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The Best Graphite Drawing Pencils

The Best Graphite Drawing Pencils

April 18, 2017 - Posted by Kristin to Guides, Pencils, Wooden Pencils

Guide to Graphite Drawing Pencils

No art kit is complete without a set of graphite drawing pencils.

They may seem basic, but pencils’ gradiated mix of graphite and clay allows artists to render expressive lines, draw realistic images, make light guidelines, and more with tremendous versatility. Wood-case pencils are especially hard to beat for their durability, ease of maintenance, and low entry cost - not to mention, we love the smell of a freshly-sharpened wooden pencil.

In this guide, we will discuss what to look for in a wooden graphite drawing pencil and recommend specific pencil lines and grades for common applications.

Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils have exceptional smoothness, blendability, and consistent quality.
Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils have exceptional smoothness, blendability, and consistent quality.

If you simply want the best graphite drawing pencils available, go with the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni. They are phenomenally smooth in every grade, which makes them an unparalleled pleasure to use. Each grade is also clearly differentiated from the next. Artists can take full advantage of the range of graphite tones to develop realistic drawings, or simply choose the individual grades they prefer for other applications. These easily blendable pencils hold their points well, but may wear down slightly faster than some other pencils due to their softness. The Hi-Uni’s B grades are especially creamy. This makes them ideal for capturing quick, fluid movements and expressing a variety of light and dark tones. We know that the pencil doesn’t make the artist, but it’s always a little bit easier to do our best work when we use Hi-Uni Pencils.

A Wide Range of Lead Grades
Graphite pencils come in 22 lead grades.
Graphite pencils come in 22 lead grades.
Pencil leads come in 22 lead grades, which range from 10H-10B. H indicates harder leads, which make lighter, more precise markings. Softer leads are on the B side of the scale. They make darker marks and produce more smudging. The F and HB grades in the middle of the scale represent a balance between the hardness of the leads and the blackness of the marks they make.

Drawing pencils should be available in a wide range of lead grades so that artists can select the ones that are best suited to their needs.

For more information on lead grades, read our guide to Picking the Perfect Pencil Hardness Grade.

Consistent Lead Quality
Consistent Lead Quality
Inconsistent pencil leads are hard to draw with.
Graphite drawing pencils need smooth, consistent leads so that users can count on them to produce the effect that they expect. Some leads may grip the paper more than others, but they should never scratch the paper.
Easy to Erase Without Smudging
Easy to Erase Without Smudging
Some pencils are easier to erase than others.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, so it’s critical for leads to erase well with minimal smudging. This results in a neater finished product.
Sharpen Well
Some pencils are more likely to break than others.
Some pencils are more likely to break than others.
Some pencils break when sharpened, leaving them with chisel-sharp broken tips or splintered ends. To avoid this, look for carefully manufactured pencils made with high-quality wood. They sharpen cleanly and contain centered leads that are not already broken inside when you receive them.

Some artists hand sharpen their pencils to achieve certain effects. Any pencil can be sharpened by hand, but it’s easier to produce a consistent angle with pencils that are made from softer wood and have a lead that is a similar hardness to the wood.


Many artists take a pared-down art kit with them when they go out so that they can take advantage of interesting scenes and moments of downtime. Pencils for sketching should be soft enough for quick drawing, but also smudge-resistant so that your piece doesn’t smear beyond repair in a closed sketchbook. Grades from 2H-2B are right in the sweet spot for sketching.

Faber-Castell 9000 Graphite Pencil
Faber-Castell 9000 Pencils smudge less than most.
Sketching with Faber-Castell 9000 Graphite Pencils
Faber-Castell 9000 Pencils are good for sketching.

Forest green Faber-Castell 9000 Pencils come singly in grades 6H-8B or in convenient sets of six or 12 pencils. These sets are packaged in sturdy, slim tins that slip easily into bags and protect your pencil tips while you’re on the go. Each of the sets includes the 2H-2B lead grades. Faber-Castell 9000 Pencils are quite smooth and maintain excellent consistency as you use up the lead, although the high H grades may feel somewhat scratchy. They sharpen easily and hold their points longer than other pencils. This makes them ideal for fine detail and occasions when you don’t want to bother with a sharpener. The leads are break resistant due to being glued to the wood on both sides down the whole length of the pencil. We found that they smudge less than most pencils, so they are well suited for sketching.

Also Consider: Faber-Castell Grip 2001 Pencil Set, Uni Mitsubishi 9800 Pencils


Painters often make preparatory drawings to plan out the picture and guide their painting. These are a vital part of the painting process, but badly chosen media can hurt as much as help. Pencils for underdrawing need to make fairly light lines so they won’t show through the finished painting or cause the paints to get muddy. That’s why it’s best to stick with harder grades -- 6H-2H are ideal.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph Graphite Pencils are specially formulated and bonded to be extremely break resistant. They erased more cleanly than any of the other pencils we tested and come in grades 6H-8B. They are butter-smooth and can provide great control and perfect shadow buildup. Their marks are slightly lighter than the same grade in other lines, so they work well for underdrawing. Their casings are made from sustainably-harvested cedar that sharpens smoothly with no cracks or splits. They stood up very well to hand-sharpening.

Also Consider: Uni Mitsubishi 9000 Pencils

Fine Arts

Fine art pencil drawings use pencil from start to finish to produce a fully-developed image with incredible detail and shading. In some cases, the final product is so realistic that it seems like a photograph. Fine artists working with graphite pencils need the full range of pencil grades at their disposal to achieve realistic tones.

Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils
Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils are exceptionally smooth.
Fine Art made with Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils
Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils come in every grade.

The high B grades of this legendary pencil line may be the closest thing to a brush in pencil form, but all of its grades are known for exceptional smoothness. Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni Pencils are slightly darker and softer than other lines, so they wear down a little faster and smudge a bit more. There’s no fear of scratchy, broken leads here - they sharpen cleanly every time. They stood up to hand-sharpening very well. Hi-Uni Pencils are available in every grade, from 10H-10B, so they are excellent for fine art.

Also Consider: Staedtler Mars Lumograph, Tombow Mono 100

Caran d'Ache Technalo Pencils
Caran d'Ache Technalo Pencils are available in three grades.
Fine Art made with Caran d'Ache Technalo Pencils
Caran d'Ache Technalo Pencils let you do graphite washes.

Water-soluble Caran d'Ache Technalo Pencils let you use washes in your graphite drawings when activated with a water brush. This opens up many options for filling shaded areas, blending, and producing dramatic effects outside the normal purview of pencils. They lay down smooth, consistent lines and sharpen to a fine point, whether with a sharpener or hand-sharpening. They erase well when dry but do smudge a small amount. They resist erasing after being activated with water. Caran d’Ache Technalo Pencils are available in HB, B, and 3B.


Comic artists often use a process called penciling, in which they first draw the artwork with pencil and then either go over it themselves with a pen or send it to specialized inkers who trace, interpret, and add weight to the lines with ink. For this purpose, it’s best to use pencils that won’t smudge very badly but are dark enough to be clearly visible. The HB-4B grades are good for this. Darker pencils help emulate the look of inks but can increase smudging.

Tombow Mono 100 Pencils
Tombow Mono 100 Pencils have smooth, high-density leads.
Penciling with Tombow Mono 100 Pencils
Tombow Mono 100 Pencils are darker than most.

Tombow Mono 100 Pencils are another well-loved line of smooth, high-quality pencils. They are especially known for their high-density lead, which resists breakage and helps the point stay sharp longer. They sharpen easily and stand up well to hand-sharpening. Their leads smear less and are a bit darker than most, so these pencils are a good choice for penciling. They are available in grades 9H-6B.

Also Consider: Blackwing Pencils, Faber-Castell 9000 Pencils


A single pencil can make heavier or lighter marks if you vary the pressure you use or build up layers of graphite, but using multiple grades helps achieve specific tones and increase the variation in your art piece. Check out the video below to see different pencil grades in action!

Higher H Grades

Pencils in the higher H grades sharpen to fine points, hold their points for longer, and make light marks. This makes them ideal for lighter areas and underdrawing. They can also help blend the edges of darker areas for a gradiated effect.

Higher B Grades

The higher B grades contain soft, dark pencils with high proportions of graphite. They won’t stay sharp as long as the other grades, but they are also smoother. They can produce the most variation between light and dark with different levels of pressure. They excel at filling in dark areas, like shadows and facial contours.

Middle Grades: 2H-2B

The middle grades contain relatively balanced levels of clay and graphite. They are dark enough to show up well but are still hard enough to keep a sharp point. This makes them good all-purpose pencils if you only have room for a few, but detail work really makes them shine.

Drawing Paper
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbooks are good for drawing.
Paper influences pencils’ performance and the appearance of the finished drawing. Look for paper that has some tooth instead of being completely smooth. This kind of paper “grabs” the pencil lead so that it lays down a good line. Stillman & Birn makes excellent sketchbooks. We used their Alpha paper for our tests. Rougher mediums, like watercolor paper, will leave holes in the line. Only use very toothy paper if you want that effect. Our Guide to Choosing a Sketchbook contains more recommendations for use with pencils and other media.
Drawing eraser
The Prismacolor Kneaded Rubber Eraser lifts graphite without rubbing.
A stray line or smudge doesn’t need to ruin a drawing if you have an eraser that removes marks cleanly. The Prismacolor Kneaded Rubber Eraser can change shape and lift graphite off the paper without rubbing. This lets you clear small mistakes without disturbing the surrounding work and lighten precise areas without smudging.

Read our Guide to Choosing an Eraser for more detailed suggestions.

Pencil Sharpener
The Sonic Ratchetta is a dependable sharpener.
Even the best pencil will perform badly if sharpened poorly. There are many quality sharpeners, but we like to keep the Sonic Ratchetta in our pencil cases because it consistently produces a good, clean point.

Check out our Guide to Pencil Sharpeners to learn more.

Pencil Extender
E+M Peanpole Wood Pencil Extenders are light and stylish.
The tragedy of wooden pencils is the more you use them, the shorter and less usable they become. Pencil extenders solve this problem by holding pencil stubs securely in place and giving you a longer barrel to hold. This way, you can use your favorite pencils until there’s nothing left. E+M Peanpole Wood Pencil Extenders are a light and stylish option that preserves the wooden feel of the original pencil.

We produced writing samples, swatches, smudge tests, and erasing tests for each grade of all of the pencil lines mentioned in this article. Click below to see the results.


It doesn’t matter whether you are a painter, comic artist, professional or hobbyist - your art kit isn’t complete without graphite drawing pencils. What are your favorite pencils? Let us know in the comments below!

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Still not sure what to try? Check out our Wooden Pencil Samplers for some of our favorite and most popular wooden pencils. From starter sets to sets based on lead grade, these kits will help you rediscover the joys of using a wooden pencil!