Wood cased pencils. The most common is F, the wood cased pencil. These generally come in sets of 9B to 9H and are what most new artists begin using. I would suggest a new artist begin with these but be aware that there are some negative things with them. First, they will change in weight and balance as the pencil is sharpened. I have found this to be annoying. Secondly, my technique will not allow a regular sharpening but requires that they have a good ½" of lead freely available to work with. This brings me to one of the largest drawbacks I’ve found. The graphite is not always centered in the wood so when you sharpen them the tip becomes off center and I often find myself trying to draw with the wood instead of the graphite. The last problem can be overcome with pencil extenders (I don’t have one so I can’t show it) but as they wear down to a nub, a certain amount of the pencil will most certainly need to be thrown away. These pencils require a traditional sharpener or a razor blade to sharpen.
Clutch pencils. These are the pencils I use for all my artwork. They use 2mm graphite refills which are the same size as the wood cased pencils. There is a clutch mechanism in the tip that is activated by the plunger which holds the refill firmly in place. This allows me to extend the graphite as far as I may desire as well as retract it for more detail work. Being 2mm, they also can cover the paper rather quickly when necessary. Creating a chisel point at the tip (by holding the pencil at about a 45* angle and scrubbing a flat spot) allows me to cover larger areas with the flat side but simply turning the pencil gives me a sharp chisel line for those times when I need that. Using it in this way means I do not need to sharpen the graphite very often. I am also very particular about the brand of graphite refill I use. To my mind only Staedtler Lumograph refills should be used for a couple reasons. First, the graphite is exceptionally smooth and particle free and the overall tone is very pleasing. Other brands can have hard and sharp particles that could scratch your paper when they appear - sometimes leaving a permanent mark. Another advantage to the 12 packs is that each grade comes with a different colored replacement cap for the plunger making it easy to find just the right pencil on my desk. These only work with the Staedtler clutch pencils. The sharpener “C” is the only way these pencils can be sharpened.
Mechanical pencils. Standard mechanical pencils can be found in several thicknesses. .3mm, .5mm and .7mm with .3 being a bit tricky to find. Many artists use these exclusively and are able to produce stunning work with them. I find them excellent for detail work but do not use them in the main.
Stumps and tortillons. In the interest of being as complete as I can, I’ve included these tools. They are both used for blending - pushing the graphite around the paper. The stump is a solid roll of material that will create a very dark area when used. Anything more than very careful use will destroy the tooth of the paper, and once that is gone you’re pretty much finished doing anything in that area. A tortillon is a rolled piece of paper. On very rare occasions I will use these in very small areas. They are a legitimate tool, but application should only be done judiciously. Some artists create fabulous drawings using blending which can impart an airbrushed quality to the rendering. I lean much more towards photorealism which does not lend itself nearly so well to the technique.
Grades of graphite. A word here is appropriate concerning the different grades of graphite. The grades range from numbers 2 to 9. There is a letter following that to determine whether it is hard “H” or soft “B”. In the middle where the two grades meet you will find things like HB, B, F (finepoint) and H. Hard pencils are lighter in tone while soft pencils are darker. So the actual order you will find it 9H 8H 7H 6H 5H 4H 3H 2H H F B HB 2B 3B 4B 5B 6B 7B 8B 9B. Most sets of wood cased pencils come with that selection. But you will never need so many because there is an overlap on all of them - so much so that I only use 4H 2H HB F 2B and 4B and some artists can create an entire photorealistic drawing with only a 2B although that takes a good deal of control. Varying the pressure with which the pencil is used will vary the amount of graphite applied so there can be quite an overlap making a good many of these grades redundant throughout the entire range.
Physics. I believe it is really important to understand the physics of graphite if you are to use it effectively. The different grades of graphite are made by mixing the graphite with clay. Pure graphite is a dark color and a large flake. Pure clay is a small, hard particle that is very light in color. Different manufacturers use their own proprietary proportions of each in their pencils to create all those different grades. Think of your paper as being a landscape of the moon with craters of varying (though generally equal) sizes all around and each crater has a lip. This landscape is called Tooth. It is what allows the graphite to rub off on the paper and it must be protected during your drawing for as long as is possible. Once you beat it down by pressing too hard or by using some tool, it’s gone and you will find it very difficult to apply further graphite in that area. The large flakes of pure graphite which you can consider to be 9B for this discussion, flake off as the pencil is moved along the tooth. If you wish for a dark area you must force these flakes to go into the craters by pushing hard on the paper to break them up. As you go from 9B to 4B the size of these flakes gets smaller as more clay is mixed with it. The tooth can fill more easily and quickly due to the greater quantity of clay and the smaller size of the flakes. Going further along into the hard pencils, a 4H has much less graphite than clay and fills the tooth rather rapidly but still has some tone due to the graphite. And so on till we get to 9H which is VERY hard and VERY light.
So if you cover an area with 9B you may find that you have left small specks of white on your paper - the coarser the tooth, the more specks. The flakes are then so large that they simply cannot fill the tooth no matter how hard you push. But remember you don’t want to push and flatten the tooth if you can avoid it.
So what do you do? If you lay your pencil lower so it’s held between your thumb and forefinger, you will not be pushing the graphite into those craters but rather letting the lip of the tooth pull off whatever graphite it wants so it’s more laying on top of the paper instead of being ground in as you would if you held with a regular writing grip. Also, using a slightly harder grade will allow better coverage of those white speck areas - I never go beyond a 4B and find 2B can give me plenty of darks for most uses. There are a couple advantages to be gained with this method. First and last, you are protecting the tooth. This is critical if you want to add more tone as well as if you should need to erase something. Once graphite is ground into the tooth it is almost impossible to remove it all. Since even the lip of the crater is not being destroyed you can apply layer upon layer which is absolutely critical for photorealism. And the more layers you apply, the more the graphite seems to adhere to the surface of the paper lessening smudging.
And while we have this image of craters in our heads, a word about the order of application. As you can see, the clay fills the tooth much more rapidly. If you want to get lots of dark areas, you would obviously not want to start with the clay in the harder grades, but rather with a darker/softer grade of graphite. And for a lighter area, the dark graphite would not be appropriate. To clarify this rule, you can put harder/lighter graphite over darker/softer graphite, but not the other way around. It is important to understand this clearly because I break this rule constantly when I draw but it is for a specific reason.
For dark areas I do begin with a 4B and a pencil grip, mashing the graphite into the tooth. When I can go no darker, I will likely find some of those white specks still around so I go over the entire area with HB or even F. The larger amount of clay fills the leftover spots and gives the entire area a more consistent and uniform tone.
Light areas, however, are much more complex. For skin, I begin with several layers of 4H in an underhand grip. Then, several layers of 2H to balance things out a bit. Since the lighter areas also have the most varied tonal variation, I must determine how deep the tone needs to be. With the tooth getting filled with the clay, there is less grip left for the softer, larger flakes of graphite. This is precisely what I want, however, because application of a 2B on this base of clay means the paper will not darken quickly but require more and more light layers of the darker graphite if any is to adhere. In this way I can creep up on the exactly tone I desire.
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