What is the best pencil for sketching?

I’ve often wondered what is the best pencil for sketching. The best way to find the answer was to try as many pencils as I could. I tried traditional wood pencils, mechanical pencils and colored pencils from all sorts of brands, as well as different weights and darknesses. The answer I found, is that it is based on your objective. So let’s find out what the best pencils are for your project.

Pencil Basics

Just remember that the hard pencils (H) create light, thin lines and the soft pencils (B) create dark, thick lines. A typical set will include 4H, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B, 4B, 6B pencils. Some sets will have the 9B (very dark) or you could purchase darker pencils called ebony or onyx separately. In the picture below you will see a line drawn with very little pressure from the pencil to the paper.

Pencil Hardness and Darkness grades

Pencils to use for fine detail

4H, 2H, H, and HB are your best pencils to select when doing fine detail work.

For fine detail, you want a really sharp H pencil and many artist like to use a standard mechanical pencil. I found no brand worthy of mentioning as being better than any other. Currently, I am using Derwent pencils, but have several other brands laying around. A standard pencil is HB, or what you remember from high school, the dreaded #2. Don’t worry there won’t be a test at the end of this post! H pencils have a harder lead and make lighter lines, which allow you to make more detailed drawings easily.

Detailed Pencil Work

Pencils to use for blending

B, 2B, 4B, 6B, 9B and ebony pencils are best for blending.

For texture and blending, the B pencils blend best. The ‘blacker’ the pencil, the softer the lead. Overall, I found myself only using HB, 2B, 4B and if the drawing requires something really dark, I use an ebony pencil. The real trick to blending is to build in layers and to not press too hard… let the pencil do the work. This also prevents the paper from being damaged. There are other tools as well to help smooth out your blending, but we can go into more details with that in another post.

The most annoying part of the B pencils is how quickly they become dull, so keep a pencil sharpener handy! Electric sharpeners eat your soft pencils for breakfast. An inexpensive hand sharpener does the job just fine. Another problem to consider, especially with the softer pencils, is the smearing. You will often see right-handed artist working from left to right throughout the drawing to minimize smudges. I do not work this way! I bounce all over the place when drawing. The easy fix is to use a spare piece of paper under your hand, or if you want to be fancy, you can make your own drawing glove (or purchase a glove to wear) for your drawing hand.

Pencil Blending

Quick concept sketches

I personally like the MyLifeUNIT 2.0mm Mechanical Pencil for quick sketches.

MyLifeUNIT 2.0mm Mechanical Pencil

  • The mechanical pencil has hard lead that allows for easy light strokes.
  • The nice and easy strokes are easy to remove if you decide to ink over your pencil work.
  • You don’t have to sharpen the .5mm pencils.
  • The MyLifeUNIT has a thicker 2mm option, much thicker than the standard .5mm and 1mm pencils you typically find at school or work.
  • The 2mm pencil mentioned above has a built in sharpener which allows for a more traditional wood pencil tip, while keeping the benefits of the mechanical pencil. So you can’t forget your sharpener at home!
  • You can purchase different colored lead fills which saves on space when you need to be mobile.



Your next question might be, “What is a quick concept sketch anyways?”

Every artist probably defines this differently, but to me, it’s just a quick, simple way to put initial ideas and designs down on paper. It’s usually very loose and free, and meant to get the creative thoughts flowing. For me, it starts with framework of the body or head. I’m typically exploring how I want body limbs positioned, or what direction I want the figure looking. For an architect, it may be a loose structure of a building, For a fashion designer, it may be just putting down vague ideas on what shape a material is and how they want it to flow over the body.
I am often asked to do quick sketches at comic cons and art shows. The mechanical pencil is my personal favorite for quick sketches. The hard lead in these mechanical pencils allow me to put down quick, light strokes that are easy to cover with softer pencils or ink. In some cases, I erase the quick sketch underneath the ink, and you can’t easily remove the softer, darker lead. Many artist, including myself, may decide to keep the concept sketch underneath the final piece. Personally, I enjoy seeing how an artist moves through the different stages of design and I think the sketch-work underneath adds something to it… it makes the piece feel real to me. In an age of so many Photoshop filters, I think it’s almost a way to validate that the artist (even if they used Photoshop to draw it) did go through the stages of creating the piece the old fashion way.

Pen and Ink over pencil

Comic style sketches followed by ink and/or color

There are so many different ways artists work and you can see that in action on YouTube or walking around at art shows. Some artists use the mechanical pencil to start, while some use the HB. I would say the most common method is to use one of the harder pencils to put light lines on the paper. The artist then inks over top of the pencil work directly. After the ink dries (most inks dry very quickly), many artists remove a large portion of the support lines to give the piece a cleaner look. Then they add highlights and/or color, or sometimes, they just leave it as is. It all based on your style and your strengths as an artist.

Colored pencils can also be acquired in different hardnesses. Most of the widespread brands like Crayola seem to keep their pencils in the HB range. If you want the softer pencils that blend a little better, you need to look for soft core pencils. Prismacolor, Feela, and Castle Art, just to name a few, all have soft core pencils. Quick tip: lots of artist use a lipstick sharpener for their colored pencils. Again, those electric sharpeners eat away your soft pencils, shortening the life of your often expensive pencils.

It’s cliche’, but practice, practice, practice. Some of the pencils are easier to use than others. In the end, pencils are just tools, and tools can be used in a variety of ways to get the job done… just ask that guy named Craftsman. Just kidding – his name was Arthur Barrows. And there is your fun fact of the day!