When it comes to sketching and art, artists have certain preferences to the media they use to bring their work to life.
Whether you’re an artist already or you’re looking into getting more creative and you want to start sketching, drawing and coloring more, you need to have the proper pencils for that.
This article discusses the four types of pencils you may use for your creations and reviews the two best pencils for each type that suit your needs. As an added bonus (because we are nice :)): we reviewed a pencil that is perfect if you are just started your journey as a sketch artist.
Types of Pencils for Sketching and Drawing
Before looking at the best pencils that we found, let's review the four most common types of pencils; graphite pencils, mechanical pencils, coloring pencils, and watercolor pencils.
Graphite pencils or Lead pencils
Graphite pencils are the basic go-to pencils for sketching and writing. They vary in grades and hardness starting at HB, and progressing to B, 2B, 4B, and 6B, with HB being the hardest and lightest and 6B being the softest and darkest. Of course there are more grades and degrees up and down the spectrum; however, these are the most commonly used.
The harder the lead the more prone it is to breakage and the softer it is the more frequent it will need to be sharpened to obtain a precise point.
The qualities of the graphite core of the pencil dictate the quality of the lines it creates and the quality and shape of the pencil barrel dictates the comfort in the grip and the aesthetics of the pencil overall.
What is the difference between graphite and lead pencils?
This is a common question, are graphite pencils the same as lead pencils? The answer is no, simply because there is no such thing as lead pencils.
The term "pencil lead" is a misnomer. The term pencil lead is made famous due to the historic use of lead stylus that was used during ancient Roman times. Read more about it in this article.
Differing from graphite pencils, most mechanical pencils do not need sharpening; they are refillable with leads which virtually means that they are supposed to last indefinitely. They are used for more precise detailing work during sketching and are perfect for writing and design purposes as well.
The design of mechanical pencils is usually more sophisticated than classic graphite pencils because it has to include a lead discharging mechanism and a strong tip to guide the leads out of the pencil for use.
These don’t come in different grades but the graphite leads used for the pencils do. These however come in different sizes; most commonly 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm, and different shapes and grip technologies.
Coloring pencils follow the same concept of graphite pencils, except that the leads are colored. This gives artists the chance to use a vast array of colors to better express their creations. Color pencils can also double as writing pencils as well as sketching pencils.
In a coloring pencil, you should be on the lookout for strong lead cores that have a slightly creamy texture. This will allow you to create strong lines without having them be harsh; it leaves space for blending and layering.
The stronger the core the more it will be able to retain a precise point and this will also allow you to be more precise in drawing especially when you’re doing detailed work. In addition, a strong graphite lead will also mean that you will not have to sharpen the pencil very frequently, which also means that it will have a longer life.
Carrying the same principles as a regular coloring pencil, a watercolor pencil is simply a coloring pencil that is water soluble meaning that you can blend your colors using a wet brush to achieve a much sought-after watercolor effect.
The best watercolor pencils are those that can be transformed into watercolors with just a few brush strokes. That being without the pencil causing smudges when being used. They are usually softer than regular coloring pencils but are still strong enough to retain an edge for detail-work.
Note that some watercolor pencil brands, although contain saturated pigments can fade away slightly when wet. This can be an inconvenience to some but can be compensated by layering colors on top of each other when dry.
The best thing about watercolor pencils is that they serve the purpose of two types of pencils; they can be used as mere coloring pencils or blended with water for the full effect.
These pencils are best used on thick pressed-Canson paper but can also be used on a variety of paper mediums including, regular Canson, cardboard, double-ply paper, and cotton canvas – basically, any paper medium that can absorb water can be used with these pencils.
Best Graphite / Lead Sketching Pencils
LYRA Rembrandt Graphite Drawing Pencil
This graphite pencil is perfect for use in drawing, sketching, and designing. The Lyra has managed to outperform other reputable brands because of the quality put into its graphite core and the smooth performance it gives.
It comes in several degrees and can be sold as individual pencils or as a set. A set of 12 assorted degrees retails at only $14.28 and comes in a tin box to protects the graphite tips from breaking.
- The graphite core has a high breaking strength
- More affordable than other brands, like Faber Castell but matched in quality
- Gives a smooth flow on paper
- Does not give a bright white effect when erased
Palomino Blackwing Graphite Pencil
At a slightly higher price but an unmatched quality, the Blackwing pencils have been used by Chuck Jones to create Bugs Bunny. It’s made out of genuine incense cedar and has a unique rectangular barrel. The core is also made out of Japanese graphite, making it one of the highest and finest quality graphite pencils in the market today.
It gives off soft and smooth dark lines and comes in 3 degrees; firm, balanced, and soft, each suitable for a different purpose, from sketching to shading, and even writing.
- Includes a ferrule to extend and replace the included back eraser
- Gives soft and dark lines without the need to excessively sharpen the tip
- Matches the darkness of a 6B pencil and the precision of an HB one
- The included back eraser is not that effective
Best Mechanical Sketching Pencils
Rotring 800 Retractable Mechanical Pencil
The ergonomically enhanced Rotring 800 is an upgrade on the Rotring 600 where a Twist and Click retractable mechanism is implemented. The Twist and Click mechanism retracts the tip of the pencil during storage to protect the tip where leads come out.
Speaking of leads, Rotring also implemented their interior brass mechanism that allows for a guided lead advancement to minimize breakage inside the pencil and during use.
The 800 is available in two sizes; 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm. It has a hexagonal metal barrel and has a nonslip grip and ideal weight distribution throughout the pencil for maximum comfort.
- Hexagonal barrel stops it from slipping and rolling down tilted tables
- Pocket-safe because of its Twist and Click mechanism
- Leads are prone to less breakage because of the guided lead advancement mechanism
- Like most Rotring products, the 800 is on the pricey side, retailing at $50
Pentel GraphGear 500 Automatic Drafting Pencil
The Pentel 500 comes in a variety of sizes; 0.3 mm, 0.5 mm, 0.7 mm, and 0.9 mm, and they’re all interchangeable tips for one pencil. The parts are color coded for an easier and hassle-free size change.
The pencil has a beveled plastic barrel, a metallic mesh grip, and it detaches into 3 separate parts for easier packing and storing. It has a long back eraser and comes with an eraser cap. It also comes preloaded with Pentel’s super Hi-polymer leads.
- Much more affordable than the Rotring 800, retailing at a mere fraction of its price
- Weighted at the fingertips to provide more precision when drawing
- Provides several size replacements in one pencil making it highly versatile
- Although this Pentel pencil is of great versatility, it is still beaten by the Rotring 800 in terms of quality
Best Color Sketching Pencils
Holbein colored pencils
This Japanese coloring pencil brand produces coloring pencils that combine oil-basis and wax-basis to produce a hybrid of strong and fine qualities. These coloring pencils are strong enough to not break when sharpened yet soft enough to give smooth lines.
They can be sold in a set of 150 pencils ranging from the darkest to the lightest colors to give a wide and versatile array of tones that allow artists to commence their creations without restriction.
- Holbein has several different skin tones unlike other coloring pencil brands
- Pencils are both oil and wax-based allowing you to layer colors atop each other
- Pencils leave no discernable marks when erased making them very convenient for beginners and professionals alike
- Due to the softness of the color cores, Holbein pencils need to be sharpened more frequently than other coloring pencil brands
Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils
Prismacolor is a coloring pencil brand well-known for its rich pigments and creamy textures. These coloring pencils contain thick leads that resist chipping during use and provide strong lines that blend delicately. This makes it perfect for layering and blending.
Those can also be sold in a 21, 48, 72, 132, or a 150 pencil set and are a little more affordable than the Holbein set. Even though the Prismacolor pencils wear off faster than other brands due to their exceptional creaminess, they are well worth the investment simply because they color so much better.
- Pigments are richly saturated and give off vivid colors
- Cores are soft and creamy which makes them perfect for shadowing and shading
- Gives off delicate blends when layered due to its creaminess
- You will need to use a soft-lead sharpener to avoid breaking the leads
Best Watercolor Sketching Pencils
Moleskine Classic Watercolor Pencils
Designed to be Moleskin’s Journal’s sidekick, the Moleskin watercolor pencils come in the same black color and includes a clip so that it can be attached to your Moleskin notebooks. It has a square natural cedar wood barrel and can be sold in a 12-set.
These watercolor pencils are designed for writing, drawing, and coloring, and produce highly vibrant colors although they can take some time to be activated into watercolors with a brush.
- Has a squared cross-section which provides a better grip for more control
- Designed with aesthetics in mind
- Gives off vibrant colors when dry
- Colors tend to fade a little when colors are wet and blended with a brush
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils
Faber-Castell watercolor pencils are fully versatile and can be used to produce unique effects due to the fact that the pigments can be dissolved completely and mixed into a palette to be used the same way classic watercolors are used. The pencils themselves can also be dipped into water right before coloring for a more vibrant effect.
The leads are made with an SV bonding process making them break-resistant. This also means that they have high sharp point retention and can produce fine lines that are resistant to fading.
- Pencils are fully water soluble and can be used like classic watercolors
- Gives off consistent pigments whether dry or wet
- Colors become permanent when dry, so it’s perfect for layering
- Since the colors are permanent when they are dry, it leaves very little space for corrections
Best Sketching Pencils for Beginners
AmazonBasics Sketch and Drawing Pencil Set - 17-Piece Set
We were quite surprised to find that Amazon has produced its own art supplies line.
This set is perfect for someone who is just starting to sketch. It has all the essentials such as graphite pencils, charcoal pencils, sharpeners and erasers; all at very low price - making this set perfect for a beginning and inspiring artist.
- It has everything a sketch artist might need in one package (with exception of a sketchbook)
- It contains graphite pencils, charcoal pencils and charcoal sticks, allowing more medium for artist to experiment with
- The eraser is quite stiff, you might be better buying an additional eraser
Ultimately, the decision to purchase one brand and not the other boils down to your personal preference. For instance, if you’re willing to compromise on your bright whites while sketching, you should go for the Lyra Rembrandt graphite pencil. As for mechanical pencils, I would definitely recommend the Rotring 800 if it weren’t for its steep price.
Same goes with the other two types too; for example, if you already have a soft lead sharpener, Prismacolors is a no-brainer. And if you make little mistakes when coloring or can correct your mishaps in the little window of time Faber-Castel watercolor pencils provide before they dry, I’d recommend you buy those.