Drawing pencils feature among essential art equipment. For making pencil sketches, charcoal and graphite pencils are your best options. Quality art pencils for drawing and sketching are offered by various reputed brands like Faber Castell, Derwent, Caran Ache, and others. You can buy your pencil set from Amazon where all these brands are available.

Coming to the two main types of drawing pencils that artists use for sketching, both graphite pencils and charcoal pencils can be used in different ways. Graphite pencils have a wide range of grades and are useful for sophisticated drawings which require finer detailing.  Funnily, even though we often call the pencil core “lead", real lead was never used as a core material. The reason it's called so is that, for a long time, graphite was thought to be a type of lead.

Charcoal is the best sketching medium for creating darker shades. However, it is generally much rougher than graphite and more prone to smudging. With multiple options available for buyers, purchasing the right set of pencils might get a bit confusing. Our detailed guide is here to help select them correctly, even if you are buying them for the first time.

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While selecting art supplies, make sure to conduct personal research before purchase. | Source: unsplash.com
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Sketching with Graphite Pencils

Graphite pencils are the most popular sketching and drawing pencils. Using them is a lot less messy because of the wooden barrel which contains the graphite strip. This structure makes it easy for the artist to control the movement of the pencils and sharpen them. There are many ranges of graphite pencils available, with most offering a considerable range of pencil grades. You can buy them both individually and in a set.

Graphite tends to work better on smooth paper and is best suited for small-sized drawings or quick sketches. 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.

The more clay in the graphite-to-clay mixture, the harder the pencil lead will be, the thinner lines it will draw, and the lighter shades it will be able to achieve. Pencils with less clay and more graphite will be soft, easier to blend, will draw thicker lines, and will allow you to achieve much darker highlights. 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 high clay content and hard texture
  • F degree, referred to as firm or fine, falls between H and B

You will find a 50:50 mixture of clay and graphite in a standard HB pencil. It has 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, an 8B pencil will be much softer and blacker than a 3B pencil. Likewise, a 7H pencil will be much harder and lighter than a 4H pencil.

Sketching with Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal as a drawing medium is very popular among artists as it produces rich tones and high contrast.  It can be easily blended and smudged, allowing the artist to produce a variety of effects in an artwork. Charcoal comes in soft, medium, and hard consistencies. Similar to graphite, the hardest charcoal will give you the lightest values while the darkest charcoal will give you the darkest values.

A charcoal pencil is simply compressed charcoal material encased within a wooden or paper-wrapped pencil.  If you are a first-time charcoal user, it's best to use a pencil. They will have that familiar feel to them and are less messy. Once you've gained some experience in the use of charcoal, you can begin to explore its other forms. These include:

Willow or Vine Charcoal

Willow charcoal is made by burning willow sticks in a kiln without air. These long, thin, and slightly distorted charcoal sticks are made from the twigs of willow trees, burned to a degree of precise hardness for drawing. Since willow charcoal is smokey and light, producing dark highlights with it is difficult. Vine charcoal is similar but instead of willow, grapevines are used.

The soft nature of vine charcoals makes them useful for outlining compositions on canvas before the application of oil or acrylic paints. The main issue is in using them is that they tend to smudge easily and can be difficult to control since they don't have a uniform body.

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charcoal sketch
Charcoal sticks are perfect for bold strokes and dark highlights. | Source: unsplash.com

Compressed Charcoal

For darker tones and controlled lines, you can use compressed charcoal. But is harder to erase or apply smudging effects while sketching with these. They tend to be more refined and harder than the willow or vine varieties, which are essentially burnt twigs. These charcoal sticks are formed from powdered charcoal which, as its name implies is compressed with a binder into consistently-sized sticks. When you buy a set of compressed charcoal, you’ll often get a range of grades as you do with graphite pencils i.e. 2B, 4B, 6B, etc.

Charcoal Powder

Charcoal powder can be used to create very soft and refined shading such as skin tones or a muted background. It can be applied with a finger, a brush, or other applicators to block in large areas quite quickly.

You can also use charcoal powder to create a toned ground on a white piece of paper, on top of which you can then draw darker values, or use an eraser to lift out lighter areas and highlights.

Traditional forms of charcoal are great for producing various artistic effects, but a pencil offers greater control.  Using traditional sticks of uncompressed and compressed charcoal makes it a bit more difficult to develop the details that some subjects will require. In these situations, the best solution may be to use a charcoal pencil.

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Pros & Cons of Charcoal and Graphite

For beginners, selecting the correct set of sketching pencils might not be easy. So, it's important to know the advantage and disadvantages of every medium. Buying art supplies is never an easy task. Whether it's paintbrushes, or acrylic, oil, and water-based colours, the availability of various types and quality of these tools, make the buying process confusing.

When it comes to sketching, you need to buy good-quality pencils. When it comes to choosing between charcoal and graphite as the medium. it's best to know about the pros ad cons of both to make an informed choice.

Pros & Cons of Graphite:

Pros:

  • Beginners are recommended to use these
  • Great for small drawings because you only have a small marking surface to work with
  • Doesn’t smudge as easily and isn’t as messy to work with
  • More durable than charcoal and hence easier to carry around during field trips

Cons:

  • Not suitable for large-scale drawings
  • There's a shine on the dark, fully-covered areas
  • More time consuming as it takes charcoal less time to cover a similar space
Sketch
Graphite pencils help in producing precise and well-controlled lines. | Source:unsplash.com

Pros & Cons of Charcoal

Pros:

  • Best suited for large expansive works of art using broad strokes
  • Easier to achieve darker shades and various artistic effects
  • Can work faster with these than graphite pencils

Cons:

  • Can be messy to work with especially while using charcoal sticks
  • Less durable and hence not advisable to carry around
  • Smudges easily because of more dust content than graphite pencils

Tips for Using Drawing Pencils

While drawing tablets and interactive whiteboards are fun to use for sketching, beginners should use traditional art equipment to learn the fundamental techniques of art. Sketching is an important technique. High-quality drawing pencils are a must to bring your sketches to life. Now that you know all about the primary types mediums of sketching pencil, here are a few tips to ensure their best usage:

  • Once you acquire confidence in using the two kinds of pencils individually, you can move on to combining both in a sketch. You will be able to create interesting contrasts between matt and reflective areas by using both materials alongside each other.
  • While working with graphite pencils, try to use a broad range of pencil grades to extensively use every shade. If you’re making precision marks then stick with pencils, but for bolder strokes try out graphite blocks.
  • If you are working solely with charcoal, try using as many types as possible to see what types of marks you can achieve with them. You can explore a broader range of shades by combining natural and compressed charcoals in your drawings.

So, if are you keen to learn sketching techniques, you can connect with tutors who offer drawing classes in India through websites like Superprof. By taking these classes, very soon you will be able to create amazing artworks which you can frame and hang on your walls. The learning experience is bound to be a happy and enriching one!

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Shreyanjana

Shreyanjana is an archaeologist who ironically finds the written word to be the most powerful means of storytelling. A travel buff and a photography enthusiast, she has been writing and sharing stories of all sorts ever since she can remember.