Graphite Pencils Explained

Sophie Ploeg Graphite Pencils

As I am working on a graphite and charcoal drawing at the moment I thought you might find it useful if I  write down the basics of graphite. What are those letters of HB and H and B at the end of the pencil actually mean and which should you use?

Pencils are made from graphite. Graphite is a form of carbon (diamond is also a form of carbon, so it's always nice to think you're drawing with diamonds, he he). Carbon also exists in charcoal. A graphite pencil lead has mainly two powdery components: graphite and clay. The more graphite it has, the softer and darker you can draw with it. The more clay it has, the lighter and harder the pencil is.

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Graphite pencils come in a range from 9H, 8H etc to 1H, and H. It then moves into HB and then B1, B2 etc towards B9.  B9 is the softest and darkest. 9H is the lightest and hardest graphite pencil. So a B6 is softer and darker than a B2. An 6H is harder and lighter than a 2H and much harder and lighter than a HB or a B pencil. Sometimes you can find an F pencil which is a slightly harder version of HB, meaning you can sharpen it to an even finer point. 

hard/light << 9H  8H 7H 6H  5H   4H   3H  2H   1H  H  F  HB  B1  B2  B3  B4  B5  B6  B7  B8  B9  >> soft/dark

sophie ploeg blog graphite

Graphite pencils come in a range from H to B

There is no need to have all these types of graphite pencils. Many artists work with three or so pencils of varying darkness and hardness. Usually these three are fairly close together in the range. So someone might work with an HB, 2B and a 4B. Or perhaps a 2H, F and a HB.  This latter trio consists of harder and lighter pencils so a drawing made with these will be a lighter drawing with less dark blacks.  

It makes sense to choose pencils that are fairly close together in the range (although perhaps not right next to each other to make sure there is sufficient difference between them). If you want to create a light drawing, in a high and bright key, you will not need a deep soft and dark 9B pencil. In a bright drawing your darkest shade will probably still be fairly light. So you might not need anything darker than a HB. If you want to draw a very dark drawing there is no point (excuse the pun) in using an extremely hard and light pencil such as an H. The thin and fine line of an H pencil will just disappear against the brute darkness of a strong B pencil. So choose your pencils only one or two steps apart: an HB, 2B and 6B for example. Or a 4H, 2H and an HB. 

A B pencil will not only give you a soft and black mark, it will only provide a much coarser mark than an H pencil. H pencils are so hard and fine they will provide you with a sharp and fine (but light) mark.They are great for tiny detail and super sharp lines. Dark B pencils are more suitable for expressive dark mark making and less detailed work. 

H and B pencils can work very well together when you need to refine a coarse and dark B pencil area. If you go over such a dark area with a hard pencil you can fill up the open texture and create a much softer transition in values. 

Sophie Ploeg graphite pencils

The smaller your mark-making, the smoother your drawing

Sophie Ploeg graphite pencils

A 6B pencil makes a much coarser mark than an H pencil. The bottom sample is a 6B pencil with a layer of H pencil over it.

A hard pencil will be more suitable for very subtle transitions in value and a smooth effect. A soft pencil can create deeper darks but cannot create a smooth application. 

You can end up filling the tooth of the paper with graphite and end up with a super smooth and shiny area that will not take any more graphite. The paper will have been flattened by the pressure of your mark making and your continuing mark making will 'buff' the graphite and make it shiny. Working lightly and in layers should avoid this effect, although not everybody minds the shine of graphite. 

Pencils can be sharpened with a sharpener (replace regularly to keep using a sharp blade), a knife (see below) or sandpaper. Choose whichever you prefer. 

There are a gazillion erasers out there to choose from. I like Staedtler rubbers and also kneadable rubbers for tiny detail. I always aim to not use it too much as graphite can be hard to erase (harder than charcoal) and so for me it pays off to start lightly and work the drawing up from there. 

Graphite can be rubbed with a paper stump or the slightly sharper tortillion, tissue, or even fingers (but watch out for skin grease smudging the paper). 

Of course graphite can be used in combination with loads of other art materials such as charcoal, pastel, acrylic, watercolour, oils etc. 

How to Sharpen Pencils

This short video by artist Brandon Schaefer shows how to best sharpen a graphite pencil

Petals & Lace, graphite, 36x30cm. Available via Catto Gallery. £950

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