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2B or Not 2B - Artist Pencil Guide

Beginner Artists often go out and buy a shiny new set of 12 drawing pencils. They usually come in a snazzy looking tin.

But why do you need a dozen or so different pencils? What do the numbers mean and what are they all for? Most importantly, how do you choose right pencil for your art?

Look no further! I've put together a quick guide on Artist Pencils! 

The numbers on the pencils refer to a pencil's hardness which is determined by the ratio of graphite to clay in the pencils. The more graphite is in a pencil, the softer and blacker it is, the more clay, the harder and "grayer" it is. The harder pencils also tend to look a lot shinier on the paper.  

Fun fact - pencils aren't actually made of lead. But we still refer to the graphite/clay mixture as the "lead" of the pencil. Ancient romans used to use lead to make lines and in early science, they thought graphite was a form of lead. However, lead has never really been used in modern pencils, which is a good thing, as it is extremely toxic!  

There are 16 grades of pencil from 10B to 10H. 

The soft "B" pencils are ideal for sketching and shading. You will get a beautiful deep black with a soft, "sketchy" line. They blend very easily and are easy to erase. You don't have to press as hard and it can be gentler on delicate papers.  

HB, H and F are in the middle and are ideal for writing. Thats why your standard yellow pencil you used in school was an HB. They were used for standardized tests because they didn't smudge as much and created a nice dark line that easily filed in this tiny test circles. Relatively easy to erase. 

2H - 10 H are hard pencils. They create a fine, grey and shiny line that doesn't smudge easily. They are ideal fo detailed work by drafts people and architects and artists that need a high level of precision in their art. They tend to dig into the paper. 

I like to Remember "B" for Black. "H" for Hard and "F" for Firm. HB in the Middle. 

So, how do you know which one is best for you? It will depend on your style, preference and the type of paper you use. Generally, I like to use pencils in the middle - I always reach for my HB. 

As a watercolour artists, the middle pencils write clearly without damaging the paper. They create a dark, visible line without a lot of smudging or extra graphite. This makes them great for underdrawings on watercolour paper. When you add water and washes, excess graphite can move around on the page and smudge, making softer pencils less ideal for use with watercolour.  Harder pencils can "dig" into the watercolour paper and leave indents and lines if you press too hard. 

Once washes go overtop, pencil lines don't always erase, so its important to keep in mind if you don't want pencil marks to be visible in your end painting. 

When I'm at life drawing classes or out sketching exclusively in pencil, I often use a softer pencil for the soft expressive lines. Some artists use straight up graphite to create art as well or moving to charcoal or conte is a great choice as well. 

 This calls for another post all together, but as a watercolour artists, I'm a big fan of water soluble graphite and pencils as well! 

Which one do you use? 

If you are looking to improve your drawing, I'm teaching a 3 week drawing course online starting in March! Check it out Here


1 comment

  • I learned a lot from this article. Thank you

    Brenda Martinez

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