Drawing Tools for Beginners 2021 – Keep it Sweet & Simple

Drawing Tools for Beginners 2021 - Keep it Sweet & Simple

Have you ever flipped through a super thick art supplies catalog and felt surprised at the huge number of drawing tools out there? Have you ever felt confused or overwhelmed at the massive variety of art materials, drawing materials, drawing paper and other surfaces available? Have you asked yourself, “How do I choose drawing tools for beginners? What about quality? Should I go for high-quality, professional quality, or student grade? Can I get what I need for less? Why is there so much product out there?

There are so many different kinds of pencils, paint, eraser, brush, pastels, pens and other materials. How do I pick what is good for me? How will I know? What do I want? It’s all so new…maybe I should go to the art supply store to shop for drawing supplies…

I’ve been there. Let’s dig into this topic and see if we can answer these questions.

I started drawing! Yay! Now what?

 Congratulations! You’re on your way and that’s good, so keep drawing! Draw daily and keep learning the fundamentals of art. Now that you’ve begun, it’s a matter of maintaining your will to continue and finding resources that work for you. Let’s introduce some essential drawing materials and art materials that will serve your art education journey.

The Purpose of Art Materials

Mark making.

The purpose of all drawing materials, and paint, is to make a mark. The purpose of each mark is to help us express our stories. Other art materials, such as paper and canvas, are the places our stories live in the world.  

Drawing Tools for Beginners

 The tools & materials I’ve listed here are structured with a focus on the art fundamentals, and based on my recommended Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners.

1.  Graphite Pencil set or Lead Holder & Leads

graphite pencils and lead holders

 Standard medium 12 pencil sets will contain several grades of graphite pencils, usually 4H to 6B. A full range set, from 9H to 9B, contains 24 pencils and offers a broader tonal range. For more information on pencil grades, check out my post All About Drawing Pencils: Graphite Pencil Scale Explained.

Another drawing option is a lead holder with several grades of graphite leads. Using a lead holder means less of the graphite stick is wasted. I prefer lead holders over drawing pencils because I find them to be more reliable, efficient, and longer lasting.

 Drawing pencils and pencil sets are the least expensive route for starting your art materials toolbox.  A set of 12 medium graphite pencils (4H-6B) has a price of about $18, and a more expansive set of 24 (9H to 9B) goes for about $35.

The price of a lead holder runs about $9 – $18 depending on the type and brand. I’ve always used a Staedtler lead holder, which runs about $12.  A selection of lead grades goes for $40 to $192 depending on the number of lead grades you purchase and the lead count for each grade (packs of 2 or 12). The initial cost for the lead holder and leads is higher but balances out a bit by lasting much longer.

Access to the full range of tones, from lightest (9H) to darkest (9B), is extremely valuable–especially when you are training to see and control tones. This is true for any graded pencils, including charcoal pencils.

2.  Sharpeners & Pointers: Pencil Sharpener, Lead Pointer, X-Acto Knife, and Sandpaper Pointers

 Crisp lines, small shapes and details require materials that can be sharpened to points or edges. Sharpening requires pencil sharpeners, lead pointers, and X-Acto knives. Sandpaper pointers help achieve an extra sharp point or crisp flat edge after sharpening, but are more of a useful sharpening accessory.

Pencil Sharpeners

All pencil sharpeners are not created equal. Having tried several over the years, I can say two things with confidence:

1) Those little pencil sharpeners that come with most drawing pencil sets are almost always crappy and useless, and

2) Nearly every German-made pencil sharper or lead pointer I have ever used has worked beautifully with minimal lead breakage or waste.

 Once you find a pencil sharpener that works for you, stick with it (and get a backup). Reliable sharpening tools contribute to a smooth workflow by keeping your pencils sharp without breaking or splitting.

Unfortunately, trial and error is still the best way to discover which pencil sharpener best suits you. The two pencil sharpener brands I’ve used for years now are KUM and Dahle. Both are German made, and I find they work best and are of excellent quality. I have the KUM Ellipse pencil sharpener and the Dahle Canister pencil sharpener. For more pencil sharpener options, check out the Blick. Amazon is another option; the search there cast a much wider net, so results are broader, but there are a few products that look promising.

 X-Acto Knife and Sandpaper Pointer: A Reliable Backup

As important as it is to have a reliable sharpener, it’s just as necessary to have a reliable backup sharpener. An X-Acto knife with a fresh blade is an inexpensive and easily accessible backup that always works, and you can find them at your local art supply stores and websites, such as Blick, as well as big box stores such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Target.

Using the X-Acto knife to sharpen your pencils allows you to choose how much of the graphite core is exposed, and how you sharpen it. Pair an X-Acto knife with a Sandpaper Pointer (or a sheet of low grit sandpaper) to have more control and customization of the point of your pencils rather than being beholden to the specs of your other sharpener(s). Having each option for sharpening allows for more flexibility and variety in your mark making and workflow.

Lead Pointers

When a lead holder and graphite sticks (or “leads”) are your choice, a lead pointer is the necessary sharpening tool. While a pencil sharpener must cut and sharpen the wood casing around the graphite as well as the graphite core, lead pointers need only bring the graphite stick itself to a point—without breaking the stick, of course.  Lead sizes range from 2 mm up to 5.6 mm, so be sure to choose the pointer(s) that fit your tool(s).

I use the 2 mm graphite sticks, and my experience with lead pointers has been with the Staedtler Mars lead pointer and “The Gedess” rotary lead pointer by DUX.

I didn’t like the Staedtler Mars because its design was not smooth enough to prevent frequent breaks of my lead, and I found this extremely annoying and wasteful. Then I discovered “The Gedess” and it’s great! Interestingly, both brands are German made. It’s possible they’ve improved, or that the one I had was a dud. Who knows? Still, “The Gedess” works exceptionally well, never failing and rarely breaking my leads.

I definitely recommend “The Gedess” lead pointer, but it is more difficult to find. I have found it in two places: CultPens & Amazon (via a third-party seller). The most expansive list of lead pointers I have found so far comes from Cult Pens. They are a UK-based company, so factor in currency conversion and shipping when making purchases. I ordered two Gedess lead pointers from them years ago and both still work perfectly.

3.  Erasers: Kneaded, Mechanical, Mars Plastic, & Pink Pearl

Erasers
Closeup of white used eraser and pencil on sketchbook

 We all love “happy accidents”, but most of the time what we get are regular “oopsie” marks that need correcting, which makes having a few types of eraser helpful. I use three kinds: a kneaded eraser, a mechanical eraser, and a Mars Plastic eraser. Creating different types of drawings, on different surfaces, with different materials necessitates a bit of variety in how we lift, lighten, adjust, or remove our marks.

Kneaded Erasers

A kneaded eraser can be used for lifting media off a surface to lighten an area or erasing to remove a mark almost completely. I say “almost” because how well the kneaded eraser removes a mark depends on how dark the mark is and how much pressure was used to lay it down. A very dark mark pressed deeply into the surface will not be completely removed with a kneaded eraser.

Mars Plastic Eraser

While very versatile, kneaded erasers are not my tool of choice for heavy duty erasing. To erase a large area completely, I turn to my Mars Plastic eraser. It’s big and sturdy enough to cover a large area, but soft and effective enough to remove the marks without tearing up my surface. Mars Plastic erasers can also be cut or trimmed with an X-Acto knife to achieve an edge or a point.

Mechanical Eraser

Sometimes an area calls for smaller, more precise mark editing or removal. Kneaded erasers can be great for this because they can be shaped in whatever way you want. Its malleability, however, means it is not firm and cannot keep a point for long. A mechanical eraser works great for erasing with more precision. It pairs well with an eraser shield, and can also be cut with an X-Acto knife to achieve a sharper point or more crisp edge.

Pink Pearl Erasers

Pink Pearl erasers work great for erasing on most surfaces. Similar to the Mars Plastic, it’s a good everyday work horse type of eraser but there are a couple of caveats. In my experience, the Pink Pearl erasers can often leave unwanted, pink “ghost” marks behind after erasing. It’s like next level eraser poop, and often can’t be removed—which is very irritating since the point of using it was to remove an unwanted mark.

Additionally, a heavy hand and excessive erasing can mean wear and tear for your surface, so keep that in mind. Still, Pink Pearl erasers are quite durable, so I still recommend having one.

4. Lithographic Crayon or China Marker 

While practicing gesture drawing in art school, I found myself looking for a less messy alternative to charcoal pencils and charcoal and Conte sticks. A schoolmate recommended I try Lithographic Crayons, and I’m glad I listened. Lithographic crayons are great! They have all the benefits of a stick tool with much less mess, apply smoothly, and are not easily smudged.

I find them ideal for figure drawing because they’re comfortable, versatile, and help me from stay away from small details while sketching because they don’t naturally come to sharp point. Lithographic crayons come in six degrees of hardness: Extra Soft, Soft, Medium, Hard, Extra Hard, and Copal.

China Markers offer a similar feel to lithographic crayons, though “Marker” seems a bit of misnomer to me as it’s more a cross between a colored pencil and a crayon in its consistency. If you appreciate a tool with smooth application and no smudging, give china markers a try. The only slightly annoying thing about china markers is the peeling mechanism, by which you expose more of the tool by pulling the inserted string, which cuts the paper covering and allows you to peel it away .

Sometimes the string becomes too long and gets in the way of drawing, or becomes detached completely and makes it difficult to pull more of the paper covering away. Keeping an X-Acto knife or scissors in your pencils toolbox is enough to remedy these minor irritations and get you back to drawing.

5.  Col-Erase Colored Pencils

 As we progress through our art fundamental studies, we come to a point where our practice needs the help of color. I am not a fan of diving deeply into colors early on, but when we practice Perspective it becomes necessary to have multiple colors to work with because perspective drawing yields a lot of lines on a page.

All those construction lines get confusing when they are all the same tone and graphite grey color, so having a set of Col-Erase pencils, or regular colored pencils, is amazingly helpful. Col-Erase pencils are an erasable type of colored pencil made by Prismacolor, and they are especially useful for perspective, layouts, and design. So, when you’re drawing construction lines to practice forms in perspective, you’ll be able to tell which lines go to what forms without all the eye crossing and hair tearing.

Regular sets of Crayola or generic brand of colored pencils work fine, but they cannot be completely erased. Still, the point of using colored pencils is to have clarity during construction. Erasing ability is helpful, but not essential. If you already have some colored pencils in your toolbox, get those used up first. It will give you a feel for the materials, assist in your practice, and give you an excuse to buy new ones 😉

6.  18” or 24” Ruler

 A straight edge tool is more often necessary for technical drawing and design, such as Perspective. Once you’re familiar with how perspective works, your eye becomes trained to see when the perspective is off in a drawing—or so I’ve been told. I haven’t yet managed to develop this skilled and magical sight, but it sounds awesome. Practically speaking it’s extremely helpful. I’ve had the perspective of more than one drawing or painting corrected because I had instructors or schoolmates who could “see” my funky perspective.

Even when I develop this awesome skill, I will still need the assistance of a ruler, the horizon line, and vanishing points to make adjustments. Construction lines can get wildly long and go off the page, which is why I suggest using an 18”or 24” ruler rather than the standard twelve inch.

7.  Fixative spray

When we finish work that we want to preserve, we must seal or “fix” it with fixative

spray so our work is protected from smudging, erasing, and yellowing. Fixative spray is a transparent protective coating that dries to a uniform finish (matte or glossy) without yellowing. Fixative sprays are available for charcoal, pencil, and pastel drawings. These spray fixatives must be applied in several coats and tend to have a strong smell, so I highly recommend applying them outside. Once the spray is dry, your work (and your nose) should be protected.

Surfaces: Art Materials to Draw On

1.  Sketchbooks (with at least one having toned paper)

 Sketching is our bread and butter. We must think on paper to pull out and develop our ideas before they are ready to be taken to finish. A sketchbook is not only a working space. For me it’s a place to make a colossal mess in pursuit of the art I want to create, as well as a repository for jotted down notes, thoughts, and ideas. Primarily it’s another tool for our expression and learning, so it is important to choose one you are comfortable with.

For example, I prefer hardbound sketchbooks to spiral-bound. I like my pages to stay put in my sketchbook, so spiral-bound or perforated page sketchbooks don’t work for me because I find loose or falling out pages irritating.

A toned paper sketchbook is useful for practicing with tones and values, and is a nice change of pace from blank white paper. Toned sketch paper most often comes in grey or tan, but the idea works the same regardless of color. Using different colored construction paper would work too.

Toned paper has a visible fibrous texture to it, and, for me, drawing on it adds a certain comfort to my process—like the space is a ready-made supportive presence, or background, for my sketches. I guess I find a toned surface more welcoming.

2.  Pad of toned paper

 I recommend a pad of toned paper for the same reasons I think a sketchbook of toned paper is important. With a larger pad of toned paper, you can complete larger drawings (portraits, illustrations, figure drawings, etc.) with all the benefits of a toned surface.

3.  Newsprint Pads, Printer Paper, Mixed Media Pads, & Drawing Paper

Let’s talk about papers to draw on!

Newsprint

Newsprint is a great work horse surface. It’s inexpensive, durable, and works with any dry media tool. I prefer using newsprint for all my gesture drawing short pose practice, and I particularly like the Blick Studio Newsprint Pads. They are available in a variety of sizes (9”x12”, 12”x18”, 18”x24”, and 24”x36”), three of which are available in both 50 and 100 sheet counts.

Newsprint is ideal for practice and is meant to hold dry media such as pencil, charcoal, pastel, and ballpoint pen. Wet media does not hold up well on Newsprint–it’s not thick enough to hold much moisture, so bleeding and tearing happen quite easily.

Printer Paper

Pen and ink and markers are amazing to practice with, especially with gesture drawing, so having another surface option here matters. Printer paper is cheap, easily accessible, and will hold marker and pen and ink much better than newsprint. Printer paper is loose, and stacks of it can be challenging (and weighty) to store. You may find binding it in some way, with staples or a three-ring binder, to make a DIY sketchbook helpful.

Mixed Media Paper

For more versatility with easier storage Mixed Media paper is a good choice. The sheet count is limited (30 to 60 sheets) and the cost a little higher, but for that you get a surface that will hold both dry and wet media such as watercolor, pastels, pencil, collage, and pen and ink. Mixed media paper is a good addition to any surfaces repertoire that you’ll want to have on hand. It adds variety to your toolbox, and is one of the best options for experimenting with other materials like paint, charcoal, pens, and more.

Drawing Paper

Practice isn’t all sketches. Finished pieces, such as still lives, figure drawings, and illustrations are also part of our practice, and for this type of work I recommend using Drawing paper. Drawing paper is usually off-white with a uniform surface, and will accept any dry media, marker, pen and ink, and light washes. Drawing paper can be used for sketches, but given the sheet count and cost I recommend keeping your use of it to “finished” work.

Must Have vs. Nice to Have

The most important thing to remember is your purpose. What is it that you’re working to learn and do? There are many different artist materials out there–certainly far more than we will ever need at one time–so focus on choosing those that support the work you’re making now.

I encourage you to choose materials that support your current goals without getting distracted by the multitude of other shiny supplies out there. Your future self, your wallet, and your storage space will thank you.

Simple Essentials for Digital Practice

For practicing most of the art fundamentals, the materials I have listed so far will take you far. For a few of them, like Light and Color, a digital painting app is extremely helpful.

Here is my list of tools and materials for digital practice:

1.  Working device (desktop computer, laptop, or tablet)

2.  Drawing tablet (without display) or tablet compatible stylus

3.  Digital Painting application

Please forgive how super generic this list is. The area of digital tools is quite large and involved, so it would be too much to delve into here. Every aspect of your digital setup must be based on what works best for your artwork and also your budget. Thankfully, these days most of what we need (powerful video cards, plenty of storage space, quality screen resolution, pressure sensitivity, etc.) come standard with most computers and devices. To make this a bit more helpful I found some sites with additional information:

Best Drawing Software and Apps 2020

Best Drawing Tablets for Beginners

My focus is to be a helpful resource for your art journey, so I’m focusing my writing on all the aspects of how we make art. For now, I best serve you by pointing you in the direction of others who’ve already covered the best currently available digital resources.

Working digitally is a more forgiving (and less frustrating) way of studying Light than using traditional paints and brushes because it allows us to practice without needing to mix tones and colors manually. I find color theory is much less complex than it seems, but color mixing with traditional media is far more challenging than you’d expect. So, noticeably absent from my list are painting supplies, and that is intentional.

Learning must be done at a sustainable pace with digestible pieces of information spread out along the way. Introducing colors and brushwork too early can be distracting, overwhelming, and detrimental to our study of the other fundamentals, and it is absolutely essential that we have a firm grasp of line, form, and tones first.

Get that Mileage

Put in your mileage
hiker walking along the road to the mountains.

We are makers, builders, creators, and storytellers. The best way to pull out our visions is to think on paper. No matter how you end up filling out your art supplies, the most important thing you can do with them is to sketch.

Sketch, sketch, sketch, and sketch some more! Sketch. Every. Single. Day. Draw and draw until you’ve filled your sketchbook. Then get another sketchbook and fill that, too. Don’t know what to draw? Start with the Fundamentals and Forms!

No matter where you are now, you will reach your goal. All you must do is breathe, believe, and draw. You got this 😉

The Pencil Grading Scale Explained 2021: Absolutely Everything About Graphite Drawing Pencils

The Pencil Grading Scale Explained 2021_ Absolutely Everything About Graphite Drawing Pencils

Understanding Your Materials

Understanding is a beautiful, and usually beneficial thing. On our journey for knowledge about art, and as we study and practice the Art Fundamentals, we should make a point of understanding the materials we use. Even a basic grasp of the many factors that determine the quality and grade of our materials—such as graphite pencils and charcoal—will improve our skill in using them.

A basic knowledge of your materials’ origin, history, composition, grades, characteristics, and form varieties will improve your drawings and inspire a deeper appreciation and understanding for your art craft. Understanding which grades of graphite pencil to choose as we create a still life or a portrait allows us to make drawings with confidence and access the full range of values needed for our projects.

Frequently Asked Questions About Graphite Pencils

Some of the most frequently asked questions about graphite pencils are related to graphite itself (what is it, anyway?), the pencil grading scale, what the numbers and letters on pencils mean, how to sharpen pencils, when and where the pencil was invented, how pencils are made, why graphite sticks are called “lead”, and the safety of using graphite (can one get lead poisoning from pencil lead?).

I want to give you a heads up here that this is a more technical subject. I’ve tried to keep it succinct, clear, and interesting without adding too much fluff or going into information overload, but facts based in science don’t lend themselves to word artistry or prose so hang in there with me, ok? Besides, it’s the information we’re after so our improved understanding can begin to shine through our art.

So, let’s dig into the science, history, life, making, and safety of pencils so we can answer as many of those questions as possible.

The Science—What is graphite?

Graphite is a naturally occurring form of crystalline carbon, and the most stable form of carbon. Graphite is a mineral, and its extreme properties (extremely soft, extremely heat resistant, etc.) give it a wide range of uses in metallurgy and manufacturing. It is highly conductive for heat and electricity, and flexible but not elastic, which make it useful in electronic products like batteries. Graphite is primarily used in pencils and lubricants.

Graphite is composed of flat sheets of carbon atoms stacked on top of one another, which slide apart easily because the bonds between them are weak. This means natural graphite has incredibly low hardness, so when we drag our graphite pencil across paper those flat sheets of carbon are left behind and create a mark.

A Mark Maker: The History of Graphite

In a place called Borrowdale, near Keswick in the Lake District of England, a large deposit of graphite was discovered by locals after it was revealed by a storm in the 16th century. Due in part to its resemblance to lead in color and appearance—and the infant state of relevant sciences like Chemistry and metallurgy at the time—the substance we know to be graphite was at that time named plumbago (Latin for ‘lead ore’) because it was believed to be a form of black lead rather than carbon.

For many years, the graphite deposit in Borrowdale was the only large source of graphite, which gave England a monopoly on graphite sticks. Trade embargos during the 18th century Napoleonic Wars forced the French Republic to come up with their own version of the graphite sticks that did not rely on imports.  French army officer, painter, chemist, and balloonist Nicholas Jacques Conté had the idea of mixing powdered graphite with clay and water, and then firing the mixture in a kiln.

Conté’s innovation ended England’s monopoly on pencil production, and he continued to develop his manufacturing process by varying the quantities of clay and graphite to change the hardness of the graphite core. Conté’s experimentation and refinement of his process lead to the range of graded pencils we enjoy today, which use the alphanumeric grading scale we’ve become familiar with.

Graphite Pencil Grading Scale Explained

I have never been a fan of standardized testing, but I liked those spiffy #2 pencils. You know you have a maker’s heart when freshly sharpened pencils make you smile, but I digress. When we were filling in our answer bubbles on those tests, we were unwittingly being introduced to the middle of the graphite pencil grading scale.

The #2 pencil is part of the American system for grading “lead” hardness, and it corresponds to the HB pencil on the European grading system. HB is the middle grade pencil, meaning that it contains equal parts graphite and clay for a balance of softness and harness.

The Alphanumeric Scale

Now let’s talk letters and numbers so we can understand this alphanumeric system. The letters used are “H”, “F”, and “B”.

“H” stands for hard; “F” stands for fine, because it can be sharpened to a fine point; and “B” stands for Black.

Higher numbers in front of the “H” mean a harder pencil, while a higher number in front of the “B” means a softer pencil. The harder the graphite core of the pencil, the lighter the mark it makes, and the softer the core, the darker the mark.

Together the numbers and letters create the alphanumeric system used to describe the pencil’s hardness or softness, also called a grading system. This system refers to the ratio of binder to graphite present in the mixture of the pencil’s graphite core, commonly called “lead” (a persistent misnomer, as there is no lead in graphite pencils). The variety of ratios for this mixture is what Nicholas Jacques Conté innovated, and it is what gives us the 24 graphite pencil grades—and full value range—we enjoy today.

The harder the pencil (the “H” end of the scale), the more clay is present in the mixture recipe. Graphite, not clay, is the mark maker of this mixture, so less graphite means less mark making material is present. Marks by pencils from the “H” side of the scale will stay on the lighter end of the value scale.

The opposite is true for the “B” side of the grading scale. The more graphite is present in the mixture, the softer the graphite core will be. More graphite means more mark making material is present in the pencil, keeping marks from “B” pencils on the darker end of the value scale.

Graphite Pencil Grading Scale

How the mixture of graphite powder and clay powder are formulated determines a pencil’s “lead” grade. Below are the charts for both the European and American hardness grading systems.

European Grading System (alphanumeric):

Harder Graphite Core = Lighter Marks

10H ◀ 9H ◀ 8H ◀ 7H ◀ 6H ◀ 5H ◀ 4H ◀ 3H ◀ 2H ◀ H ◀ F

Middle Grade = Balanced

F ◀ HB ► B

Softer Graphite Core = Darker Marks

B ► 2B ►3B ►4B ► 6B ► 7B ► 8B ► 9B ► 10B ► 11B ► 12B

American Grading System (with corresponding equivalents to European System for clarity):

#1 – B

#2 – HB

#2 ½ — F

#3 – H

#4 – 2H

The American grading system is much more abbreviated and appears to have been conceived primarily for pencils used for general writing and drafting purposes. The more expansive, full range of values of the European grading system is preferred and used by artists.

Binders

As you begin learning about artist materials, you’ll hear the term “binder” mentioned, especially when discussing paints. Binders, or binding agents, are substances or materials used to hold or bring together other materials so a cohesive whole can be formed to create the tools and surfaces we use. Binders are part of the mixture (or recipe) for creating art materials, such as graphite and charcoal “leads” and sticks, pastels, paints, etc.

Binders are often liquid, powder, or dough-like substances that bind other materials together through mixing and then hardening via a chemical or physical process. In the case of artists’ materials, binders are used to hold together pigments and other materials—like graphite powder—used to create the tools and supplies we need for our art-making.

Binding agents include materials like wax, linseed oil, natural gums, proteins (egg white or casein), and clay—which is the binding agent for graphite “leads” and is usually a mixture of calcium bentonite and kaolin.

When the world was younger, materials like egg, wax, honey, lime, casein, linseed oil, or bitumen were mixed with pigment by artists to form paints. From the Middle Ages through the early 16th century, egg-based tempera was a popular binder in Europe. Oil and acrylic polymer have been the binders of choice for paint for quite some time, with oil beginning in 15th century Belgium and acrylics getting their start in 1953 (aww, like a baby paint compared to oils!).

A Pencil’s Life: Making Marks and Keeping Its Edge

The grade of pencil leads affects not only our choices about their use in our work, but also how frequently they must be sharpened, their smudge resistance, strength, smoothness, and pigmentation. Harder pencils retain a point longer and require less sharpening, while softer pencils lose their point faster and require more frequent sharpening. So, if you have a drawing with a lot of dark and velvety blacks, you are likely to run through your softer leads much more quickly.

On the flip side, while softer leads do require more frequent sharpening, they also offer a softer and smoother application on your surface. Comparatively, harder pencils can feel a bit rougher and scratchy, but they’re helpful when you need lighter values.

Drawing Further: Journey to Modern-Day Pencils

There is a bit more history involved to bridge the timeline between the Conté process and the pencils we use today. When it comes to whose idea it was to place the graphite core between to half-cylinders of wood, I have found competing information. Some sources say Conté had the idea, while others say the addition of a wooden casing was first conceived by an Italian couple by the names of Lyndiana and Simonio Bernacotti.

If it was indeed the Bernacottis, that would mean many of those British sourced graphite sticks were finding their way into rudimentary wooden casings as early as the 1560s. Conté, on the other hand, received a patent for his invention in 1795 and formed La Société Conté to produce his pencils. That is a time gap of over 200 years, but I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, the pencil manufacturing process has evolved over time to use the wooden casings we’re familiar with and to include the range of 24 leads so helpful to our art.

How Pencils Are Made

It is during the early stages of the manufacturing process that a pencil’s degree of hardness is determined. The first stage in making graphite pencils is to create a mixture of graphite powder, clay, and water. The variation in the degree of hardness (the graphite to clay ratio) is what gives us so many grades of graphite pencils, most commonly ranging from 9H to 9B in a set.

As I mentioned earlier, softer and darker graphite pencils are created when the mixture contains increasing amounts of graphite; hard grades are created when the proportion of clay is higher than that of the graphite powder.

Making the “Leads”

Once the desired mixture is created it is then pressed through a machine to create the cylindrical core shape (“lead”) and cut to a consistent length before being set to dry. Once dry, the leads go through a firing process and then on to a wax bath. Before the pencils are complete, the wood that will create the casings must go through its own process to be ready to hold the leads.

Making the Wooden Casings

To become the casing for graphite “leads”, pre-cut wooden slats have grooves machine milled into them. Glue is applied in the grooves, the leads are then inserted into the grooves, and a second milled slat with glue is applied on top to close the “slat sandwich”. These “slat sandwiches” are then placed into a large drying wheel before being sent through another machine to mill (cut) the individual pencils from the sandwiches.

The pencil cylinders are available in multiple shapes, such as hexagonal, circular, and rounded triangles. The hexagonal shape is the most common casing shape and keeps pencils from rolling off our desks.

The next step is to paint and stamp the pencils. Paint is mixed and each pencil receives a coat of it through a lacquering head machine before being stamped, dipped, and finally set to dry in a drying room. The finishing process for pencils involves a series of quality tests, including withstanding pressure, sharpening, and visual inspection before packaging.

The pencil making process I have been describing here refers to artists’ drawing pencils. The process is largely the same for standard writing pencils, like the #2 HB pencil, but there are a few differences. Primarily those differences involve the additional step of attaching a ferrule and eraser to one end of the pencils through a rubber tip assembly machine.

Here are a couple from FaberCastell USA, Insider, and NPR’s Skunk Bear of videos that illustrate the pencil making process:

Some Fun Bits About Pencils

It is important to understand our materials, but there’s no reason we can’t make it fun, right? Here are some fun tidbits I found about pencils, their history, and people who have used them:

The average pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write about 45,000 words, and be sharpened 17 times.

Graphite’s ability to leave marks on paper and other objects is what earned it its name, which was given by German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789.

Graphite comes from the Ancient Greek γράφειν (“graphein”), meaning to write or to draw.

Breadcrumbs were used to erase mistakes before erasers were invented.

The average size Cedar tree can be used to make about 300,00 pencils.

Pencils have been to space! They can write in zero gravity and have been used on space missions by astronauts.

Pencils can write underwater! (I’m skeptical, but it sounds cool)

Henry David Thoreau used to design pencils at his father’s pencil factory.

Thomas Edison liked to use specially made pencils that were shorter and thicker, 3 inches instead of the standard 7.5 inch size.

Hymen Lipman was the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil on March 30th, 1858. Bye-bye breadcrumbs!

The darkest grade of artist’s graphite pencil is 12B, while the lightest is 10H.

Ernest Hemingway recommended writing fiction with a pencil because it “gives you one-third more chance to improve it [your writing].”

John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway both wrote their novels in pencil first.

The Best Lead Grade: Choosing Graphite Pencil Grades for Drawing

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with some of the science, history, life and making of graphite pencils, it’s easier to understand how and why pencil marks behave as they do on paper.

“H” pencils are quite smudge-resistant because they contain more binder than graphite powder. This means they give cleaner lines and makes them helpful for lighter toned work such as technical drawings, outlines, light sketching, and under-drawings in preparation for painting. One tradeoff is their increased scratchiness the further up the H scale you go, but this can be remedied by pairing them with middle grade (F and HB) and B pencils.

“B” pencils are amazingly smooth to draw and write with. Their higher graphite to clay mixture means they smudge easily, but their marks are generally just as easily erased. Their softer nature offers artists the ability to make more expressive and brush-like marks, especially from the higher end of the B scale.

This knowledge and understanding helps us make decisions about which grades of graphite pencils to choose for our drawings.

If the goal for a drawing is to illustrate a frozen tundra in the arctic on a sunny day, the soft and dark leads won’t play much of a role in that project because the scene calls for light tones—and light tones are achieved with hard and middle grade pencils, not soft ones. Of course, the opposite is true for a scene with a clandestine meeting—the cover of darkness is best drawn with soft, B graded pencils.

I recommend having a set of 24 graphite pencils so you have the full value range available to you. It’s best to choose tools that serve the goals and stories of your art, rather than trying to make the story fit the supplies. Here are a couple of examples from my portfolio to give you an idea of what you can do with a full set of graphite pencils (or “leads” and a lead holder), tons of practice, and a healthy dose of patience.

Beyond the needs of your project, the other considerations primarily revolve around your own preferences, workflow, and budget. In my Drawing Tools & Materials for Beginners post, I discuss my recommendations for the supplies beginning artists need to practice the fundamentals of art. Still, at the start, a lot of practice sketches and finished drawings can be accomplished with a simple sketchbook, a pad of quality drawing paper, and a full set of drawing pencils.

Again, having tools that give you access to the full spectrum of values is incredibly important; after that, it’s a matter of tons of mileage and practice. Once you commit to that, nothing can stop you.

Safety & Toxicity: Can One Get Lead Poisoning from Pencil Lead?

The short answer is No. It’s impossible to get lead poisoning from graphite pencils because they contain no lead. Graphite and lead are chemically and atomically completely different substances and are only slightly similar in appearance—but even visually they are clearly different, as you can see below.

Graphite pencils are usually classified as nontoxic because graphite is a minimally toxic carbon-based substance when swallowed or drawn onto the skin. So, when you accidentally poke your hands with your sharpened pencil, you won’t be poisoned or infected by the graphite—but, as with any injury, you should immediately clean and tend to the affected area.

The biggest danger with pencils lies in where you poke or stab yourself (or someone else, but…let’s avoid stabbing people, shall we?) and how severely the resulting injury is. If you somehow are stabbed with a pencil forcefully enough to draw large amounts of blood, the bleeding and severity of the wound is a more immediate concern than the presence of graphite and immediate medical attention would be necessary.

Avoid having pencils (or any other tool) anywhere near your eyes, mouth, nose, and any other sensitive body part or orifice. It’s never a good idea to insert or ingest foreign materials, so if you tend to fidget please get a fidget toy instead of chewing on your pencil!

Working with graphite powder, rather than pencils, can get a little dicey. Powders and dusts always come with inhalation and respiratory risks, so when using graphite powder as a medium be sure to wear a simple mask or face covering and keep your workspace well ventilated. Inhalation of graphite powder can cause irritation to the respiratory tract, coughing, shortness of breath and black sputum.

Long term or chronic exposure to graphite powder has been associated with the development of a lung disease called pneumoconiosis. Ingestion of large amounts of graphite powder may cause gastrointestinal irritation.[1]

Basically, graphite pencils and powder are safe to use and minimally toxic so long as you don’t eat, inhale, or seriously stab yourself with them. Getting a bit of graphite onto your skin while you work won’t harm you at all, but do be sure to wash your hands when you’re done working.

Hey, look! You’re still here, and we’re done! Thank you for hanging in there with me. I know this topic was more technical, but I hope I was able to keep it interesting and answer your questions about graphite pencils, the pencil grading scale, and the safe use of pencils. If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know in the comments below.

Further Reading

The History of the Pencil by Pen2Paper


[1] http://www.physics.purdue.edu/primelab/safety/MSDS/graphite%20%20-%20Mega%20Graphite.pdf