Best Drawing Pencils for Beginners: How to Choose Wisely

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Finding the best drawing pencils for beginners is easy, they’re the same ones the professionals use. In other words, you must buy high-quality pencils if you want to achieve good results.

Drawing pencils are specialized and designed specifically for artists. These pencils differ from standard writing pencils, in as much as they have a broader range of pencil grades and composition, allowing artists to achieve varying line weights and shades with consistent results.

And don’t worry, they don’t cost much.

In this post, I will go over the different types of drawing pencils, their uses, and the best brands on the market. I’m not reviewing each brand individually because all the top brands make quality pencils.

It’s a long post so let’s get going.

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Check out this new post too: What is the Best Type of Pencil to Use With Watercolor?

Types of Drawing Pencils: Overview

Selecting the right type of drawing pencils is essential because using the appropriate tools can significantly impact the quality and outcome of your artwork.

There are several types of drawing pencils that artists use for various drawing techniques and effects. Each type of pencil has a unique composition and purpose.

Graphite Pencils

Graphite drawing pencils are the most common type of pencil used by artists, indeed they are an essential part of an artist’s toolkit. They’re easy to use, erase well, sharpen to a fine point for detailed work, and are cheap to replace.

One of the defining factors of graphite pencils is the wide range of pencil grades available. The hardness or softness of the pencil’s graphite core determines its grade. Softer grades of graphite pencils produce darker marks, while harder grades create lighter marks.

Faber-Castell 9000 Series

Understanding the grading system is essential for choosing the right graphite pencil for your specific drawing needs and I’ll cover that in a moment.

Graphite pencils consist of a mixture of graphite and clay, encased within a wooden barrel. Contrary to popular belief pencils are not made of lead and never have been.

Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal pencils are another popular choice among artists, known for their rich, dark lines and expressive nature. They are made by compressing charcoal into a wooden casing.

These pencils are excellent for creating bold lines, dramatic shading, and high contrast in your artwork. Unlike graphite pencils, charcoal pencils can be more challenging to erase; however, a kneaded eraser or a blending stump can be used to make corrections or manipulate the charcoal marks.

Nitram Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal pencils come in various forms, including soft, medium, and hard grades. The grading system is similar to graphite pencils with softer (B) charcoal pencils producing dark marks and bolder lines, and the “H” hard charcoal pencils creating lighter, more delicate lines.

Please note that the grade ranges are not as extensive as with graphite pencils.

Selecting the right charcoal pencil for your project depends on the desired texture, contrast, and level of detail. They are often used in conjunction with graphite sticks and are especially useful for adding detail.

Carbon Pencils

Carbon pencils and charcoal pencils share similarities in appearance and application, but they differ in composition and resulting effects.

Carbon pencils are made with a combination of charcoal and graphite, which results in a pencil that offers the smoothness of graphite and the deep, velvety blacks of charcoal. to produce rich, dark, and easily smudged lines. They are ideal for bold, expressive drawings with high contrast.

The fusion of these materials produces a pencil that delivers a more consistent, matte finish, and slightly cleaner lines than charcoal pencils. However, carbon pencils can still be smudged and blended to achieve various effects, much like charcoal pencils.

Colored Pencils

Colored pencils are a popular choice for artists seeking to add vibrant hues and intricate details to their artwork. These pencils are composed of a pigmented core encased in a wooden barrel.

The pigments are bound together with a wax or oil-based binder, which allows for a smooth transfer of color onto the paper when pressure is applied.

Colored pencils offer a wide range of colors and blending capabilities, making them suitable for various drawing techniques, such as layering, shading, and burnishing.

Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils

The quality and performance of colored pencils can vary significantly between brands, as well as within different lines of a single brand. Higher-quality pencils typically contain more pigment and less binder, resulting in richer colors and a smoother application.

When selecting colored pencils, consider factors like lightfastness (resistance to fading), consistency, and ease of sharpening. As with graphite and charcoal pencils, manual pencil sharpeners or a blade can be used to achieve a sharp point for detailed work.

Pastel Pencils

Colored pencils and pastel pencils share some similarities in appearance, but they have distinct differences in composition, resulting effects, and techniques.

Pastel pencils are made from a core containing pigment, binder, and a small amount of clay also encased within a wooden barrel. They produce a soft, powdery texture that adheres to paper with a ‘tooth’ or grainy surface. They are not suitable for very smooth paper.

Pastel pencils are made from a core containing pigment, binder, and a small amount of clay also encased within a wooden barrel. They produce a soft, powdery texture that adheres to paper with a ‘tooth’ or grainy surface. They are not suitable for very smooth paper.

Faber-Castell Pitt Pastel Pencils

Pastel pencils allow for easy blending, smudging, and layering of colors, resulting in a more painterly effect compared to colored pencils. They are ideal for creating expressive, vibrant drawings with a wider range of tones and textures.

They do not mix well with colored pencils but do work wonderfully with soft pastels and charcoal.

It is important to note that pastel pencils can be more challenging to work with due to their fragile and crumbly nature, requiring careful handling and a fixative to prevent smudging. They can be difficult to sharpen.

Mechanical Pencils

Mechanical pencils are a popular alternative to traditional wooden pencils, especially for those who value precision and consistency.

They use a thin, replaceable “lead” that is extended through a metal or plastic barrel and works like a pen. The lead advances through the pencil by clicking a button. The “lead” is a graphite/clay or plastic polymer mix.

The Pentel P200 Range of Mechanical Pencils

Mechanical pencils, also known as propelling pencils, are favored for technical drawing, drafting, and writing due to their precise lines and convenience. They eliminate the need for sharpening and can provide an even line weight throughout a drawing.

Mechanical pencils are available with different lead thicknesses, typically ranging from 0.3mm to 0.9mm or even 2mm for certain models. The leads also come in various hardness levels, allowing artists to achieve a range of values in their work.

You’ll be interested in this post: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? YES! Here’s How

I was reluctant to include mechanical pencils at first, despite my preference for using them. Why? Because I’m not sure if a beginner should use them, not at an early stage. I think they are more suited to experienced artists.

They require a light touch and it takes time to master their use, but when you find the knack, they offer far more control than their standard pencil counterparts.

If the extra learning curve doesn’t put you off the price will. Mechanical pencils are expensive.

"Heat and Dust" a pencil drawing of a white rhino by Kevin Hayler
“Heat and Dust” a Drawing by Kevin Hayler using Mechanical Pencils

Graphite Pencil Grades Explained

Understanding the pencil grading scale and its significance is essential for artists, as it allows you to choose the right drawing pencil for your specific needs.

The grade of a pencil is determined by the ratio of graphite and clay in the pencil’s core. A higher graphite-to-clay ratio results in a softer pencil, while a higher clay-to-graphite ratio produces a harder pencil.

The Pencil Grading Scale and Its Significance

The pencil grading scale is typically represented by two sets of labels: the “H” scale (Hard) and the “B” scale (Soft). “H” pencils have harder graphite cores, resulting in lighter marks, while “B” pencils have softer graphite cores, producing darker marks.

The middle point of the scale is represented by the HB pencil, which is considered a balanced pencil in terms of hardness and darkness.

The pencil grading scale is essential for artists because it helps determine the range of values and textures achievable with a specific pencil. Harder pencils are ideal for fine lines and detailed work, while softer pencils are better suited for bold lines, shading, and blending.

Breakdown of Different Grades and How to Choose the Right One for Your Needs

Here’s a breakdown of different pencil grades and their general characteristics:

  • H Pencils: Ranging from H to 9H, these pencils have harder graphite cores and create lighter marks. They are ideal for technical drawing, fine details, and light shading.
  • HB Pencil: This pencil sits in the middle of the scale and offers a balance between hardness and softness. It is a versatile choice, suitable for both sketching and detailed work.
  • B Pencils: Ranging from B to 9B, these pencils have softer graphite cores and produce darker marks. They are perfect for bold lines, deep shading, and blending.

For a full breakdown go to this post: What Do Pencil Numbers Mean? Pencil Grades Explained + Charts

How to Select The Best Drawing Pencil

Selecting the right drawing pencil is crucial to achieving the desired results in your artwork. There are several factors to consider when choosing the best drawing pencil, including your skill level, subject matter, paper type, and personal preferences. By taking these factors into account, you’ll be better equipped to find the perfect pencil for your artistic needs.

To choose the right pencil grade for your needs, consider the following factors:

1. The Subject Matter

The subject matter of your artwork can also determine the appropriate pencil type and grade. Different subjects may require different pencil grades for optimal results.

For example, portraits often benefit from a combination of hard and soft pencils to create fine details, shading, and contrasts. In contrast, technical drawings and architectural sketches typically demand harder pencils for precise lines and accuracy.

These posts will be eye-opening:

2. Your Skill Level

Your skill level as an artist can influence the type of pencil you should choose. Beginners may find it helpful to start with a versatile medium-grade pencil like the HB pencil. This pencil provides a balance between hardness and darkness, making it suitable for both sketching and detailed work.

As you gain experience and develop your drawing skills, experimenting with different pencil grades can help you expand your artistic range and achieve various effects

Proko has some good courses. Not so cheap, but the standard is high

3. Your Paper Choice

It’s essential to consider the paper’s weight, texture, and tooth when selecting a drawing pencil to ensure optimal results.

Strathmore sketch pads combine quality and value. Great for beginners

The type of paper you use for your drawings can affect the performance and appearance of your pencils. Heavier, textured papers produce grainier and darker lines, while smoother papers may not provide enough traction for soft pencils to leave a bold mark.

It’s easier to erase marks from smoother paper.

This post will help you choose: What is The Best Paper for Graphite Pencil Drawing?

4. Your Drawing Style

If you prefer light, delicate lines, subtle transitions of grades, and fine details, opt for harder pencils. If you like bold lines, blending, shading, and strong contrasts, softer pencils will better suit your style. Your personal drawing style, and the techniques you employ, will influence your choice of pencils.

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This will help you select pencils that best complement your artistic approach and enable you to produce your desired outcomes.

Do you lack confidence? Take a class and get into the habit of drawing. I found this class on Udemy, 115,028 students can’t all be wrong!

5. Availability of Replacements

Another factor to consider when selecting a drawing pencil is the availability of replacements. When you invest in a pencil set, you may eventually need to replace individual pencils as they wear down or break.

Unfortunately, some pencil sets do not offer easy access to individual pencil replacements, which can be inconvenient and costly if you need to repurchase the entire set.

To avoid this issue, it’s wise to choose drawing pencils from reputable brands or sets that allow you to purchase individual pencils as and when needed. This approach not only ensures that you can maintain a complete and functional set but also saves you money in the long run.

Your personal preferences play a crucial role in choosing the right drawing pencil. Some artists prefer the smoothness and ease of graphite pencils, while others may enjoy the rich, dark lines and expressive textures of charcoal pencils. It’s all subjective.

The Best Brands of Graphite Pencils

When it comes to drawing most people will instantly imagine using graphite pencils. The professional brands are all manufactured to maintain a consistent texture, be less prone to shattering inside the wooden case, and sharpen smoothly.

There is no point in recommending one brand above another. The best brands all make superb pencils, choose one range, and stick with them. I advise you to buy a brand that is easily available locally or online. You can buy a set at first but make sure you can obtain individual replacements.

Here’s a list of some of the top brands of drawing pencils known for their quality and performance:

  • Faber Castell: Well-known worldwide for their Graphite 9000 Series Pencils, which offer a wide range of grades and consistent performance.
  • Staedtler: The Mars Lumograph Graphite Pencils are highly regarded for their quality, smoothness, and durability and their non-shiny black range.
  • Derwent: The British brand produces Derwent Graphic Pencils, offering a full range of grades and reliable performance. Readily available in the UK. May be limited elsewhere.
  • Caran D’ache: The Swiss brand’s Grafwood Graphite Pencils are highly sought after for their exceptional quality and range of grades.
  • Tombow: Known for their Mono Graphite Pencils, offering a smooth and consistent drawing experience. Make sure you can buy single replacements
  • Lyra: The Rembrandt Art Design Graphite Pencils by Lyra are known for their high-quality, break-resistant cores and precise lines.
  • Conté à Paris: Conte 601 Artists Pencils. Rich and smooth greys. The pencil range is 3H – 6B
  • Generals: The Kimberly Graphite Pencils are popular for their smoothness and consistent performance. Popular in the States but not widely stocked in the UK

Staedtler Mars Lumagraph Pencils are Easy to Find

NOTE: It’s a mistake to mix and match brands unless you are very experienced with pencils and know what to expect from them.

The Best Brands of Charcoal Pencils

If you’ve ever used vine charcoal sticks you’ll discover a world of difference using charcoal pencils. They are much scratchier by comparison and less blendable. However, they do offer you more control, are far less messy, and will make a darker mark.

Here’s a list of some of the best-quality brands known for producing high-quality charcoal pencils:

  • Faber-Castell: The Pitt Charcoal Pencils are well-regarded for their smoothness, deep blacks, and varying degrees of hardness. A range of three grades.
  • Derwent: Derwent Charcoal Pencils are available in 3 grades light, medium, and dark. The Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils offer a unique range of 24 colors while maintaining the smooth texture and richness of charcoal. Be sure to check the availability of replacements.
  • Generals: The Primo Euro Blend Charcoal Pencils are popular for their rich, creamy blacks and blendability. Range of 3, plus white
  • Conté à Paris: The Conté à Paris Charcoal Pencils provide consistent performance, are durable, and produce deep, dark blacks. Available in four grades, H – 2B
  • Nitram: Nitram Charcoal Pencils are highly regarded for their fine detail with B, HB, and H hardness levels. Aimed at professionals. French labeling will deter many.

If you want to be inspired by what you can achieve with charcoal, check this course out by Shane Wolf on Domestika

Dynamic figure drawing by Shane Wolf on Domestika

The Best Brands of Carbon Pencils

I don’t use carbon pencils. I find them too harsh for my taste and hard to erase. That’s subjective, you might prefer them.

While carbon pencils aren’t as widely available as other types of drawing pencils, there are still some reputable brands known for producing high-quality carbon pencils:

  • Conté à Paris: The Conté à Paris Carbon Pencils are known for their consistent performance, delivering a perfect balance of deep, velvety blacks and smooth application. Six grades, 2H – 3B
  • Wolff’s: Wolff’s Carbon Pencils offer a good blend of charcoal and graphite, resulting in pencils with a consistent, matte finish and 4 grades, B, 2B, 4B, and 6B
  • Conté à Paris: The Pierre Noir Pencils Professionals love them. I can’t discover the exact carbon mix but they are renowned for their smooth feel, very like charcoal sticks. The deep blacks are intense. 5 grades, H – 3B. Might be hard to find in the U.S.

The Best Brands of Mechanical Pencils

I was reluctant to include mechanical pencils despite my preference for using them. Why? Because I’m not sure if a beginner should use them at an early stage. It’s better to learn perspective, shading, and proportions with standard pencils.

Mechanical pencils are expensive, and artists use them for detailed work.

Here’s a list of some of the best brands known for producing high-quality mechanical pencils suitable for artists:

  • Pentel: The P200 series are popular mechanical pencils known for their comfortable grip, a pleasing weight, and reliability. Pentel has the largest range of pencil grades and sizes overall. The cheaper Pentel P120 A3 model is very good value if you can find them.
  • Staedtler: The Staedtler Mars Micro series mechanical pencils offer precise lines, excellent build quality, and comfortable use. Lead replacements range from 0.3mm to 2mm
  • Faber-Castell: The Faber-Castell TK-Fine Mechanical Pencils provide a comfortable grip, precise lines, and consistent performance. They have a good choice of replacement leads.

There are many more brands and some of them are super expensive. They are designed for writing or drafting and they don’t manufacture the range of leads you need.

You can swap the leads with another brand, as long as the gauges are identical, but when each size and grade of lead requires a new pencil, you’ll end up paying $100’s of dollars for the pleasure.

This post goes into detail: Best Mechanical Drawing Pencils For Artists in 2023

Best Brands of Colored Pencils

Here’s a list of some of the best-quality brands known for producing high-quality colored pencils:

  • Faber-Castell: The Polychromos Colored Pencils are highly regarded for their oil-based vibrant colors, lightfastness, and excellent blending capabilities. Large range of 120 colors. Expensive.
  • Prismacolor: The Premier Colored Pencils are popular for their rich and vibrant pigmentation, creamy texture, and huge range of 150 colors. Wax-based and easily broken. Good value for money.
  • Caran d’Ache: The Luminance 6901 Colored Pencils are premium artist-grade pencils known for their exceptional lightfastness and intense colors. 100 colors
  • Derwent: The Chromaflow Soft-Colored Pencils offer a broad range of 72 colors, strong pigmentation, and creamy texture. The expensive Derwent Lightfast Color Pencils claim to be 100% lightfast and last for 100 years. 100 colors!
  • Tombow: The Irojiten Colored Pencils are recognized for their vibrant colors, consistent quality, wax-based, and easily blended. 100 colors. smooth application.

Derwent Lightfast Color Pencils

The Best Brands of Pastel Pencils

Here’s a list of some of the best brands known for producing high-quality pastel pencils:

  • Derwent: The Derwent Pastel Pencils are popular for their smooth application, vibrant colors, and easy blending capabilities. 72 Colors. Variable lightfastness results.
  • Faber-Castell: The Pitt Pastel Pencils are known for their rich pigments, lightfastness, and consistent performance. 60 colors. Hard pastels and easy to sharpen. Great for detail.
  • Conté à Paris: The Conté à Paris Pastel Pencils are made to a high standard but sadly have a limited range of colors. 48 colors.
  • Stabillo Carbothello: The Stabilo CarbOthello Pastel Pencils offer strong pigmentation, a good color range, and easy blending properties. 60 colors. Can be brittle when sharpened.
  • Caran D’ache: The Caran d’Ache Pastel Pencils are artist-grade pencils known for their exceptional lightfastness and vibrant colors. 84 colors. Great pencils but expensive.
  • Cretacolor: The Cretacolor Fine Art Pastel Pencils provide a wide range of pigments but strangely unpublished lightfastness, 72 colors

Check out my comprehensive guide to pastel pencils here: Best Pastel Pencils For Beginners: 7 Top Brands Review 

As with anything listed here, check the availability of replacements. It’s important to explore and experiment with different brands. Professionals will buy a set of colors from one brand and augment them with colors from other brands to create their own custom range.

The Best Drawing Pencils for a Matt Black

Here’s a list of some of the best pencils known for producing a dark matte black without pencil shine:

  • Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Pencils: A special range within Staedtler’s Mars Lumograph series. These high-quality graphite pencils are specifically designed to produce dark matte black lines without pencil shine.
    With increased carbon content, they provide deep, intense blacks while maintaining the smoothness and consistency that artists appreciate in the Mars Lumograph line. This makes them an excellent choice for those seeking a dark, matte finish in their drawings.
  • Derwent Onyx Pencils: A superior black. Available in medium and dark. The black is intense and the very robust lead is able to hold a point.
  • Faber-Castell Pitt Charcoal Pencils: These charcoal pencils are known for their deep blacks and matte finish without the shine often associated with graphite.
  • Generals Layout Extra Black Pencils: Known for their rich, dark lines and smooth texture, suitable for sketching and drawing.
  • Generals Primo Euro Blend Charcoal Pencils: These charcoal pencils provide rich, velvety blacks and a matte finish, ideal for dark and intense drawings.
  • Conté à Paris Pierre Noire Pencils: Having all the subtle qualities of charcoal sticks without the mess, these pencils deliver a perfect balance of deep, velvety blacks and a smooth application with no shine.
  • Wolff’s Carbon Pencils: These carbon pencils offer a blend of charcoal and graphite, resulting in a consistent, matte finish with varying degrees of hardness.

Faber-Castell Pitt Charcoal Pencils

This post goes into detail about this problem: 9 Ways to Stop Pencil Shine in a Drawing and Save Your Work!

The Best Drawing Pencils for Beginners: Final Thoughts

Beginner artists are tempted to buy cheap art supplies or do the exact reverse and buy everything they could ever need. Listen up, there is a simple truth, you need good tools to learn your craft but there is no magic secret that you can buy.

It’s not the pencils that make the big difference, a good artist will produce great work with a set of school crayons. It’s the hard work and insane amounts of practice that matter most.

You need the right tools for the right job and nothing more. Don’t go crazy.

Buy professional-grade pencils, a quality fine-toothed cartridge sketch pad, and a good kneadable eraser. Get yourself a small selection of pencils, some hard, an HB, and some soft.

If you feel more comfortable having a shopping list, start with a 4H, 2H, HB, B, and a 3B pencil. That will suffice. Buy one brand and do not mix and match at this stage.

Take it one step at a time. The key to learning a new skill is to concentrate on small wins and build slowly. Don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t be put off by failures, we all have them, it’s part of the process. Learn from your mistakes and try again. Stick with it.

3 Giraffes portraits. A pencil drawing called "Eyelashes" by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

It might be too early to think of selling your art but check out how I made a living for over 20 years.

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Best drawing pencils for beginners
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
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