How to Use Pencil Grades to Improve Your Drawings
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How to Use Pencil Grades to Improve Your Drawings

How to use pencil grades to improve your drawings.

The pencil you use can make a huge difference to your drawing. Knowledge of the different pencil grades will help you decide which is the best for you, and help to make your drawings more expressive and interesting.

This article deals with what are commonly called “lead” pencils. There are also charcoal pencils, carbon pencils, pastel pencils - but those are different media in themselves and for this purpose, are in a different category.

“Lead” pencils are not actually made of lead. The core - the part that makes the mark - of a modern pencil, is made of graphite. Graphite is a non-toxic mineral discovered in Borrowdale, Cumbria, UK in the 16th Century. It makes a soft, black mark on paper and was nicknamed “blacklead”. (You may have heard of blacklead being used in the past to polish kitchen stoves.) It was found to be too soft for drawing on its own, so for pencil manufacture the graphite was mixed with varying amounts of clay. It is the ratio of clay to graphite that gives pencils their “hardness” or “softness” and led to them being given grades, to help differentiate between them.

There is no industry standard for these pencil grades however, and one make of, say 2B, will have a different feel and make a slightly different mark to another. So it’s important to try different makes to see which you prefer. Some pencils glide smoothly across the paper, others grip the surface - these factors make a difference to the feel of the pencil and thus to your preference for your own particular work.

The more clay mixed with the graphite, the “harder” the pencil will be. If less clay is mixed in, the pencil makes a softer, darker mark.

“Hard” pencils are marked, not surprisingly, with a letter H, preceded by a number. The higher the number, the harder the pencil. 9H is about the hardest you will find, going down to 2H and H. There isn’t actually much difference between one pencil grade and the next, but there is quite a difference between 9H and H, so it’s a gradual, subtle change.

The softer grades are marked with a B (standing for “Black“!) In this case, the higher the number, the softer the pencil. 9B gives an extremely soft, smudgy mark, while B on its own is softish but not too much so.

In the middle is HB - this is the grade you’ll generally find in the kids’ school pencil box! You might also come across F, a middling grade which stands for Fine, meaning it can be sharpened to a fine point.

So which pencil grade is best for drawing? Hard "H" grades make a very light mark and can’t be smudged easily - they can also easily make a dent in the paper if you apply pressure. They are generally best for technical work where high accuracy is needed and no variation in tone is required.

Soft grades are best for creative drawing - you can vary the mark according to the pressure you apply, they are more easily erased, and can be smudged - but can be sharpened to a fine point if necessary. Very soft pencils however, can be too soft to make a sharp enough mark, might be too smudgy and the softer the grade, the quicker they wear down and need sharpening. So a good choice for general drawing is a 2B or 3B - soft enough to make good varied marks, but not too soft. As said above, there isn’t much difference between adjacent grades, but a 2B and a 9B are noticeably different.

Experiment with different grades and makes, to see what they will do. You needn’t stick to one grade for each drawing, although learning to use one grade to its full potential will teach you a lot about your materials and what you can achieve. You can buy sets of pencils which include all the grades from hard to soft, but you will probably not use them all, especially the H grades. It’s best to buy them individually so you can choose exactly what you want.

For general drawing a B, a 2B or 3B, and a 5B or 6B will give you a good range of tones.

How to sharpen pencils: An ordinary pencil sharpener will give you a point - but a knife is much better - it will allow you to get a long, fine point which feels much better to draw with and will make good varied marks. Ensure the blade is sharp - a Stanley-type knife is best, though a light craft-knife will do, or a scalpel blade in a holder. Don’t however, use it like a potato peeler! See the photo in the top left corner of the page - this assumes you are right-handed, but if you're left-handed, simply hold the knife in your left hand and the pencil in your right. 

  • Don’t move the knife at all - keep it still and steady in one hand, the pencil shaft in the other, with the point facing away from you.
  • The sharp edge of the knife bade should also face away from you, as in the illustration.
  • Pull the point of the pencil towards you, underneath and against the blade - use your thumb to push against the blade, pulling the pencil towards you at the same time, and turning it as you go, so the point is evenly sharpened all round.
  • Keep the pencil at a shallow angle to the blade so you get long slivers of pencil shaved off, leaving a long point. It might break, but persevere and with practice you can get a lovely drawing point.
  • Health and safety issues mean ensuring the blade is well guarded when not in use, and kept away from small children. (Obvious, but I feel obliged to mention it!)

Care for your pencils by keeping them in a cushioned box - lining a box with foam plastic is a good idea - and try not to drop them on the floor which will break the graphite core inside.

Pencil grades are important, and following the above tips will help you enhance your knowledge and creativity to produce more satisfying drawings.

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