The Friday Art Cat: How Soft is Your art Pencil?


How Soft is Your art Pencil?


This blog post is all about graphite pencils – with some of my drawings of cats…

Before I was more seriously interested in art, I assumed that the softer the pencil, the better it was for drawing.  Artists use soft pencils, in fact, the softer the better, I thought – and I stuck to that for years.  I would not countenance starting a drawing with humble old HB, which I thought was only for schoolchildren !

Now I know better.

The HB grade

The Hard-ness or Black-ness (or “Bold”-ness) of a pencil is defined on a spectrum, of course, from 9H (hardest) to 9B (softest).  F is actually the midpoint.  The scheme was invented by Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth in the Czech Republic.

Are artists pencils worth the extra?

It was while watching a documentary about Faber Castell pencils (“In the Factory”, with Gregg Wallace – still on BBC Iplayer) about making their amazing 9000 pencils, that I learned the fascinating process.  These pencils sharpen well, hold their point well, do not break easily when dropped and do not scratch the paper, but deliver a smooth layer.  I can only assume that cheaper raw materials, fewer processes and worse quality control makes for a product at the cheaper end of the pencil market.

What effects will the different pencils have on your work?

The harder the pencil, the finer the tip it can hold for drawing fine detail.  On the other hand, an 8B pencil is fantastic for filling in mass areas of dark value. 

But also, it’s about differentiating form, that is the creation of a 3D look for a shape on the 2D surface of the paper using different values (dark/light).  Yes, I know you can press more lightly for lighter shading; I use a practice technique called pressure scales which exercises this.

The way a shape can be modelled to show its form can be enhanced through using at least two different pencils if you have them to hand.  The cat at the top is drawn with HB, 4B and a tiny amount of 8B in the ears and around the eyes.

Starting the drawing with HB

Adding details with a 4B

The final drawing, completed with 8B.

My favourite pencils:

Faber Castell 9000

This has been my go-to pencil for a while now, and after seeing it made, I feel even more loyalty.  Definitely, no crumbling or scratching here, it is a cut above any ordinary pencil and comes in 16 different hardness grades.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph

These are a recent discovery, they have very smooth leads and are on the required list for at least one art academy in London!

Conté Pierre Noire

This is a cult pencil – very black, rather waxy pencil, producing a lovely dense black.  This one is growing on me.  It is definitely not so easy to erase than the others.

And, for sheer beauty and good looks:


This pencil has cult status.  It has the creamiest lead I have ever used, and seems unbreakable – even when dropped several times.  It has a usable eraser too, and is longer than most pencils so has added value for money (!) 

It comes in four grades – the black one is about 4B, “Pearl” is about 3B, “602” is about 2B and the “Natural” about HB.

So please tell me about your favourite pencils – but don’t let having just one pencil put you off drawing ?

Sara Day

I am an artist making work mostly of animals and people, specialising in oil painting and soft pastel.  Three cats live with me – Maine Coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio. 

If you’re interested in commissioning me for a portrait or purchasing any of my work, please contact me.




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