Onlookers are often surprised to see me draw with mechanical pencils, yet I use them all the time. They are my tools of choice.
Mechanical pencils are excellent for drawing. The ‘leads’ range in size from 0.2mm – 0.9mm and graded from 6H – 4B. The ‘leads’ are made of a polymer with the same qualities as graphite but offer more control than a traditional wooden pencil. The lines erase well, are lightfast and the shading is more consistent. The finest grades stay sharp and the thicker grades can be sharpened instantly with emery paper.
Many professional ‘graphite’ artists draw with mechanical pencils but few write about them. That being so, let me tell you why they are so useful and why you should consider using them.
What is a Mechanical Pencil?
Let start with the basics, what is a mechanical pencil? That’s not as daft a question as you may think, confusingly, they are known by different names.
Mechanical pencils are also known as:
- Propelling Pencils
- Technical Pencils
- Clutch Pencils
- Drafting Pencils
Essentially, they’re all the same thing. They look like pens and all have thin lead inserts held in place with a clamp-like mechanism.
If there is any difference worth noting, clutch pencils tend to hold thicker leads whilst mechanical pencils propel leads forward and are often much finer.
How Do You Shade With a Mechanical pencil?
It takes time and patience to draw with mechanical pencils. You have to get used to them. The finer leads snap easily and require a light touch. It can be frustrating until you learn how to apply the right pressure.
There’s another knack that needs mastering. An even line must be applied at a constant angle. Even the thinnest lead wears down at a chamfer and the tilt of the pencil determines the width of the line.
Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets)
Even hatching requires a very steady hand but once mastered, it’s possible to create a broad flat tone that’s almost impossible to achieve using traditional pencils. Darks are best rendered by cross-hatching and building up the tone gradually in layers.
Do Mechanical Pencils Blend With Traditional Pencils?
They do, but there are caveats. The hard (H) grades blend easily but the soft (B) grades do not.
It’s very hard to draw dark-on-dark using a combination of the two types of pencil. The soft mechanical leads are too waxy and the resulting mix is a dirty smudge.
Another difference that may concern some people is the difference in grey tones between the two. Wooden pencils produce much more beautiful light greys. I combine them with the ‘B’ grades of mechanical pencils.
Traditional pencils produce beautiful dark greys but they have a reflective shine. Mechanical leads, by contrast, have a richer, muted, and satin appearance.
Further Reading: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings
Can You Draw Realism With a Mechanical Pencil?
I would argue that realism is more easily attained using mechanical pencils. Each width and tone requires a change of pencil as a considered and deliberate act. That might appear overwhelming at first but offers an artist a tremendous degree of control.
The lines are uniform and consistent and there’s no need to adjust the pressure to tweak the value or constantly sharpen the lead. And it’s because the pressure is less important than choosing the correct pencil, the lead is applied more delicately, and erased more easily.
Conventional pencils, especially the softer grades, are great for sketching, they encourage a looser style. Mechanical pencils, by contrast, encourage a tighter style. A skilled draughtsman can use both tools either way but it’s easier to refine a drawing with mechanical pencils, that’s if super-realism is your aim.
Put simply, they are made for precision drawing.
What Size Lead is Best for Mechanical Pencils?
Personally, I use 0.3mm mostly, and I use them on fine grain cartridge paper. My drawings are also quite small. If I drew larger pieces in a sketchier style I would favor 0.5mm pencils. I find 0.3mm gives me the ultimate control.
The wider grades are certainly more robust and highlight the grain in the paper. If you love the loose speckled effect go with the wider 0.5mm or 0.7mm. The finer grades are easily broken but have far more finesse.
Most brands promote their 0.5mm pencils. It’s an all-rounder. I use the darkest grades which, unlike 0.3mm leads, go up to 4B.
Further Reading: How to Make Your Drawings More Interesting
How to Choose the Best Mechanical Pencil
Your main concern should be the range of leads and their availability. Then there is the pencil itself, they are not so cheap, indeed, some are bloody expensive.
When I first experimented with mechanical pencils I chose Pentel leads because they were readily available and they had a cheaper range of pencil holders. Nowadays, it’s harder to find good supplies on the shelf and I use online stores.
That’s not to say that replacements are easy to find online. That is not experience. More grades of Pentel leads are available than advertised on Pentel’s own site! It’s more than confusing.
The problem with switching brands is the grading system, it’s not universal. Each company has its own grading formula and I’m used to Pentel pencils which is why I persevere.
|Lead Refills||Pentel |
|0.2mm||HB, B, 2B||B, HB,|
|0.3mm||4H, 3H, 2H, B, H, HB,||H, B, HB, 2B,||3H, 2H, H, HB, F, B, 2B,||2H, H, HB, B,|
|0.35mm||2H, H, HB, B,||HB,|
|0.5mm||6H, 5H, 4H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B,||2H, H, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B,||3H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B,||3H, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B,||2H, H, HB, B, 2B,|
|0.7mm||4H, 3H 2H, H, HB, F, B, 2B,||H, B, HB, 2B||2H, H, HB, B, 2B,||2H, H, HB, B, 2B,||HB, B, 2B,|
|0.9mm||2H, H, HB, B, 2B,||HB, B, 2B,||B, HB,||B, HB,|
|2mm||4H, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B, 4B||2H, B, 2B|
The major cost involves buying the pencils themselves. You have to buy a separate pencil for each size and grade of lead. That said, compared with other mediums, it’s very little. Once you have the pencil, the refills are cheap.
Top Tip: Label each pencil with the grade to avoid confusion
I use 0.3mm and use 5 grades, that’s 5 pencils. I also use 0.5mm, 2B, and 4B, that’s another two. I consider that sufficient for me. You may decide on a different range, you can easily ditch 4H and 2H and replace them with normal pencils.
Originally, I bought the cheaper ‘120 A3’ Pentel pencils, then the slightly more expensive ‘P200’ model, that’s less prone to jamming. Now I use Staedtler Mars Micro Pencils which, as you’d expect from a German brand, are well made, a comfortable weight with a rubberized grip.
All my pencils have a detachable top button and the pencil chamber holds the leads. When one lead is exhausted, the next is supposed to slot into place. This is where it goes wrong. Sometimes, the lead gets stuck.
If the lead breaks off in the pencil nib itself you can only dislodge it with wire. The problem is, the wire is seldom supplied, and you NEED it.
If the wire is supplied, it’s to be found inside the holder and pinned to the underside of the eraser, which is itself beneath the button at the top. If you can’t get one you’ll need to buy some wire, of the right gauge, separately.
Before I finish, it’s worth mentioning how delicate the nibs are. They will not survive much punishment. I work outside and they do not always survive dropping onto a hard surface. The nibs are precision made and any fault will ruin the head. Be aware.
It is a pleasure to draw with mechanical pencils. They are an essential part of my kit. I love the feel and weight of the pencil, and I love how the lead glides across the surface of the paper. The line is true, easily erased and requires no effort.
If you have never used them before, I think you will enjoy them. As far as I’m concerned, I love to draw with mechanical pencils. It has been a game-changer and I highly recommend them.
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