One of the questions I am always asked and always find difficult to answer is “which brand of pencil is the best?”
The seemingly obvious answer would be that the more expensive brands and products are better, and I meet a lot of amateur artists who swear by a particular pencil brand and pay $50.00+ for a set of “top-quality” graphite pencils, yet I have met few professionals willing to do the same. Whilst it is true that more expensive pencils are generally easier to draw with, in skilled hands they will not produce a higher quality drawing than the basic pencils you can buy from your local office supply store.
In my opinion, one of the worst things an aspiring pencil artist can do is buy expensive pencils whilst under the impression that they will help them produce higher quality artwork. In my style of artwork, which involves smooth shading by blending graphite with tissues and cotton-pads, I have not noticed any objective difference in the quality of work produced by basic pencils and the expensive high-end counterparts. Sketch-artists will probably find a more noticeable difference between basic and top-end pencils, but in my limited experience in this artistic style, I have found that changing the tone of pencil (e.g. swapping an HB for a 3B pencil) until I found a pencil characteristic I was comfortable with was just as beneficial than swapping brands and using supposedly “higher-quality” pencils.
A Note on Quality
The quality of a pencil refers to how well made the pencil is – very low quality pencils will often break when sharpening (indicative of an uncentered graphite core) and have irregularities in the graphite which can lead to tonal variations as you draw. I have never encountered these issues when using the basic pencil products from reputable stationary companies such as Staedtler, Faber-Castell, Stabilo Boss, etc.
I have been using the Staedler tradition pencil line for over four years now and have no complaints. They are very inexpensive and are well made and I have produced virtually all the artwork in my gallery with these pencils. If you are still unconvinced that these cheap pencils are the real deal, then I can recommend the Staedtler Mars Lumograph series – these are about four times the price of the tradition pencils and in my opinion, they aren’t worth the extra money.
A final note: always try to buy pencils individually as the sets include too many superfluous pencils. You only need an HB, 2B, 4B and 6B for most graphite artwork – any ‘blacker’ and you are better off with charcoal. The pencil sets often include all pencils from HB to 8B, and you really don’t need them.
Pencil Grading and Classification
Pencils are graded along a continuum from ‘H’ for hardness to ‘B’ for blackness, with ‘HB’ being the intermediate.
You can pretty much ignore the ‘H’ pencils as they have a very hard graphite which scratches and damages paper very easily. The ‘H’ pencils are not designed for artists (they are aimed at graphic designers and engineers). The ‘HB’ grade graphite is about as hard as you will need, so I wouldn’t recommend going any further down the hardness scale. I would then get 2B, 4B and 6B pencils – this range should cover all your tonal needs. You can essentially get all the pencils you really need for between $2-3 at your local stationary store and the money you save can be spent on more important tools.
Where Quality Matters
You will want to get yourself a good quality white-gum artists eraser. These should not smudge and any such product from a reputable art company (e.g. Faber-Castell or Staedtler) should be fine. If you have an eraser lying at home that does not smudge and is able to easily erase graphite, then you probably don’t need to get a “special” artist’s eraser.
Finally, the most important piece of equipment is the paper. You want to get yourself some decent quality drawing and sketching paper – the smoother it is, the better your drawings will be. Make sure you ask the shop assistant whether the paper product you buy will ‘yellow’ as this can be a problem with inferior products. Art paper can be expensive, but you will almost surely find it easier to draw on smooth art paper than on printer-paper. I actually tend to do quite a lot of my drawings on standard printer-paper as it doesn’t yellow very quickly and is actually pretty smooth. The major disadvantage with printer paper is how flimsy it is and it is very difficult to avoid crumpling the artwork, but it is very cheap and available everywhere.