Great Art Blog September 2015-Artist Drawing Pencil Sets

Great Art Blog September 2015-Artist Drawing Pencil Sets

Great-Art-BlogHi and welcome to this month’s Great Art Blog! This time I’m looking a variety of artist quality graphite (drawing) pencils. The ranges I’m looking at are:-

Faber Castell (9000 Art Set) (2H-8B) (approx: price £10.90)

Gerstaecker, I Love Art (6H-8B) (approx: price £ 3.50)

Staedtler Mars Lumograph (100-Sketching and Drawing) (2H-8B) ( £10.65)

1500 Koh-I-Noor (Professional Graphite Pencils) (2H-8B) (£6.86)

Derwent Graphic (H-9B) (£9.15)

In each case I worked with a set of 12 pencils of varying grades, although the specific grades varied a little from one range to another.


Faber Castell, Kok-I -Noor, Derwent Graphic, Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Gerstaecker ILA pencils

Pencils are probably the most familiar art material; real workhorses that we use in our daily lives as well as specifically for Art.

Just a few words about the history of pencils:

  • The word ‘pencil’ comes from the French word ‘pincel’ which means a small paintbrush and probably originally derives from the Latin word ‘penincillus’, meaning ‘little tail’

  • Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have used small discs of lead to rule lines.

    Drawing pencils are often known as lead pencils, which is misleading as they contain no lead. Instead they are made from graphite, which is a form of carbon.

  • Solid Graphite was discovered in Borrowdale in Cumbria in the UK in around 1500, and its main use originally was to make moulds for canon balls.

  • People soon discovered that you could make a wonderful dark mark with graphite, and so early forms of pencil were made by taking slithers of graphite and wrapping them in string or sheep’s wool

  • An early way of erasing marks was invented by using some doughy bread, which could be rubbed over the mark and was reasonably effective at removing it.

  • Pure graphite became incredibly expensive and was often smuggled overseas. Napolean wanted to secure his supplies and so employed scientists to experiment with alternatives…in 1795 one of his officers, Nicolas-Jacques Conté discovered that you could mix powdered graphite with clay, form it into a rod and bake it to harden into a really usable stick of graphite. Completely independently an almost identical method was discovered in Austria by Joseph Hardtmuth of Koh-I-Noor-probably a little earlier in 1790. This method is the basis of how pencils are made to this day, and both Conté and Hardtmuth names live on in pencil ranges which are still available.

  • Lead poisoning from pencils was quite common as high concentrations of lead could be found in the paint used to seal the outer surface of the pencil, well into the 20th century( Definitely no longer a problem!) ….and sadly of course sucking the pencil could lead to poisoning.

Modern graphite pencils:

Today pencils are formed from incredibly fine graphite powder mixed with clay. The purest and best graphite comes from Sri Lanka, but Mexico and Korea are also good sources. The grade of pencil; i.e. how soft or hard it is, depends on the proportions of graphite and clay. Soft pencils contain a large amount of graphite, whereas hard ones have a higher proportion of clay.

Almost all pencils are marked on the barrel with a pencil grade, but it is very important to test pencils out for yourself and get used to particular ranges as there is no consistent universal standard, which means that an HB from one range may be very different from one in another. Most manufacturers now use the European system known as HB, and most ranges run from 9B – 9H as follows:-

The HB pencil scale-  9H   8H   7H   6H   5H   4H   3H   2H   H   F   HB   B   2B   3B   4B   5B   6B   7B   8B   9B

9H-H Pencils: H stands for ‘hard’ and ‘H’ pencils make smooth grey marks. They maintain a point for longer than soft pencils and are excellent where you want to make unobtrusive planning marks, or where you want to depict a perfectly smooth surface. They won’t produce a very dark tone, however hard you press! The higher the number the harder the pencil, so a 9H is incredibly hard and makes a very pale grey mark as it contains a very low proportion of graphite. Hard pencils also offer great precision and delicacy.

9B- B Pencils: ‘B’ stands for Black and the ‘B’ pencils make soft grainy black marks with a rich textural feel. B pencils need frequent sharpening as the comparative lack of clay makes them wear down faster. They are great for sketching and making deep dark tones. They produce wonderful vigorous drawing marks and are particularly expressive. ‘9B’ s are very soft and crumbly and build dark tones and grainy textures.

HB: The HB pencil is the most common in general use, and if a pencil does not have a marked grade on it’s barrel it will often be an HB. They are incredibly useful for writing and drawing in a wide range of situations and offer an excellent balance between plenty of graphite for a dark strong mark, and sufficient clay to produce a precise accurate drawing or writing tool.

F: The ‘F’ or ‘Fine’ is a specialist pencil, with a similar composition to an HB. It was created to produce a pencil with an excellent dark mark combined with a high level of accuracy and precision which is ideal for fine detail, hence the name.


The chart above shows the pencil grades and ranges I was working with for this blog. The lines are created with a smooth even pressure…very fine pencil lines like this do not show up brilliantly reproduced in this way, but you can see the tonal difference between the harder H pencils and the softer B ones. You can also clearly see the difference in precision, which is somewhat lost in the softest pencils.



pencil shading using the different ranges of graphite pencil

In the chart above you can see a comparison between the grades of pencil from each of the ranges  used. These are all high quality ranges, but there are still discernible differences in the same grade from one range to another. For instance the 7B and 8B in the Staedtler range are noticeably darker than the others. All of which reinforces the need to to get to know a range or two so you can pick the right pencil, not only for the effect you want to create, but also to suit your own personal style and way of working.


 In the picture above, you can see that all the pencils in the ranges looked at, are hexagonal in shape which gives a very stable grip in the hand. The choice of round or angled pencils is pretty much down to personal preference…I also always have some chunky round pencils to hand which allow me to gently swivel the pencil as I’m working ( an excellent choice for this is the Derwent Sketching pencil which has an additional benefit of being water-soluble).

Which grade of pencils should I buy?

This is a tricky question as there really isn’t a definitive answer. The pencil sets looked at in this blog are a very good starting point as they provide an economical way of putting together a useful range….They are therefore a brilliant starting point especially if you are just setting up with your art materials and equipment. With more experience, you realise that there are certain grades you will use all the time and others almost never. At this point it is probably better to replace used pencils and add to your collection individually, so as to hone your collection to your own needs and preferences.

My personal preference is for a range including an H pencil and then a range of softer grades including F, HB, 2B, 4B, 6B, 7B, and 8B or 9B. From this point of view the Derwent range suits me best, but this is because I prefer a loose expressive style.

Sharpening can be controversial:

Most of us are used to using pencil sharpeners from school days onwards…however they are not all the same and buying a decent quality one will definitely repay your investment. Sharpeners are great for speed, but they can be rough on pencils and many artists prefer to sharpen with a craft knife or scalpel. To do this simply hold your knife at a low angle to the pencil body and cut away from you towards the tip. Don’t try to take too much off at once as this leads to disaster and broken leads; take it steady and with practice this will become a speedy and automatic operation.


Sharpening with a craft knife and block of sand paper


Softer grades of pencil can be especially susceptible to damage when sharpening and they also need sharpening more often, so it really is worth perfecting this technique.

It is also a really good idea to have a small pad of sand paper, which you can use to get the tip of the pencil exactly as you want it. You can get special blocks of sand paper like the one in the picture, which is attached to a small strip of wood, and allows you to tear off the top sheet when it gets worn. These are very convenient, but it’s just as good to buy some medium grade sand paper from a DIY store, and keep that to hand.



Good erasers are a very useful tool to experiment with. They are not just useful for the obvious; i.e rubbing out mistakes or effects you are not happy with…they are also brilliant for highlighting, for ‘drawing’ through a dark toned area, for creating soft textures and also for refining marks and lines.



Ideally you need a couple of these for your Art tool kit:

  • A plastic or ‘Polymer’ eraser-these are usually white and come with a protective card sleeve. Excellent versions are made by Faber Castell, Edding, Rotring and Staedtler Mars to name but a few. These are very effective especially with graphite, although they erase lighter marks more easily than very dark ones….they are clean to use as they produce little dust.

  • A ‘putty’ eraser, also known as a ‘kneadable putty rubber’ These tend to come in grey, blue or green blocks. They are very kneadable hence the name and feel a bit like children’s play putty in the hand. Try not to keep them in your hand for too long though as they get hot and don’t work as well. Putty rubbers are great for cleaning unwanted marks from paper ( walls too when decorating!!), they also make nice highlights and can be pinched into a precise shape or size to rub away a very specific area. Putty erasers work by absorbing the graphite or charcoal, and eventually become saturated and cease to work well. Don’t be too hasty though as they can look a complete mess and still be pretty effective. Putty rubbers are also particularly good for altering the strength of an area of shading, and taking it down a little-they are not the best solution for completing removing marks, unless the marks are very light.

  • A battery eraser-I use the Derwent Battery Eraser, pictured here. These are great for highlighting, and refining marks and lines with precision. I also really enjoy making textures with them. Be prepared to practise a little though as they are easy to use, but take a little getting used to as the unit vibrates gently as you work.

and for blending…

Everyone tends to use their fingers for blending when working with pencil, charcoal etc…This is fine, but you do end up filthy and have to stop frequently to clean up your hands! Paper stumps or ‘tortillons’/’torchons’ are a great solution as they blend really controllably and allow real precision. Commercial ones are made from blended paper pulp which is shaped into stumps of


Torchons* Tortillons * Paper Stumps

different sizes.

You can make your own by tightly rolling paper and holding together with a little glue or tape. Honestly, I think this is such a performance that it really isn’t worthwhile, but some people swear by it!

You can see from the picture that they come in a range of useful sizes, and I find I can use them for ages, before they finally give up. In fact they get better with a bit of use.

Use them for…softening lines and blending shading. You can also add tone to a piece of work by using the graphite left on the stump to draw directly, creating very subtle and diffuse lines, marks or tone.



Paper or other supports:

Graphite pencils work on most surfaces except for waxy or greasy ones. Choose your paper or support according to whether you intend to use a mix of media. For instance I sometimes combine drawing with work in acrylics and acrylic inks, in which case I would use a specialist acrylic paper or board. When used with watercolour, a watercolour paper can be a good choice although you might want to avoid a very heavily textured one unless you do not want to add any detail.

For straightforward pencil work, white and cream papers are best as they add vibrancy to the appearance of the work-dark colours can dull their look unless combined with highlights in gouache for instance.

I tend to go for a heavy duty drawing/cartridge type paper which is around 220 gsm in weight…this is tough enough to take plenty of working into, without the paper giving way. I also like Clairefontaine PaintON Multi-techniques paper in Natural, which has a nice tooth and very pleasing soft colour.

‘Tooth’: refers to the texture of the paper and means that it has small indentations which hold on to the particles of materials like pastel, charcoal or graphite.

For anything but very quick rough sketches, I avoid ultra smooth papers…again this is a personal choice, but they heighten the tendency of graphite drawings to look shiny, which I’m not so keen on.


Pencil drawing on gessoed base


The sketchbook drawing above shows a quick study using a 4B and a 7B pencil worked onto a ground made by painting the paper surface with white gesso. This was added in a deliberately lumpy fashion to create a nice base texture.


Fixative sprays

and ‘Fixing’ your finished work:

When you’ve completed any graphite work it really is worthwhile to use a spray fixative. This helps to protect the finished work and can also tone down the shiny tendency of heavy graphite shading.

Use the spray in a well ventilated room and be careful to keep the can about 30-40cm above the work to avoid pooling of the fixative liquid. Spray lightly and evenly and place the drawing onto some rough paper, newspaper etc…to protect your surfaces.

* A couple of light coats are definitely better than a single heavy one, oh and don’t panic your work will look a little darker while the fixative dries.


 I decided to try out each of the ranges with a bit of mark-making…

web-DSCF4701In the picture above you can see a page of mark-making tests with Derwent Graphic pencils. You can see that they performed really well across the range; producing an excellent tonal range and handling a wide range of mark-making extremely effectively.

I was particularly impressed with the way that even soft pencils in the range, maintained their precision,  in overlaid cross-hatching for instance. The only down-side of the Derwent set was that they seemed to be quite susceptible to breaking and did need regular sharpening-definitely worth careful sharpening with a knife.

web-DSCF4700The second example above, shows the Gerstaecker ILA range which were by far the cheapest of all the sets trialled, at £3.50 for the packet of 12. I was pleasantly surprised with this set as they would make a great introductory set and would also be ideal for schools and students. They handled pretty well overall and produced good blacks and delicate lines….they were just not quite as powerful and expressive as the Derwent, but absolutely excellent value for money! The Gerstaecker ILA were noticeably tougher and more durable in use, so would also be ideal for use outside or when travelling; situations when you need something that is built to last. The only criticism is that they come in a lightweight card pack, so I have decanted mine into an old tin for safer transport and storage.


The photo above shows a similar set of mark-making with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph set. I’m a great fan of these pencils and use them regularly. They really perform across all elements of the range and have one advantage over the Derwent pencils in that they do seem tougher in use, and generally less prone to breaking. They also produce the darkest darks from the ranges tested, especially using the 7B and 8B, which were really velvety black with little effort….The only downside of these Mars Lumograph pencils is that they lose a little precision in the softest grades compared with the Derwent for example.


Above is the mark-making sheet produced using the Koh-I-Noor pencil set. These also offer great value for money, priced as they are at about £6.86. However for me they lack a bit of ‘oomph’ and I find them less pleasing to use overall; just a bit less expressive across the range.


The final test sheet shows the Faber Castell set. This really is a good set, and declaring allegiance Faber Castell is another range that I regularly use. It performs very evenly and well across the grades and produces both lovely smooth greys from the H pencils and rich dark textural marks with the B ones. From experience they stand up to a lot of use and are therefore very durable.

My choice of pencils:

To sum up then, I tend to use a mix of pencils from a couple of ranges. I particularly like Derwent Graphic, Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Faber Castell, and tend to have a variety of these in stock in my preferred pencil grades (an H pencil and then a range of softer grades including F, HB, 2B, 4B, 6B, 7B, and 8B or 9B). Having tried the Gerstaecker ILA I will now keep some of these ready to use when I’m travelling or working outside as I was very impressed with their durability.

Some ideas and things to try:


 Drawing as a discipline can make you tighten up and become overly tentative. As a warm up try drawing in a continuous line as in the 10 minute sketch above….Simply find a point to start and work without removing your pencil from the paper surface. When you need to think where to go next, just pause with your pencil still in contact with the paper. Work with a soft dark pencil that makes you commit to an expressive line and try to vary the pressure you apply as well to create subtle differences…here I used a  Derwent Graphic pencil in a 6B grade.


The sketchbook pages above show some more testing. The two top samples on the LH page are worked on the Clairefontaine PaintOn paper mentioned before, and combine acrylic markers with Gerstaecker ILA pencil work.

The bottom of the LH page shows samples of shading on different surfaces…notice here that working on the smooth great and red papers creates a very shiny finish with the graphite. The bottom right sample is worked on watercolour paper (Aquarell 300gsm)-this is nice to work on but does lose a little detail because of the pronounced texture.

The RH page shows some loose mark-making with Derwent Graphic and a panel of Faber Castell shading with a pattern created by rubbing away the graphite using the Derwent Battery eraser.web-DSCF4723

Some more useful things to try (see above):-

  • Make a tonal scale with any pencil you are going to use-it’s great practice for control and shading and it will give you a real feel for the scope of the pencil. (See LH side of page)

  • Try s’graffito-scratching textures, patterns or small details into shading using a scalpel or awl.

  • Play with softening lines using a paper stump

  • Experiment with contrasts; make some tonal shading in a grainy soft pencil-e.g an 8B and then use a 2H to add cross hatching over the top. Try the same but the other way around.


The photograph above shows some experimental mark-making in a sketchbook inspired by a visit to the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield. The sculptural shapes are worked over bands of white and grey gouache applied as a ground. It was then built up with layers of pencil shading and a little additional gouache. The chalky feel of gouache always feels like a very good pairing with graphite pencil, really worth a try.

web-DSCF4716The sketchbook page opposite has a piece of grainy grey paper added for contrast. The torn edge is more interesting than a cut one and especially suitable for natural subject matter. Note the graphite pencil performs better overall on the standard off white drawing paper, although the result on the grey is subtle and pleasing as a contrast.

*Preparing sketchbook pages before drawing with painted grounds, torn papers etc…makes for very interesting drawings and often gives you ideas in the process!

In the study shown below, I’ve added white gouache to create some useful tonal contrast on a Clairefontaine Natural PaintOn sheet, before beginning to draw.




Pencil work tends on the whole to be fairly small in scale, not least because of how long it takes to build large areas of tone using just pencil. The example above is inspired by a selection of bones and is a preliminary drawing for a longer piece of work. Here I’ve focussed on the quality and feel of the line to describe the objects and added only a little tone. The background is build up very strong and dark for contrast but is deliberately kept vigorous and linear. The original drawing is A2 on heavy weight drawing paper (220 gsm).


The sketch above is also worked on A2 paper, which helps keep mark-making and drawing relatively loose and expressive. I used a mixture of Derwent Graphic and Faber Castell pencils, building up tone in sections using cross-hatching and hatching.

I used paper stumps or ‘torchons’ for blending and a putty rubber for refining areas and adding highlights.


I find this sort of study is a great starting point for a painting, and funnily enough it is very useful to work in black and white first as it gives you a great feel for your tonal values. This is loose and rough and ready around the edges as it is very much a working drawing rather than a finished piece.

 My Materials list:

  • Derwent Graphic set of 12 pencils, 9B-H                 Code 27668

  • Faber Castell 9000 Art Set                                            Code 28809

  • Gerstaecker ILA set of 12                                              Code 4-44939

  • Koh-I-Noor 1500 set of 12                                             Code 28475

  • Staedtler Mars Lumograph set of 12                         Code 28525

  • Daler Rowney Heavyweight Drawing paper A4      Code 16536

                                                                                        and A3     Code 16537

  • Clairefontaine PaintOn Naturel                                   Code 4-11771

  • Derwent Battery eraser                                                  Code 30568

  • Maped kneadbale eraser                                                Code 23732

  • Staedtler Mars eraser                                                      Code 23475

  • Blending paper stumps/ ‘torchons’                             Code 4-23875

  • Sand paper board like this Faber Castell one           Code 23473

  • Winsor and Newton Designer’s Gouache (white)    Code 28844512

  • Winsor and Newton Designer’s Gouache Black       Code 28844331

*All available from GreatArt on the following link:

I also used:

  • Sketchbooks and scraps of different papers to try out effects on 

  • Scalpel and craft knife for sharpening pencils and s’graffito.

  • A pencil sharpener-I use a battery powered one by Derwent which caters for loads of sizes.

Top Tips!

  • When working with graphite pencils, as with charcoal, soft pastels etc…be very conscious of your hands. If they get too warm or too dirty they really will just make a mess, so pause to stand back and look at what you’ve been doing frequently, and give your hands a quick wash at the same time. I keep some hand wipes close by for a super quick fix.

  • Keep a scrap of paper to hand and use it to lean on so your drawing hand does not smudge your work.

  • When erasers get dirty, simply clean them by working backwards and forwards on a clean piece of paper for a few minutes.

  • When trying to build up tonal areas with a pencil, avoid pressing really hard as this will damage the paper and make your hand extremely tired. Instead use steady even pressure and build up in layers until you get the depth of tone you want. An added bonus is that you can keep changing direction which helps to fill in gaps and create a more even appearance.

and for inspiration:

  • There are some great books to help inspire you with sketchbook studies and experimentation-try the following:

            ‘Freehand’ by Helen Birch  -hardie grant books   ISBN 978-174270610-8

            ‘An Illustrated Life’ by Danny Gregory- HOW books   ISBN 978-1-60061-086-8








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