your local art supply store. With just a bit of context, however, you can build your confidence. While I don’t feel comfortable telling you precisely what to buy, I can provide some context for your exploration. 

Graphite starts as a naturally-occurring or artificially-made mineral, which is ground to a powder and mixed with clay and water. The mixture is hardened to use as a drawing material. Graphite can be used in blocks and sticks, but it is most commonly available in pencils, with the graphite and clay mixture being extruded into thin rods and encased in wood. 

Artist's Graphite Pencils
Derwent Graphic Pencils

What do the Numbers on Artist’s Pencils Mean?

The ratio between the graphite powder and clay affects hardness and tone (lightness or darkness) of the material. With more clay in the mix, the drawing material becomes harder and lighter. With more graphite in the mix, the material becomes softer and darker. Graphite pencils often indicate this on the casing through the use of an alphanumeric code, such as 4H, HB, 2B, 4B, etc., creating a range of grades from hard to soft. Pencils identified with an H are harder, while those identified with a B are softer. The number in front of each letter describes the hardness more specifically. The higher the H value, the harder and lighter the graphite. The higher the B value, the softer and darker the pencil. 

These codes are generally consistent between pencil manufacturers, but they can vary. A 2B pencil by one manufacturer may be equivalent to a 4B from another. The quality of graphite can also vary. You may find that some pencils are smoother, scratchier, shinier, duller, stronger, or more brittle. Through experimentation and research, you’ll come to find what works best for you. 

What do Different Artist’s Pencils do?

I prefer to use a softer material, like a 4B or higher graphite pencil. While many artists use harder, lighter pencils to initiate a drawing, I find with my way of working that softer materials work best. With harder pencils, I can sometimes scratch or emboss the paper, which can give me trouble later on in the drawing. With softer graphite, I may need to use a delicate touch to make lighter marks, but those marks can be more gentle on the surface. 

What Artist’s Pencils Are Recommended for Details?

Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils

Derwent makes great drawing pencils. This set covers a nice range from 6B-4H. I find Derwent pencils to be a bit harder than other brands, making them a good option for detail work. They are resistant to breaking and hold sharp points well.

What Artist’s Pencils Are Recommended for Rich Darks?

Cezanne Graphite Artist Drawing Pencils

This set of Cezanne Graphite Pencils is my preferred set. These pencils are soft, dark, and smooth, with a beautiful rich quality. They sharpen well with strong cedar casings. Grab these for quick sketches as well as finished, attention-grabbing finished drawings!

What About All-Around Artist’s Pencils?

Generals Mini Drawing Kit

It’s hard to beat a good ol’ #2 pencil from General’s. If I could only draw with one pencil, that’s what I would choose. This set features a narrow range of 2H-2B, with the addition of a “Layout” pencil that delivers smooth, rich dark tones. This curated selection of pencils will suit many artist’s needs.

What Artist’s Graphite Sticks do you Recommend?

General Pencil Compressed Graphite Sticks

General’s compressed graphite sticks allow artists to create smooth, broad layers of graphite. Featuring one hard, one medium, and 2 soft sticks, this set makes an excellent addition to a drawing set.