Because they are erasable, pencils are often the first tool creative people use when sketching out a new drawing, sculpture, painting, or even designs for a new line of clothing. Pencils are also, in many cases, the tool those same artists have been using from the time they learned to write, giving them plenty of time to find a favourite. The ubiquitous writing and drawing utensil may seem as commonplace as a fork, but (like with forks) there is a tremendous variety of pencils out there. To find the best drawing pencils, we talked to artists from different disciplines about the ones they reach for over and over again, whether they’re doodling in a sketchbook or putting the finishing touches on a large-scale work. “I’ve been using drawing pencils all my conscious life,” says illustrator Christoph Niemann. Below, he and 11 others share their favourite drawing pencils — as well as their thoughts about the finer points of pencil design, how a great one should feel when you hold it, and which degree of lead quality is best.
Best overall drawing pencil
Among the 12 artists we talked to, the consensus was that Staedtler’s drawing pencils are superior. The German brand is beloved among artists and graphic designers and came recommended by three people we spoke with. It was officially founded in 1835, but its roots go back to a circa-1662 item in the Nuremburg city annals that references a pencil craftsman named Friedrich Staedtler. Needless to say, the company has had a while to perfect its craft, which shows in its offerings (its range of lead grades, for example, is wider than that of most other pencil makers’). Staedtler offers leads from 12B to 10H, with B indicating the graphite’s level of blackness or softness and H indicating the level of hardness. The higher the number, the softer or harder the lead will be. (Hard leads make cleaner lines that are less susceptible to smudging; soft leads create richer, heavier lines.)
Joshua Abelow, who uses pencils on soft paper to create large line drawings (which he never revises or erases), says he’s been using Staedtler’s 6B Mars Lumograph pencils exclusively since 2004. “I like the 6B because it’s soft enough to produce a wide variety of marks depending on the speed and pressure I apply.” Andrew Kuo and Sebastian Black, both painters, say they also prefer Staedtler. Kuo uses HB Staedtler pencils exclusively (HB, which is the midway point of lead grades, stands for hard and black, so it’s both precise and rich), while Black says that he regularly uses both HB and 2B. This set of six Mars Lumograph pencils includes a range of lead degrees, from HB to 8B, so you can test all three of the artist’s favourite leads.
Best drawing pencil for blending
Cline and illustrator Julia Krusch both told us they swear by Faber-Castell drawing pencils. Cline notes that “they take to a blending stick very nicely,” adding that “when I want to make finished drawings (which is not very often), I use Faber-Castell. They have a smooth, uniform quality.” He prefers the brand’s 9000 series, which feature leads made from a combination of finely ground graphite and clay, while Krusch opts for Faber-Castell’s Pitt Pure graphite pencils (6B or 9B), which are more sustainable because they lack a wood casing and are made of pure graphite. She especially likes using a Pitt Pure “to emphasise a contour or draw single heavy lines.” The set shown comes with a range of Faber-Castell drawing pencils, including both Cline and Krusch’s favourites. For contrasting small details, Krusch likes another Faber-Castell pencil — the Clutch — with 0.5-mm lead (artist and licensed art therapist Margot Werner is also a fan of the Faber-Castell Clutch).
Best drawing pencils for creating chunky lines
Though he admits to buying “immoral amounts of art supplies,” Niemann says he often uses whatever’s within reach. Still, for larger pencil drawings, he says that “I sometimes use the Koh-I-Noor lead holders because it’s easier to create a chunky line.” Krusch is also a fan of Koh-I-Noor, but instead of the holders she prefers the brand’s woodless graphite sticks, which she uses for “wider surfaces or more texture when held at an angle.” The graphite sticks are essentially a fatter version of the leads you would put in the Koh-I-Noor holder, with a paper wrapper to keep your hands from getting dirty.
Best-looking drawing pencil
Niemann also says he has an affinity for Derwent drawing pencils — particularly the way they look. “They look better than the competition,” he explains. “Matte and shiny black, with white type, and then that sexy orange stripe.” Like the Staedtler and the Faber-Castell pencils, these Derwent pencils are hexagonal to give you greater control and precision. The leads are made from a mix of clay and finely ground graphite, and they range in hardness from 9B to 9H, with this set ranging from 6B to 4H.
Best-looking mechanical drawing pencil
As we noted above, Bassen’s true favourite mechanical pencil is the Kaweco Sport, which she loves for its “chunky aesthetic” and owns in three colours: white, navy, and hot pink. She told us she fills it with whatever leads she has on hand; Kaweco’s mechanical pencil takes 0.7-mm lead from any brand, so you can switch up the hardness or softness depending on your project.
Best drawing pencil with eraser
In addition to the other pencils she told us about, Krusch says she also likes sketching with what she calls “classic pencils with the rubber on the end.” For this style, she recommends Tombow HB pencils over any other brand. She told us the Tombows help motivate her to create new work because they remind her of the pencils she used in primary school — but these aren’t your average Stabilo pencils. “They have the perfect hardness, so you can draw heavy and black with them, or also go light and soft or smear with your finger to get a different texture,” says Krusch. They also have a superior eraser, which doesn’t dry out and erases cleaner than your average pencil.
Best drawing pencil for linen or canvas
Kuo also has a favourite mechanical pencil, which he uses expressly for drafting out his paintings on canvas and linen. He says that the 0.9-mm HB lead (the same one Fishel uses in his mechanical pencils) is thick enough not to break on the rough surface of either material. And, according to him, “the tooth of the linen eats graphite alive,” so this mechanical style saves some time when it comes to re-sharpening.
Best charcoal drawing pencil
Illustrator Amber Vittoria told us that her new favourite pencil is this charcoal style by General Pencil. “I was recently introduced to this pencil at a workshop’, she says. ‘It’s soft enough, but not too soft.” Charcoal pencils can create tones that are much darker and richer than even the softest graphite, making these a great tool for loose beginning sketches.
Best coloured pencils for drawing
Three of our artists also recommended their favourite coloured pencils for creating outdoor studies, finished drawings, and even watercolour paintings. Krusch is a fan of this set of Faber-Castell Polychromos, even though she admits they are a little pricey. They’re worth the extra cost, she says, because “they’re pretty solid, don’t break easily, and I feel like they last a little longer than other ones. I use them for my actual artwork — mostly I sketch beforehand in black/white and then trace on a light table with these. So a lot of my editorial illustration work is done with them.”
Best coloured pencils for watercolour painting
Painter Lauren Beck says she feels quite passionately about Cretacolor Aqua Monolith coloured pencils, which she uses to create watercolour paintings on paper. Watercolour pencils use water-soluble binders to hold their pigments together and can be used exactly like regular coloured pencils or dipped in water to blur and spread the pigment just like watercolour paints. Beck swears by these because of their rich pigments and woodless design, which together allow her to “create different line thicknesses and textures by changing the angle of the pencil.”
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