Drawing & Painting blog
REVIEW: THE BEST ARTIST’S PENCILS FOR SKETCHING & DRAWING
This in an independent comparison of the top artists’ drawing pencil brands. I’ve been drawing professionally for many years and have used a very large number of premium quality pencil brands! There are no paid links in this review, just my own opinions. However to give you an indication of the pencil’s price range I’ve included the cheapest UK price I could find at the time of writing and where I found it, as I like to support pencil retailers especially those that sell the less commonly found ranges.
The list of pencils is something of a snapshot of the UK market and I’ve had to exclude one of the most exalted pencils in the world – the Mitsubishi ‘Hi-Uni’ – because it’s almost impossible to source in the UK except through one importer who sells them at a cost of £3.40 per pencil. I’ll have to wait until I visit Japan!
Otherwise, I’ve included reviews of the professional ranges from all of the top companies: Faber-Castell, Staedtler, Derwent, Koh-i-Noor, Tombow, Caran D’Ache, and Conté à Paris. I haven’t included any ‘student’ grade pencil ranges and would urge you to buy the very best pencils you can afford, because maybe more than with any other art material it really will make a huge difference to the quality of the work you’ll produce and your enjoyment of drawing. Any of the pencils on this page will be a big improvement on a cheap student grade pencil.
What makes a good drawing pencil?
- It should be well ‘bonded’ which means the way that the lead is glued to the casing (I’m going to continue to refer to the ‘lead’ although as we all know, pencil leads have always made of graphite) A poorly bonded pencil lead will break constantly especially when you sharpen it.
- The leads themselves shouldn’t break and snap off easily, for example when you press down on your paper or sharpen them with a knife until they are slightly long.
- They shouldn’t shed a dust of tiny particles of graphite on your paper, an effect known as ‘ghosting’.
- Graphite pencils are mixed with clay, and different grades of softness and darkness are created by the varying the graphite/clay ratio. However much clay there is in the mixture though, it’s vital that both graphite and clay should be finely ground and well mixed to give a uniform and consistent stroke. If they aren’t well mixed you’ll gritty texture and a ‘scratchy’ feeling (and sometimes even a squeaky noise) when you hit a lump of clay and your pencil doesn’t make a nice mark.
Before delving into the individual reviews, here’s a comparison of the different pencil grades for all the brands we’re looking at. You can read more on the grading system here, but to summarize briefly: pencils are graded from hard grades with a lot of clay in them (the H grades and the F grade, which sits between H and HB) through the HB which is considered to be the centre of the scale and then to the B grades which have increasing amounts of graphite to make the softer and darker. In this diagram I’ve not compared grades softer than H, as I rarely use these for sketching.
With pencils it’s important to know that there is NO industry standard for the tone of any particular grade. Companies apply their own scales and as you can see there can be wild disparity, with a HB pencil in a very dark range like a Tombow equating tonally to around a 5B in a light range like the Faber-Castell. It’s useful to know whether a range runs on the light or dark side, because most people will actively prefer one or other for their work. Usually grades 3H to 6H+ would be considered more suitable for graphic design than for sketching, but because there is such variation in the tones of different ranges that a 3H in a very soft dark range could function more like an HB in another and could be quite suitable for fine art drawing.
Some people will also want their pencils to smudge so that they can blend them, others will consider smudging a pain and want a pencil that doesn’t smudge easily. In so many respects then the ‘best’ pencil for you will be very subjective, and personal to the type of work you want to do.
FABER-CASTELL ‘9000’ PENCILS
★★★★★ My pick of the lighter ranges for perfect performance and dependability
RANGE 6H-8B, UK lowest price: £1.20 each (jacksonart.com)
Faber-Castell’s 9000 are my favourite pencil range, and despite having tried so many others I’ve so far never been swayed from them. It’s important to say that I’m not necessarily claiming that the 9000s are necessarily superior to the other pencils I’ve awarded top marks to, but for the drawing that I do (light, quite detailed portraits) they suit my style better than a darker, softer range. If it’s control you’re after, then you can’t beat them. And they are definitely a fantastic and reliable pencil with an eminent history, made by a aristocratic pencil specialist company (with their own castle!!) that was founded in 1761. The 9000 range was founded in 1905.
In the 1960s Faber-Castell patented their famous ‘SV’ bonding which glued the entire length of the lead to the wooden casing, instead of simply spot-gluing it in places. I’ve virtually never known a 9000 lead break, and they are dependable in other ways too. I always find the leads smooth and never gritty or scratchy. Their grading scale is 100% consistent with the shades darkening smoothly and gradually between each one as they rise up or down the scale. 9000s are the lightest of all the pencils on our list and the harder grades are very fine but I don’t find them scratchy or overly shiny. They are very good for soft hatching and for keeping a point and being light, they erase well.
9000s are smart but functional looking green pencil with gold and cream lettering, and a hexagonal cedar wood casing. My favourite fact about them is that the colour scheme was chosen by Count Alexander von Faber-Castell to match his military uniform! They are light to hold and have their grade printed clearly on every other facet, so three times around the pencil. You can also buy a version of the HB and B grades with soft little erasers on top. The pencils run only up to 8B grade and I find this frustrating considering how light the range is in general: when I want a darker pencil for the deepest shadows I have to use another make. I’d like the hexagon facets to have slightly more softened edges because they are a little sharper than the other makes.
MARS ‘LUMOGRAPH’ PENCILS
★★★★★ The best regarded mid-tone pencil with a huge range: smooth and reliable
RANGE 10H-12B, UK lowest price: £1.25 each (The Online Pen Company)
The most functional and least fancy looking of our pencils, the Mars Lumograph might well top the popularity chart for the professionals’ choice. Like Faber’s 9000, it’s really hard to find anything not to like about this range, which are another excellent example of German quality. They run a bit – but not too dramatically – darker and softer than the 9000s making them the ideal mid-tone pencil, and the lighter pencils feel a bit smoother due to the slightly higher graphite ratio. They never scratch or feel gritty and as they rise up the scale the become darker in a most reliable and uniform manner. The Mars Lumograph pencil has the biggest range of grades and go all the way to a very black 12B, although grades above a 9B can be hard to source in the UK but the Hamilton Pen company carries all grades.
With such a wide tonal range from light to dark you are really covered however you like to draw and if you want to blend, they smudge fairly well. Staedtler are an interesting company, a non-profit corporation set up to fund German universities that was founded in 1835. They have a long association with pencils with members of the Staedtler family known to have been involved in the pencil trade in the 17th century. The Mars brand was registered in 1900 so like the 9000, they’ve had a long time to perfect it. Like the latter they are perfectly bonded and I’ve never known even the darkest leads to break even when sharpening. The grade is printed on every single facet of the pencil, which I find very helpful.
DERWENT ‘GRAPHIC’ PENCILS
★★★ A British classic which are very dark and good for blending but disappointingly scratchy and uneven
RANGE 9H-9B, UK lowest price: £1.24 each (Spectrum Art Shop)
Before you could buy a wide range of pencils online and had to visit an art shop in person for them, choosing artists’ pencils in the UK was usually a case of ‘Derwent vs Faber-Castell’ or occasionally ‘Derwent vs Staedtler’. Derwent are an old British company (now American owned) based in an area near the original Borrowdale mine in Cumbria where graphite was first discovered and mistaken for lead, and they have been making pencils since 1832 which was not long after the invention of the modern, graded pencil.
‘Graphic’ are their classic graphite sketching range and are very popular in the UK where many people rate them for their blending ability, but I have to say that they don’t really even approach the standard of their German rivals despite the fact that they often cost more. They have a pleasing black colour, but the last batch I tried were distinctly scratchy and apparently badly mixed especially in the softer grades. The pencils don’t seem to be as well bonded and break more easily especially when you sharpen them, though this may be in part due to the soft crumbliness of the leads. Because they are so soft these leads wear down quickly giving off a lot of graphite dust and need sharpening a lot (despite their darkness though they do erase rather well). The softness and the graphite dust do make them excellent for blending because they smudge so easily, if this is a quality you are seeking.
My biggest disappointment is that the grades are inconsistent – for example I found that the 5B was unmistakably darker than my 6B. They are a darker range than the Faber-Castells and even the Staedtlers and they don’t darken through the grades as gradually as the latter. They aren’t a very strongly lacquered pencil but have a nice ‘period’ design (I’m a sucker for a nice font) and are slightly larger than the Fabers or Staedtlers but not excessively so.
KOH-I-NOOR HARDTMUTH: TOISON D’OR PENCILS
★★★★½ An excellent range with extremes of tone and incredible value for money for a professional pencil
RANGE 10H-8B, UK lowest price: £0.49 each (The Online Pen Company)
These pencils haven’t been available in the UK for that long and many people aren’t familiar with them. When I first saw them I thought they must be some kind of new, exotic import from California! Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong: the Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth company was founded in 1790 by the Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth and soon based themselves in what is now the Czech republic. The company is named after the famous Indian diamond called the Koh-i-Noor that is one of the largest ever found and is now owned by the British monarchy and kept in the Tower of London. Joseph Hardtmuth played an important role in the development of the pencil, being one of the first to create a pencil lead made from a clay and graphite mixture which he patented in 1802. The company also claims credit for the formation of the HB scale from H grades to B grades.
Although you’re more likely to come across them in a 12 set tin collection in the UK you can also buy their professional grade Toison D’Or (meaning ‘golden fleece’) pencils separately, and in either case they are surprisingly cheap which I cannot understand because they are such an excellent pencil. They run pretty light, very similar to Faber’s 9000 range in the harder grades and would make an excellent alternative at less than half the price, without compromising much on quality. The grades become much darker than the 9000s as they rise up the scale of B pencils, and ending up even darker than the Staedtlers. Therefore you get a very extreme degree of tonal gradation between light and dark. My only complaint was a bit of a jump between 2B and 3B: the lighter grades had felt almost harder than the Fabers (maybe a fraction too hard) but from 3B upwards the consistency changed noticeably and the shade darkened quite a lot.
Above the B grade the darker pencils feel particularly smooth, not at all scratchy, and hard to accidentally break when sharpening. They are a very attractive pencil (I know I shouldn’t be swayed by such things but I can’t help it!) finished in a nice black matt lacquer with gold and cream. The grade is printed on every facet which is a plus that makes it easy to locate the shade that you want and the hexagonal casing has nicely softened edges making it very comfortable to hold.
TOMBOW ‘MONO 100’ PENCILS
★★★★★ The very best dark toned professional pencil that glides across the page in every grade and really lasts
RANGE 9H-6B, UK lowest price: £1.85 each (Pencils4Artists)
Tombow’s Mono 100 pencils, a famous Japanese range launched in 1963, are legendary. They are beloved by many designers, draughtsmen and animators but are equally acclaimed for fine art sketching. Tombows are hard to find here but a company called Pencils4Artists sells them at a reasonable price, and Jacksons also carry them at £2.10 each.
The Tombows generally vie with the Mistubishi Hi-Uni for the number one spot amongst pencils aficionados. Considering that mechanized clutch pencils dominate the Japanese market, Japan really deserves credit for producing two of the world’s best wood casing pencils! Japanese pencils tend to run very dark and soft and these are indeed very dark – they only go up to a 6B but this is blacker than a 9B in the Staedtler or Derwent. I liked the smart look of them in gold writing on black with a white stripe on the tip. They come unsharpened and it’s a bit of a killer on the wrist to sharpen a whole tin’s worth, unless you have an electric sharpener!
The Mono 100s really do live up to their reputation. Their smoothness is unsurpassed and they are well bonded, rise consistently (if very swiftly) through the grades and they give a surprisingly good point even in a 5 or 6B. I was surprised at how strong and durable the softer grades were considering how dark they are, they don’t crumble and they don’t smear easily. I think they’d be pretty good value despite their price because they’d last a long time before you sharpened them away. Although the B grades would be too dark for my own work, I just loved the way they glide across the page. If I wanted to work with a very dark soft pencil this would be my pick, and I intend to buy some of the H grades to see how the much lighter pencils perform. I’m guessing that a 6H in a Tombow might equate in tone about an HB in a Faber 9000.
CARAN D’ACHE ‘GRAFWOOD’ PENCILS
★★★½ Highly regarded by some but not my favourite drawing pencil, apart from their casing design
RANGE 4H-9B, UK lowest price: £2.55 each (Pencils4Artists)
Caran D’Ache are a Swiss company, founded in 1915. There is a slight degree of confusion over their graphite pencil range, which go by the name ‘Grafwood’ because when sold by the tin these are labelled ‘Graphite Line’ (although the pencils themselves still say ‘Grafwood’ on the side) These pencils are really expensive at over £2.50 each and to be honest, I struggled to see how they could merit such a high price. They certainly are a good pencil but I didn’t find them superior to the other top ranges which are all considerably cheaper.
Grafwoods have one brilliant innovation which is that the casings are colour coded so that you can identify the grade of the pencil visually without reading the written grade indicator. The colours start from a pure white casing on the 4H and then get progressively more grey towards the silvery HB, and then they darken with each grade until the carbon-coloured 9B. They aren’t the most elegant pencil individually, but the ability to quickly find the grade I want without searching around for it was a revelation and I wish all ranges could have some kind of colour coding. However pencil brands are unwilling to drastically change a long established design for their ranges and so far the only ones to imitate the idea are Winsor & Newton’s student grade Studio Collection which have a tip coloured according to the grade of the pencil.
The Grafwoods are an unusual pencil and I felt that they will polarize people in quite a number of ways. They are larger and chunkier than all the others, which some people will like and others won’t. The texture is on the coarse side and yet there was a strangely waxy feel to them, which again, I think some people might like and other not. Pencils leads are finished after firing the clay and graphite mix in a wax bath to fill in any microscopic holes, so I would imagine that the Grafwoods are given a particularly long soak in the wax. I noticed that despite having the blackest soft grades of any of the pencils I’ve reviewed the leads were strong, gave off no graphite dust at all and would hardly smudge at all even when I tried. Therefore if you actively wanted a pencil that blends when you smudge it then the Grafwood really wouldn’t be for you, whereas if you want to minimize the chance of smudging then they will be ideal.
The biggest problem I had with them was an impression of an inconsistency of feel as they rise up the grading scale. The lightest grades felt really waxy and quite hard and drew very lightly indeed. However from 3B upwards the pencils felt and looked so much softer that it was as if they came from a different range altogether. All in all I didn’t feel that the Grafwoods were for me, but I’d advise you to try them and make your own mind up.
CONTÉ À PARIS GRAPHITE PENCILS
★★★★ A limited and extremely dark range, but a gorgeously silky pencil and very consistent
RANGE 3H-6B, UK lowest price: £1.60 each (Pencils4Artists)
Another illustrious pencil company, Conté à Paris’s founder Nicolas-Jacques Conté made a huge historical contribution to the development of the modern pencil when in 1795 he patented his a graphite and clay kiln-fired method of production. Although Conté are a well-known company in the UK their graphite drawing pencil is not very widely sold which really surprises me now that I’ve tried them because they are very nice indeed. They are fairly expensive here bought individually and better value in a tin – because the range is so small you get several duplicates of various grades.
I was a little astonished when I opened the tin to see that the pencils have round casings, which is something that I’ve rarely seen except in children’s pencils. At first I thought this was mad – the point of a hexagonal casing is after all to stop the pencils sliding around on your desk – but then I picked one up and it felt so lovely, slim and smooth to hold that I was quite won over! I decided I’d be happy to work with round pencils as long as I had a tin to keep them contained. The only problem is that the attractive retro design is very restrained and the shows the grade in one place only, so if you didn’t put your pencil back with the lettering facing up you wouldn’t know which pencil was which.
The pencils seemed consistently well mixed, well bonded and slightly coarse in texture but very silky and a real pleasure to apply. They are very dark – almost as dark as the Tombow – and have a similarly limited range. If you wanted to draw more lightly with them you’d need to use the H grade pencils, but because these stop at only 3H there would be a limit to how light you could go. I wouldn’t suggest using them for very fine work but for loose, dark sketching I would absolutely recommend giving them a try.