We all remember from our school days the faithful number 2 pencil, but did you know…
In the medium of graphite there are different scales of pencils you can use. The range is between 9H to 9B. The number and corresponding letter tell you how hard/soft, light/dark the graphite will be in that particular pencil. “H” pencils are hard, there is a greater amount of clay and less graphite which makes them lighter in the gray scale tones. The hardest level would be 9H, which will be a very light tone. “B” pencils are soft graphite. There is less clay and more graphite. They not only appear darker, but they also tend to take on a grainy texture on the paper. The softest, darkest would be the 9B.
Along with the different range of values, there are also different brands. Which one is best? It really comes down to what you prefer to use. I personally have General Pencil Company’s Kimberly pencils, Derwent Graphic pencils and a few Staedtler Clutch pencils and leads. I’ll talk about that a little while later.
Let’s take a closer look at the hard “H” graphite first.
You can see in the chart above that the lower numbers appear darker and gradually become lighter as the numbers increase. Why on earth would I want to use a 9H? I use the 9H mainly for light skin portraits, or light tone areas in other drawings. It’s a good base where you need tone, but not too much. When I do portraits the only areas that are pure white (showing the white of the paper) are small areas of highlights in the eyes. Everything else, even the whites of the eyes have some tonal value and are not pure white.
Now let’s take a look at the softer “B” graphites.
In the chart above, just as in the other, you can see a gradual increase in the values as you move from to 9B. You can also notice that as the graphite becomes darker it also becomes more grainy in appearance. Many people will layer B scale graphites over the top of H scale to help reduce the grainy appearance. You may also discover a need to use multiple layers of the B scale pencils to get darker tones. One problem with using multiple layers is that you could easily create graphite shine which most graphite artists try hard to avoid.
What can you do for creating a dark black without creating a graphite shine?
That’s where carbon & charcoal come into play! Carbon pencils and charcoal are good options for creating darker, black values with little or no risk of that “shine” in your drawing. In my chart below I included non carbon or charcoal, but graphite’s that claim to be dark in their values. I currently do not own any carbon pencils.
The Darkest Values
My go to in wildlife art when I need a velvety black texture is charcoal. I love how it gives a soft appearance while staying nice and dark. It gives fur a soft texture and keeps it nice and black. As an example, I used it for the ear tips of my Red Fox.
*Warning: My Personal Opinion*
Now I want to talk about the dark graphites. I purchased each with hopes of getting a nice dark black value. Each boasted how smooth and dark they were, so I gave them a try.
My first purchase was the Prismacolor Ebony. In my experience not only was it not very dark, maybe about an equivalent of a 6B lead, it quite easily caused graphite shine in my work. I won’t be using that one any time soon.
Next I purchased the Derwent Onyx – Dark pencil. I have a full set of Derwent pencils which I love, so I was incredibly excited to give the Onyx a try. Again, however, I found myself disappointed. The Derwent Onyx Dark was not much darker than a 4B, not as dark as a 6B. It did not cause graphite shine as quickly as the Ebony pencil.
After much searching and product reviews, I decided to give the General Pencil Company’s Kimberly 9XXB a try.
Can we say winner? This pencil was amazing! On first look I noticed the pencil itself is much larger (thicker) than a normal pencil. You’ll need a sharpener with a larger opening to keep it sharp. When I tested it out I was excited at how nice and dark it was with less of a grainy appearance! While you can still get a graphite shine from it, you have to work pretty hard/press hard to cause it to shine. This is my new “go to” pencil for the darkest values without using charcoal. I highly recommend it!
Do I really need all these pencils?
Truth be told, no. You don’t need to have the entire range of 9H to 9B in order to create beautiful graphite work. For me it’s more a convenience to have a wide range to choose from when I’m drawing. However, I do suggest you have at least the following: 2H, HB, 2B, 3B, 4B and maybe 6B along with a charcoal pencil. That will give you a nice range for your drawing. Many brands of graphite pencils are sold in “open stock” which means you can buy each pencil individually instead of as a set. Buying open stock allows you to pick and choose what you want/need.
With less pencils you will also be able to hone your skills at gradient shading. That’s where you take a single pencil and work from the darkest value you can make with it and slowly progress with a lighter hand until you make the lightest value possible with that same pencil. The 2B is an excellent one to start with when practicing gradients. Your gradient should transition smoothly from dark to light or light to dark with no apparent separation between values.
I was going to discuss brands, but this post is a bit long. I’ll keep the brands for my next post, so come back again!
In the meantime….