Choosing the Right Graphite Sketching & Drawing Pencil

A selection of artists' graphite drawing and sketching pencils from Derwent and Caran d'Ache

The humble graphite pencil is the workhorse of many artists toolkits. Made from graphite blends mixed with wax, drawing and sketching pencils are a versatile mark making tool perfect for jotting down quick ideas, plotting compositions or even for highly detailed drawings. There are a variety of traditional and unique lead types available that bring versatility in line, tone and intensity.

Most artists would not be without their trusty graphite pencils! Whether you’re a painter, sculptor, textile artist or crafty hobbyist, a graphite pencil is essential for quickly keeping records of ideas and building up compositions. They’re perfect for use in sketchbooks, and are easy enough to transport if you’re a fan of urban sketching or plein air painting. There are so many ranges, grades and types of pencil available – so it can be difficult to work out where to start. We hope to shed some light on our graphite pencils so you can pick the perfect pencil for your drawing and sketching technique!

Our blog post covers a selection of both traditional graphite pencils and water soluble graphite pencils:

You can find out more about each one by clicking the links, or read below for a full overview.

A Brief History of the Graphite Pencil

The graphite pencil is a drawing tool that has remained relatively unchanged since it was first created. The 1500s marks the first discovery of graphite in Borrowdale after a violent storm caused trees to uproot. Farmers began to use the mysterious black material in the form of a simple pencil to mark their sheep. It soon became much sought after, and as reserves were under threat of depletion graphite export was banned.

One of the world's oldest pencils from the Faber Castell archives
One of the World’s Oldest Pencils – From Faber Castell’s A Brief History of the Pencil

In 1794 Nicholas Jacques Conte developed the pencil into a form that would be recognisable today. Encased in wood and made from a blend of clay and graphite, these pencils could now be made on an industrial scale. Over the years pencil manufacturing saw massive improvements and refinements – giving artists more choice than ever in the types of pencils available!

What are Graphite Pencils Made From?

All the ingredients of a graphite pencil play a part in its performance. Artist quality pencils use a high grade of pigment to give the pencil its hardness. The characteristic texture of a sketching pencil comes from a blend of wax and graphite. In most graphite pencils the wax used is tallow – a refined animal fat extract. Although only used in small amounts it does mean if you are a vegan artist, or an artist looking to cut down on animal-derived art supplies, some artists pencils may not be suitable. You can find out more about the ingredients in our pencils below.

A selection of Derwent Graphic graphite drawing and sketching pencils in use

What is the Graphite Grading Scale?

Graphite Pencils have a label with a degree, or ‘grade’, to indicate their colour and texture. Manufacturers alter the degree of graphite by varying the proportions of clay and graphite in the mix. More graphite will mean your pencil is softer and more black. More clay means that your pencil will be hard and lighter in colour.

Graphite grading system shown with Derwent Graphic Graphite drawing and sketching pencils

There are three letters that you will come across in most pencil ranges: B, H and F. ‘B’ stands for black, and denotes a pencil with a high graphite content and soft texture. ‘H’ stands for hard, and denotes a pencil with a high clay content and hard texture. F degree, referred to as firm or fine falls between H and B. A standard HB pencil contains a 50:50 mixture of clay and graphite and is a good general texture for drawing and writing. This letter grading system is also accompanied by a number. The higher the number the more black or hard the pencil is. For example, a 9B pencil will be much softer and blacker than a 2B pencil. Likewise, a 9H pencil will be much harder and lighter than a 2H pencil.

Which pencil grades should I buy?

Artists generally have a range of pencils that cover a number of these graphite degrees. Soft, black pencils are great for creating dense, dark shadows or for covering large areas with uniform strokes. They are also more soft and smudgy, so are great for using with blending stumps and tortillions. Their softness does mean that their point will dull much quicker – but this can be great if you’re looking to create loose, expressive work with varying line widths.

Harder H grade pencils are perfect for light sketching, especially if you are drafting ideas. They allow you to create precise lines as their points are extremely hard and firm.

Pencil grades do not translate exactly between brands, so a 2B grade from one manufacturer may not necessarily be the same from another manufacturer. Having a comprehensive set of pencils that covers a variety of grades will give you great versatility in your drawing and sketching technique.

Traditional Graphite Drawing Pencils

Traditional Graphite Sketching Pencils are an essential for almost every artist – whether you use them to create your finished artwork or you use them for compositional sketches before you paint. We stock a range of wood cased and pure graphite pencils that can be used to create all kinds of marks, shading and detail.

Derwent Graphic Pencils

The full range of Derwent Graphic Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Derwent Graphic Pencils are an excellent and affordable all-round graphite pencil. They are perfect for almost any kind of drawing, whether you prefer loose sketching or highly detailed illustration. Graphic Pencils also cover an impressive range of grades, with the softest being the 9B and the hardest the 9H. That’s 20 degrees in total. A good, varied set of these pencils should allow you to attempt most drawing techniques. Just make sure you select a range of soft and hard pencil and they should get you off to a great start!

Swatches of Derwent Graphic Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 9B to HB
Swatches of Derwent Graphic Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from F to 9H
We tried each of our pencil ranges with a kneaded eraser, soft white eraser and a combination of the two to test how easily they erase. This will be shown on the bottom, vertical line of each swatch.

If you’re a vegan artist, or looking to limit the animal-derived ingredients in your art materials, you will need to watch out for animal fat in particular degrees of Graphic Pencil. As stated on the Derwent Vegan Art Materials list only the B, HB, F and H-9H pencils are vegan friendly. Anything other than this (so 2B through to 9B) contain traces of animal fat in the wax blend.

Shop online for Derwent Graphic Pencils

Derwent Sketching Pencils

The full range of Derwent Sketching Graphite drawing pencils with swatches

Derwent Sketching Pencils have a strong point, perfect for all kinds of drawing and sketching techniques. They have a wider core than Graphic Pencils, so are ideal for bold line drawing. This quality also lends itself well to free style sketches and spontaneous, loose work. Although these pencils have a wide colour strip, they also have excellent point strength. Because of this they are also perfect for detailed drawing and can be sharpened to a fine point.

Swatches of Derwent Sketching Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 4B to HB

All 3 degrees of Derwent Sketching Pencils contain traces of animal fat in the wax blend, so are unsuitable vegan artists.

Shop online for Derwent Sketching Pencils

Derwent Onyx Pencils

The full range of Derwent Onyx Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Derwent Onyx Pencils are made from a smooth, dramatically dark graphite. Even darker than a 9B pencil! They are perfect for building depth and deep shadows in life studies, portraiture and landscapes. If you need extra deep tones then these can easily be built up be applying successive layers of pencil. Onyx pencils have a wider colour strip than Graphic pencils. Like sketching pencils, this wide strip is great for spontaneous sketching and loose, expressive marks. Their excellent point strength also makes them equally suitable for precision drawing.

Swatches of Derwent Onyx Graphite drawing and sketching pencils in Dark and Medium

Both grades, Medium and Dark, of the Derwent Onyx pencil contain traces of animal-derived fat in the wax blend, so are unsuitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Derwent Onyx Pencils

Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils

The full range of Caran d'Ache Grafwood Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils are the pinnacle of quality in the graphite pencil world. They are our best quality artists’ graphite pencils. Grafwood pencils are varnished in a colour that precisely depicts the hardness and blackness of the pencil. For example, harder grades of pencil are a pale grey – whereas the softer grades are almost black. This quality allows you to quickly select a pencil without much thought – all you need to do is look at the colour of the varnish! Like Derwent Graphic, these pencils are a great allrounder. The range covers 15 grades (less than the Graphic range) but has more than enough shades to cover most drawing techniques. They have durable points, so are suitable for extra fine lines or more expressive strokes. All Caran d’Ache graphite pencils are made using blended graphite, which makes them more resistant to breakage.

Swatches of Caran d'Ache Grafwood Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 9B to B
Swatches of Caran d'Ache Grafwood Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from F to 4H

All grades of Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils contain a small amount of tallow in the wax blend, so they are not suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Caran d’Ache Grafwood Pencils

Caran d’Ache Technograph Pencils

The full range of Caran d'Ache Technograph Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Caran d’Ache Technograph Pencils are a more affordable pencil from the swiss pencil manufacturer. Like Grafwood, they are made using blended graphite. This makes them more resistant to breakage and gives them excellent strength. They have a distinctive yellow barrel with all the usual grading information stamped on the side. Their uniform colour does make them a little more difficult to tell apart than Grafwood. They are available in 11 grades, so not quite as extensive as Grafwood – but there is still enough variation there for a range of techniques.

Swatches of Caran d'Ache Technograph Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 6B to 4H

All grades of Caran d’Ache Technograph Pencils contain a small amount of tallow in the wax blend, so they are not suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Caran d’Ache Technograph Pencils

Caran d’Ache Grafstone Pure Graphite Pencils

The full range of Caran d'Ache Grafstone Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Caran d’Ache Grafstone Pure Graphite Pencils are a solid, woodless graphite pencil. As they have no wooden casing, they can be used at all angles to create bold strokes of graphite. You can even split them up into small chunks of varying shapes and sizes. The irregular shapes can create lots of different marks – perfect if you’re looking to create loose, expressive sketches. The superior quality graphite used makes these pencils less prone to breakage. This makes them ideal for precision drawing, as well as for covering large areas in uniform strokes. Instead of a wood casing, they are finished with fine layer of plastic to ensure clean and easy handling. Because they are a solid stick of graphite, they are a little heavier in the hand than a traditional wood-cased pencil. It can take a little getting used to, but they will quickly feel balanced in your hand.

Swatches of Caran d'Ache Grafstone Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 6B to HB

All grades of Caran d’Ache Grafstone Pure Graphite Pencils contain a small amount of tallow in the wax blend, so they are not suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Caran d’Ache Grafstone Pure Graphite Pencils

Water-Soluble Graphite Pencils

Water Soluble Sketching Pencils allow artists to combine the best of their drawing and painting techniques. With just a sweep of a wet brush your graphite linework can become transformed into ink-like washes. Combining this wash-like effect and the natural texture of graphite can create some great effects. Some graphite pencils are naturally water soluble to an extent. The pencils listed below are specifically made to be easily mixable with water. The pigments themselves aren’t soluble – it is the wax binder used that allows the colour to disperse upon contact with water.

Although sketching then applying water is the most common way of applying this graphite, you are certainly not limited to just this technique. Why not try dipping the lead directly into water and then apply it to your paper for dark, inky lines? Scraping the tip of the lead and allowing the dust to settle on wet paper can create some interesting textures – especially if you are sketching grass and foliage.

Mixing up the combinations of wet and dry pencils and surfaces is a great way to experiment with these pencils. It is worth noting that wetting the lead directly can affect its durability over time.

Derwent Graphitone Pencils

The full range of Derwent Graphitone Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Derwent Graphitone Pencils are sticks of pure, water soluble graphite. Like Caran d’Ache Grafstone sticks, you can use them like a traditional pencil or broken down into small, uneven chunks. These non-uniform pieces are great for making bold strokes and irregular textures. Although they are great for expressive work and covering large areas, their durable point also makes them suitable for fine detail work.

A 6B Dark Wash Derwent Graphitone stick split into chunks and used with water

These pencils are a little heavier than a wood cased pencil, but still feel balanced in the hand. They also have an outer layer of paper that prevents your hands getting messy during use. This paper can be torn away gradually to expose as much of the pencil as you require. Graphitone sticks are available in four degrees – with enough versatility to create a variety of light and dark shades.

Swatches of Derwent Graphitone Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 8B to 2B

Derwent Graphitone Pencils contain no animal-derived products, so are suitable for use by vegan artists.

Shop online for Derwent Graphitone Pencils

Derwent Water Soluble Sketching Pencils

The full range of Derwent Water Soluble Sketching Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Derwent Water Soluble Sketching Pencils are perfect for creating everything from delicate graphite washes, to dark, dramatic strokes. Their smooth texture allows you to easily blend and layer successive applications of pencil. This Sketching Pencil’s wide core makes it equally suitable for bold mark making or precision drawing techniques. They are available in three strengths – light, medium and dark – which help bring great depth to your sketches.

Swatches of Derwent Sketc hing Water Soluble Graphite drawing pencils from 8B to HB

Derwent Water Soluble Sketching Pencils do contain trace elements of animal fat in the wax blend, so are not suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Derwent Water Soluble Sketching Pencils

Caran d’Ache Technalo Water Soluble Pencils

The full range of Caran d'Ache Technalo Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Caran d’Ache Technalo Water Soluble Pencils are everything you’d expect from the swiss pencil manufacturer. Made to the same high quality as the rest of their pencil range, Technalo pencils are smooth to apply and exceptionally durable. They allow you to use all the same techniques as the Grafwood range. However, they have the added versatility of water solubility. There are three grades available that cover a good range of tones and shades.

Swatches of Caran d'Ache Technalo Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils from 6B to B

All grades of the Caran d’Ache Technalo Water Soluble Pencil contain no animal-derived ingredients so are suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Caran d’Ache Technalo Water Soluble Pencils

Caran d’Ache Technalo RGB Water Soluble Pencils

The full range of Caran d'Ache Technalo RGB Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils with swatches

Caran d’Ache Technalo RGB Water Soluble Pencils contain the same high quality graphite as the regular Technalo range, but with a subtle hint of colour. There are three colours available – Carmine Lacquer, Dark Phthalo Green and Prussian Blue. The colour is pigment based and have good lightfastness, so you needn’t worry about your artwork fading quickly under light. It is not immediately obvious from the colour of the lead exactly what the watered down colour will be like. When applied to paper the strokes do appear quite dark and ever so slightly tinted. When you apply water the subtle colour really shines through. They’re great for adding a splash of colour to sketches and mixed media work.

Swatches of Caran d'Ache Technalo Water Soluble Graphite drawing and sketching pencils in Red, Green and Blue.

All three Caran d’Ache Technalo RGB Water Soluble Pencils contain no animal-derived ingredients (this includes the red pencil) so are suitable for vegan artists.

Shop online for Caran d’Ache Technalo RGB Water Soluble Pencils

Choosing a Good Range of Sketching and Drawing Pencils

Ultimately, the type of pencils you need will depend on your drawing style and personal preference. If you’re just starting out then it would be beneficial to choose a range of pencils that cover a variety of degrees.

Derwent Drawing Pencil Sets

The Derwent Sketching Collection tin of 24 drawing and sketching tools.

Our Derwent Graphic range are very popular with beginners. The Derwent Graphic Pencil Tin of 6 contains more than enough to get you going. The set has one hard pencil, a standard HB and four grades of B pencil – including the soft and smudgy 8B. For artists two prefer to use predominantly soft pencils there is also a set of 12 Derwent Graphic pencils that covers their whole collection of B pencil plus an F, H and HB pencil. Similarly there is also a tin of 12 that contains medium pencils spanning 6B to 4H. For artists interested in the whole Graphic range there is a Tin of 24 that covers all degrees plus 2 of the 2H, HB, 2B and 4B.

Derwent also offer the Derwent Sketching Collection, available in tins of 12 or 24. These tins contain a collection of their most popular drawing pencils, including water-soluble pencils. The collection gives you everything you’ll need to fully explore loads of drawing techniques.

Caran d’Ache Graphite Line Pencil Sets

A selection of drawing and sketching tools from the Caran d'Ache Graphite Line product range.

If you are a seasoned graphite artist or a beginner looking for the very best quality then Caran d’Ache offer plenty of sets that cover a variety of graphite products and accessories. Their ‘Graphite Line‘ collections aim to provide you with everything you’ll need to fully explore the beauty of pencil and graphite.

If you’re looking to buy a selection of pencils from different ranges we’ve put together a handy chart to help you compare our range of graphite pencils:

(click to enlarge)

You can view our full range of Sketching and Drawing pencils online as well as a full range of our Sketching and Drawing Pencil Sets. We also have a selection of drawing and sketching accessories to accompany your pencils.

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