Reviewing Favorite Pencils

January 14, 2010

I thought I’d take a moment to present some of my favorite pencils. Not all of them are made of graphite.



1) General’s Kimberly graphite bar, 2B
2) Pentel .5mm mechanical replacement leads, HB
3) Grumbacher “Sketching” pencil, HB
4) Prismacolor Pencil #935 Black
5) Faber-Castell China (“Grease”) Marker
6) Conté Carbone, 2B
7) Eberhard Duro (now Faber-Castell/Sanford,) 6B
8) Derwent Pastel Ivory Black
9) General Sketch & Wash #588
10) Sanford’s Design Ebony, Extra Smooth, Jet Black
11) General’s Kimberly pencil, Extra Smooth, 8B
12) General’s Woodless, Extra Soft, 6B
13) Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth graphite “crayon”
14) Koh-I-Noor #355 “Sketching” pencil, 6B
15) Koh-I-Noor Progresso Bohemia, HB (in a General’s #205M leadholder)
16) Walnut Hollow Oil Pencil, Black
17) Generic brand .5mm mechanical pencil holder with Pentel leads
18) Staedtler MARS-780 holder with a Sanford “Turquoise” lead, HB
19) Wolff’s Royal Sovereign carbon pencil, 2B


The soft graphite leads (HB to 9B) have a different feel to them in terms of hardness and how they react to the surface. The dark of an 4B will be equal to that of a 9B, but the softer leads require less pressure and leave more residue. There are, of course, harder lead pencils that contain clay and will make lighter marks even with firm pressure. Notice in the image below where a 6B lead was drawn over marks by a 4H, and how the 4H resists the softer lead. Being that graphite is a form of lubricant, darker areas will reflect light and look shiny.

6B on top of 4H lead

The “hybrid” pencils mix things like compressed graphite and charcoal, or pigment with various binders like wax, or oil and can make darker marks. An advantage that the Prismacolor and Walnut Hollow pencils have over the others is being able to hold a sharp point better. Another brand of oil pencil is Faber-Castell’s Polychromos which doesn’t contain wax. The carbon pencils like the Wolff, Conté, or pastel pencils can be slightly powdery, as you might expect.

My favorite of the dark pencils is the Wolff brand, which offers 4 choices of softness. The Conté carbon pencil 2B appears to be a little lighter in value than the Wolff 2B. Another charcoal & graphite (a.k.a. “carbon”) pencil brand I like is Lyra’s Rembrandt Carbon (not shown,) which perfoms like the Conté. General makes a nice carbon pencil also.

Other hybrid pencils that seem equally dark are the China Marker (oil,) Walnut Hollow (oil & wax,) and Prismacolor (wax.) The Derwent pastel pencil also draws very dark, but the tone seems slightly more bluish than the others.

Notice how these pencils erase in the example above. The China Marker, not surprisingly, won’t budge, but the others erase somewhat cleanly. The “Turquoise” lead is the easiest to erase. The eraser used was a “Factis” Black #18 from General. The surface quality of the paper also has much to do with how the lines will draw with each of these pencils.

Water-soluble pencils

Watercolor Pencils:
1> Faber Castell, Albrecht Durer, Dark Sepia watercolor
2> Derwent, Ivory Black watercolor
3> General’s Sketch & Wash *
4> Prismacolor, Green watercolor
5> Derwent AQUAtone, Prussian Blue watercolor

What I particularly like about the Derwent AQUAtone pencils, and a few of the other types, is that they are woodless, making them more economical and less wasteful. The watercolor and pastel pencils are also useful when starting a painting. Microscopic slivers of sharp graphite could actually slice up into the paint surface, but these are made of pigment and are more compatible with the painting medium. They’re also handy to touch-up water mediums like gouache or casein. The blacks of these watercolors fall between the carbon and graphite leads in value, but don’t draw as smoothly. *General’s Sketch & Wash is technically not watercolor but graphite and a water-soluble binder, and does draw smoothly. The Faber Castell and AQUAtone pencils flow more easily than the others.

Wet mark examples

Leadholders help make better use of pencils as they get smaller, and keep your fingers clean, but not all pencils fit all holders. The best design of these are the mechanical pencil holders like the Staedtler above, where you only need to replace the lead. A shortcoming of thin mechanical leads (like these Pentel .5mm) is they break easily, and you must constantly “pump” them up the holder as you draw, but their advantage is not needing to be sharpened. That makes them good for sketching on location. The Staedtler holder is handy on location too for shading larger areas, but I need to carry a small piece of sandpaper to keep it sharp.

One tip I hear about keeping your points sharp is to draw at a lower angle to the paper. It takes some practice to control the pencil this way, but it essentially will sharpen the pencil as you draw instead of dulling the point when the pencil is at a higher angle. Personally, I find it simplier just to sharpen the point.

Derwent, Faber-Castell, Koh-i-Noor, General, Conté a ParisPrismacolor


  1. i like your pencils!
    have you tried Aquarelle?

    • Yes, the Aquarelle are nice. Similar to Derwent, I think.

  2. Agreed!

  3. Have you ever tried Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil? I hear the ex-soft is exceptionally black without being shiny.

    • No, I’ve not come across the PITT oil base pencils. I would expect them to be similar to the others, but will keep an eye out for them. Thanks.

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