The Best Pencils for Drawing

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Nov 21, 2018 6:41PM

Courtesy of CW Pencil Enterprise.

The average art supply store carries a dizzying array of graphite pencils, colored pencils, and drafting pencils. If you’re among the more dedicated illustrators, draftspeople, and pencil-inclined artists—or even if you’re new to drawing—you may wonder what’s the best pencil out there. As is the case with most art supplies, there is no easy answer to that question—it all depends on where your art is taking you, and where you want to take your art. To help narrow down the options, though, we caught up with the experts at some of New York’s best-known art supply stores to find out some of the best pencils for drawing.

The go-to drawing pencil: 2B or 4B

Graphite pencils, brown. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.


Kaleigh Waters, an illustrator who works at Soho Art Materials, first emphasizes the type of pencil, rather than specific brands. “The go-to pencil I can’t live without—it doesn’t matter what brand—is usually a 2B or a 4B pencil,” she says. “It’s softer than your average pencil, so that gives you a little more freedom.”

Pencils are labeled depending on where they fall on the HB graphite scale and a numerical scale. On the scale, the “H” refers to a pencil’s hardness, while the “B” stands for “blackness.” These letters are usually accompanied by a number. The higher the number next to the B, the softer the pencil and the darker the mark it makes; the higher the number next to the H, the lighter the mark it makes.

Caroline Weaver, the proud owner of CW Pencil Enterprise in the Lower East Side, notes that architects and people who do technical drawing tend to prefer harder pencils, because they make finer lines. “People doing quick sketches tend to prefer softer pencils because they’re darker, smoother, and can be smudged or blended,” she says.

The investment pencil: Cretacolor Monolith Graphite Pencil or Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil

Writing Office, original. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.

In terms of brands, Waters says you can’t go wrong with Faber-Castell, though she’s also a fan of Cretacolor pencils. “I like the lead quality,” she says of the latter, because “it doesn’t break as easily as some of the others.” While most people don’t walk into Soho Art Materials with a specific pencil brand in mind, she says that most customers end up purchasing either Cretacolor or Derwent pencils.

Sam Lee, who works at Apple Art Supplies (near Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus), also suggests going with a Derwent pencil, if you can afford it; “they’re a little pricey, but they’re quality,” he says.

If money is no object, what’s the best pencil out there—or, rather, what’s the Cadillac of pencils? Waters points to Faber-Castell’s “Perfect Pencil.” It has a built-in eraser and sharpener, and comes with a lid.

Lee, who has a draftsmanship hobby, directs us to a display case of shiny mechanical pencils. “I usually use the Alvin Draft-Matic,” he says, noting that he prefers the grip. “I like to hold something really heavy, and it’s very smooth.”

The affordable pencil: General’s Kimberly Graphite Pencils

Courtesy of CW Pencil Enterprise.

When it comes to beginners, Lee says, “I always tell them to go with cheaper pencils first.” Drawing novices tend to “destroy” their pencils, he explains, so any General’s brand pencil is a good-quality, affordable option to start with.

If the thought of cheap generic pencils is simply not inspiring enough, CW Pencil Enterprise offers a variety of budget-friendly pencils that are a bit more enticing. Options for less than a dollar include the Apsara and the Nataraj from India. “The Nataraj Pop pencil is a nice 2B and is great for drawing,” Weaver says.

The experimental pencil: Faber-Castell Graphite Aquarelle Pencil

Perfect Pencil, platinum-plated, brown. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.

Looking for an out-of-the-box option? “We have pencils that aren’t pencils,” Waters offers, pointing to charcoal pencils. These are ideal if you’re looking for the deep richness of charcoal, coupled with the control and cleanliness of a graphite pencil.

“A lot of brands are pushing these aquarelle pencils,” Waters continues, noting that they are “basically water-soluble.” She adds that she likes working with watercolor for her illustrations, and these pencils respond much like watercolor would, once you add water.

Another option is to use graphite chunks to make your own “pencils” by carving the material into your desired shape. These are ideal for large-scale works where the fine lines of an average-sized pencil might get lost.

For a pencil-obsessive like Weaver, though, the smell, feel, and even the sound of the perfect pencil can be motivating. “There’s just something about having the right tools, even for pencils,” she says. “It makes us more productive and more inspired to have the tools that feel like they’re made for us.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés
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