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Not All Pencils Are Created Equal

Jane Bush

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January 17th, 2013 - 04:20 PM

Not All Pencils Are Created Equal

It may seem simple. On the surface, dry media usually is. You can truly illustrate with anything from a No #2 pencil you used in grade school to a fancy $3 open stock colored pencil. However, if you really want to unlock your creative potential, you'll need to know what each one of these babies are capable of and what you can do with them. I guess it's just in your favor that I happen to have a penchant for trying out anything I can get my hands on. Here, I've done my best to break it down as simply and yet as thoroughly as possible.
Recommended brands: Prismacolor, Derwent, General's, Caran D' Ache, Faber-Castell. Here's a overall price range guide.

$ - General's: They may not have as great of a selection as some of the more expensive brands, but they have some essential tools you'll need to pick up, such as their Scribe All pencil. They also provide a wide range of affordable sketching graphite pencils, charcoal, and even a water-soluble graphite called "Sketch N' Wash".  I love them.

$$ - Faber Castell - These folks have some unique dry media pencils that make it relatively affordable. They have just about anything and everything under the sun for both the artist and the artist's children if you have any.

$$ - Derwent - I once read where someone called this company "The Mad Scientists of Art Supplies". I love it and it's so true! They have some truly unique pencils such as ink tense, tinted charcoal, and more. These pencils are the ones that are truly unique to this company and you won't find anywhere else. More on that later. They also have traditional graphite and studio colored pencils as well. However, I recommend this brand if you're looking for experimentation and special effects. Well worth the money.

$$$ - Prismacolor - My Holy Grail. These are the pencils I use for most of the my illustration work and custom design illustrations. Graphite, soft and hard lead, they offer a wide selection of high quality open stock and sets of pencils. They may be expensive, but you get what you pay for. If you're serious about taking your illustration skills to the next level and being a professional, they're an essential to have.

$$$ - Caran D' Ache - These geniuses from Switzerland make the best pencils on earth. Rich in pigment and smoother than even Prismacolor (if you can believe it). And if you think Prismacolor is expensive, look up the pretty price tag on these. It's well worth your money and some swear by them, and I've seen the results. You can tell they're worth every penny you spend on them, but realistically, I personally stick with Prismacolor because they're more accessible in the US and less expensive. I am determined to own my own Caran D' Ache set one day though.

Types of Pencils & What They Do
Hard Vs. Soft Lead Colored Pencils

One of the most important factors in remembering what you need for what project and when is hard vs. soft lead. So what's the difference besides it being hard or soft? It's the end result that matters. It depends on what type of effect your looking for. Hard lead, such as the pencil on the left in the photo above, is made of hard lead. It's Prismacolor's Verithin pencil, which there are also brands like Derwent Studio pencils that are made for similar effects. You can see it provides for a more details, sharp, precise laydown. Still the rich color saturation, but it allows for more control. I find this pencil excellent for laying down the first layers and also for details and sharp edges.

Soft lead is misleading because while it is soft, it doesn't necessarily mean it's weaker. In fact, usually because the lead is soft, it provides for deeper color saturation depending on pressure. You want to make sure that you have a set of both hard and soft lead pencils if you're serious about illustrating. You can experiment with both to create different and various effects upon each other. Soft lead will create more particles that will have to be dusted away because it's softer. Just be sure you use a draftsman's duster to get the flyaways off of your paper. I learned in art school you can easily make mistakes by blowing it off (your saliva could end up on the paper by accident) and/or your fingertips/hand (Oils in your fingers could accidentally smudge your artwork). The soft core pencil on the right is Prismacolor's premier soft core pencil. However, Derwent makes an amazing pencil with their Coloursoft line.

Graphite Pencils 

The trick with knowing what you need with graphite is how light or dark the area that you're working on is and learning the different scales of light and dark with soft and hard lead graphite pencils. For example, in the artwork above, I used almost all 6H - 4H in the lightest areas using a circular motion and later a blending stump. The dark to darkest areas, especially the shadows cast under the eyebrows, were used with 6B to 8B lead pencils. Somewhere in the middle, say the iris of the eyes were layered down with 4H lead pencils and darkened around the edges with HB to 2B pencils. So yeah, yeah, that's all fine and dandy, you say but what the hell does it all mean? It means basically this: H pencils are HARD LEAD. B pencils are SOFT LEAD. The higher the H pencil, the hard the lead, the LIGHTER the pencil's lead will appear. The higher the B pencil, the softer the lead, the DARKER it will appear on the paper. To further help you along, I've provided sample of some of the pencils I use in the photo below. Most graphite pencils of good quality brand will last you a long time. Blending stumps, kneaded erasers, and cotton balls are great tools to blend and get special effects with graphite. More on that in another blog...

Water Soluble Tinted Graphite 

These are some very special pencils that only the "mad scientists", as I said earlier, over at Derwent could make. They're versatile and you can create all kinds of different effects. Above is a demo of both what these Graphitint pencils look like, both dry and when water is applied to them. It's as if they come to life with water applied to them and the pigment becomes much more vibrant. Using them dry would be great for adding a hint of color to your typical graphite pencil portrait/subject matter. These are sturdy and relatively soft lead pencils. I've found some great, much more detailed resources on the internet and tips for using these fantastic, unique pencils online.  Below is an example of what you can do with Graphitint pencils. The fairy took about an hour and when water was added, she popped with vibrant life! I'd obviously recommend going with a diverse paper such as heavyweight watercolor paper or mixed media paper that's able to handle water without buckling or becoming flimsy. If you're not willing to fully commit to buying a 12 or 24 piece set, Derwent creates a small, 6 piece sized set of their pencils to test them out and see what their like.

Charcoal and Tinted Charcoal  

 If you're familiar with compressed charcoal sticks, then you're basically going with the same medium, only in a pencil form. This will allow you for better control in your work though. This is especially true with fine details such as fine lines and hair. I love the dusty consistency of charcoal and they blend beautifully with blending stumps. White charcoal as an overlay to your typical black charcoal looks amazing for highlights. Derwent creates a tinted charcoal which looks great for adding color or all on its own. There's typically soft, medium, and hard charcoal. Just like graphite, the harder the lead, the lighter the results. The softer the charcoal, the darker. It's a bit more dramatic with charcoal though and these are great for when you really want a dramatic effect to your drawing.

Watercolor and Ink Pencils 

If you find you're more of a watercolor artist or you enjoy illustrating and want to experiment, these are a fantastic option. Both watercolor pencils and Derwent inktense pencils (above), add more vibrant pigment when water is added to them. It's a win/win: You get the control you want with drawing but the vibrancy and texture of a beautiful painting. The difference between watercolor and ink soluble pencils are the pigment vibrancy. I prefer the inktense over watercolor pencils myself personally because the end result is much more vibrant. If you're looking for a strictly watercolor effect, go for watercolor pencils. Prismacolor, Derwent, Reeves; they all make great watercolor pencils. Inktense stands all on its own in a way, and a love the end result. If you want a brighter effect, go do yourself a favor and get a set. As with the tinted graphite, I'd recommend getting a watercolor paper or mixed media paper that can handle water. Below is a piece I did using the inktense pencil to give you an idea of the vibrancy of the pigment. It was done on Canson drawing paper (which was thankfully able to handle water soluble pencils).

Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what to look for selecting what to buy and use when starting on different illustrative projects. I always find that once you figure out how a tool works, you go for the best you can get your hands on, and work with your talent that way. Be versatile. Make mistakes and experiment with these different types of pencils. I can guarantee the more you use them, the more you'll know what you love and come to appreciate which pencils do what for you. If you have any suggestions or any questions, you can drop me an email or send me a message via twitter or facebook. No spam, my dears. Just honest questions and suggestions.

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