Pencil Art: Style & Examples

Instructor: Alessandra Sulpy
In this lesson, you will learn what artist pencils are. You will also discover how they differ from one another and why one might want to use different types of pencil leads to achieve different looks and styles.

Going Beyond the Basic No. 2 Pencil

We all remember that excited (or dreaded) feeling when our teachers announced, 'Everyone get out your No. 2 pencils!' Sometimes, we tried to take our minds off the upcoming test by looking down into our hands at our pencils. In doing so, you may have noticed that some pencils displayed not only 'No. 2', but may have also been labeled 'HB.'

While it's true that most pencils you will get in school or at a store are No. 2 pencils, in the world of art there are many different kinds of pencils. Ask an artist for a '2' pencil and they'll ask you if you mean an HB, 2H, or 2B.

Pencil set containing a variety of pencil types
Pencil Set

What are Artists' Pencils?

Pencils, including artists' pencils, are made of non-toxic graphite mixed with a little bit of clay and encased in wood. The pencil's 'lead' contains no actual lead, which is toxic - the name stuck when, in the 1500s, a large deposit of graphite was found, mistaken for lead and used as pencils.

Pencils use the letters H and B as classifications of different 'hardness' and 'blackness', respectively. That means they draw darker or lighter, depending on which pencil you use. The H pencils are known for creating light lines, whereas the B pencils create dark lines. There is also a pencil known as F, which is in between H and B. While it is widely believed that the F stands for 'fine', it actually means nothing - it was a letter arbitrarily chosen because the letter F falls in between the letters B and H!

Pencil gradations
Pencil grading

Pencil manufacturers label their pencils in terms like '4H', '6B,' and 'HB.' Think of the pencil scales like a thermometer: HB is zero degrees in temperature, Bs are positive numbers getting warmer, and Hs are negative numbers getting colder. The higher the B number, the darker the tone. The higher the H number, the lighter the tone. Therefore, a 8B is very dark, whereas a 8H is very light. Typically, you will only see up to a 10 in either H or B, although higher number pencils do exist.

'Great,' you might say. 'Now I can always identify what a 4H will look like!' Unfortunately, that may not be the case. There are several major pencil manufacturers, and their numbers, while consistent among their own line of pencils, aren't necessarily the same across brands. 2Hs will be consistently darker than 4Hs made by the same manufacturer, but two different 4H pencils made by two different companies might very well look different from one another.

H pencils, due to their hardness, tend to not blend as well as B pencils, which have such soft lead that they are easily blended with a blending tool or a finger. The softer the lead, the more easily it blends and smears.

Different Uses for Artist Pencils

You will probably hear the term graphite thrown around when referring to artist pencils beyond the terms of the materials pencils are made from. That's because we refer to the hardness of the pencil as graphite (for example, we may say 2H and HB are 'different graphites'), and we often refer to a pencil drawing as a 'graphite drawing.' Often, sets of pencils don't contain the full spectrum of graphites from 10B to 10H. Rather, they will focus on a specific type of hardness for different applications. For example, technical draftsmen might only have a set from 9H to B, because they need the lighter pencils for a cleaner, sharper line. Sketching pencil sets cover from H pencil to 9B, since most Hs are too light for quick artistic drawing.

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