In most creative fields, it's impossible to get away from one important tool—the pencil. It doesn't matter if you're an architect, a professional fine artist, or you're just learning to draw; a good graphite pencil is an essential part of any artist's supplies.
And while we've gone over how to select the best colored pencils, there are a whole other set of considerations when thinking about the right graphite pencil to add to your collection. In fact, you'll probably—like most artists—wind up using several different pencils depending on the effect you're looking for.
Figuring out the best pencils to bring your sketches and designs to life can appear challenging, but much of it comes down to personal preference. Once you get the hang of which brand you prefer, you can mix and match different pencil grades in order to expand your sketching capabilities. You'll see that much of what we suggest are pencil sets, which allows you to experiment with a wide variety of lines and shading, but each brand will also sell their pencils individually once you need to restock.
How to Select the Best Drawing Pencil
When selecting the perfect graphite pencil, the first thing to take into consideration is your drawing style. Technical drawing and detailed artwork with fine lines will require different pencils than those used for shading and sketching figures. Do you use dark, thick lines in your sketches or prefer lighter, thinner strokes? Understanding your personal artistic style and needs will help you narrow down the selection when searching for a good drawing pencil.
Keep in mind that most artists use more than one type of pencil. In fact, many manufacturers sell drawing pencil sets that come with a selection of graphite pencils in different grades. This will allow you to switch between tools depending on the requirements of a particular image.
Pencil Grading Scale
Once you know what type of artwork you need the pencil for, you need to understand the different grades of graphite pencils. Even though we often refer to lead in pencils, there is actually no component of lead used in them. Whereas colored pencils are made with wax and pigment, graphite pencils are a mixture of graphite and clay. The combination of these two components allows for smooth strokes, but graphite pencils will give different lines depending on how much clay is present. Generally, the more clay in the pencil, the harder the pencil—and lighter the stroke—will be.
In the United States, we commonly think of the number 2 pencil, which is standard for schools and test taking. The American number scale for pencils ranges 1 to 4 (including 2.5), but the rest of the world uses a different grading scale. Most manufacturers use the HB scale, where “H” stands for hardness and “B” for blackness. A standard number 2 pencil corresponds to HB on this scale.
The HB scale ranges from 9H, a hard pencil that leaves fine, light marks, to 9B, a soft pencil which a high ratio of graphite that leaves bold, dark marks. While every manufacturer gives each pencil a designation on the scale, it's all relative within a given brand, so remember that a 6H pencil from one manufacturer might give a slightly different stroke than a 6H pencil from another.
Once you understand the type of lines you can expect from your pencils, it's easy to mix and match to put together a graphite pencil set that will cover your needs as an artist.
Best Graphite Drawing Pencils
Derwent Medium Graphic Drawing Pencils (set of 12)
Available in different sets filled with a wide variety of grades, both beginners and professionals swear by Derwent. You can select between soft, medium, and hard sets depending on your subject matter and people note that the pencils are easy to sharpen to a point, as well as a flat shape. This allows for detailed work, as well as shading. And the hexagonal shape makes them easy to grip.
Prismacolor Premier Graphite Drawing Pencils (18 piece set)
Prismacolor's graphite drawing set is a good introductory kit when starting to sketch. It comes with seven graphite drawing pencils of different grades, as well as four woodless graphite pencils. These create beautiful, broad strokes when used on their side, and allow you to experiment with a variety of tools. As an added bonus, the pencil set includes water-soluble graphite pencils, which transform into a wash when brushed with water. All told, the drawing kit is a great way to start sketching seriously.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Graphite Pencil Set (set of 12)
Many artists swear by Staedtler's range of drawing pencils. Their Mars Lumograph is known for its consistency and lack of breakage, making them great for detailed work. They also erase cleanly, meaning you won't be left with stray smudges on the paper. Staedtler's standard set provides 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H drawing pencils, making it extremely versatile. “I've been using Staedtler Lumograph professionally for over 30 years and in that time I've found no better,” says artist and art educator Mike Sibley. “I even give them away at my workshops.”
Lyra Rembrandt Art Design Pencils (set of 12)
For a good value, you can't beat Lyra Art Design Pencils. The graphite is rigid enough that it works for technical drawing, and with 17 different grades available, there's no shortage of shading you can accomplish. One reviewer writes, “The finest pencils for drawing. High-quality graphite that is smooth and easy to blend. A wide variety of hardness for all your artwork needs.”
Faber-Castell 9000 Graphite Sketch Pencil Art Set (set of 12)
Faber-Castell is a German brand known for high-quality art supplies, and the Faber-Castell 9000 Graphite Sketch pencils are no exception. The brand makes sets with a variety of grades included or you can purchase single packs of pencils in each grade. Known for their consistency and durability, they sharpen easily and don't often break. Plus, Faber-Castell's handy tin makes the pencils highly portable. It's no wonder they are an artist favorite, no matter the style or skill level.
Tombow Mono Professional Drawing Pencils (set of 12)
Japanese manufacturer Tombow is known for their high-density pencils, meaning they sharpen easily and the point stays longer. The Mono pencil is known to run a bit dark and is virtually smudge-proof. The dark lines of the Tombow Mono can almost mimic inks, making it a favorite of artists who focus on linework and tracing.
Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Graphite Pencil Set
Woodless pencils may cost a bit more, but they generally last longer than the typical wood-encased pencils. Cretacolor woodless pencils are perfect for shading and the graphite in them is water-soluble, allowing you to create soft washes over the page. Creatacolor's kit also comes with a kneaded eraser and sharpener, giving you all the tools you need in one box.
Prismacolor Ebony Graphite Drawing Pencil (12-pack)
The Prismacolor Ebony Graphite pencil, which has a 2B grading, is a beautiful choice for rich, velvety lines. Easily blendable and soft, while they won't create jet black lines—they get close for graphite. You'll need to sharpen often due to their softness, and many swear by them for shading that is difficult to achieve without using charcoal.
Caran D'ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set
Don't be scared by the price. Caran D'ache is for serious sketchers looking to up their drawing game. As Switzerland's only pencil maker, the brand has carried out exacting studies to get things just right, making them the favorite of many artists. This gift set will get you 15 graphic pencils, 3 water-soluble graphite pencils, plus accessories. Some say they are the best drawing pencils on the market, and that once you try them, you'll never go back.