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Best pencils for sketching and shading (best brand, best type & best set)

Drawing doesn’t have to be expensive at all. In fact, sketching is one of the cheapest art forms there is! But which pencils are best for sketching and shading?

The best pencils for sketching and shading are typically an HB pencil for sketching, 4H and 2H for the lighter shades and a 2B, 4B and 6B for the darker shades. It’s also recommended to keep an extra pencil for the brightest highlights: a white graphite or colored pencil. You create a full range of highlights, mid-tones, and shades with these pencils.

Keep reading to find out how to put together your own set of high-quality pencils for sketching and shading, even when you’re on a budget!

Difference between sketching and shading

So, before we begin we must know the difference between sketching and shading. Is there a difference? Or are they synonyms?

Sketching is the process of drawing a subject with multiple and undefined strokes, roughly outlining the subject. Shading is the process of adding form to an already existing subject by creating shadows. Shadows are created by drawing flat patches of a darker value or by (cross) hatching.

Types of pencils used for sketching and shading

The three most used pencil leads for sketching and shading are:

  • Graphite pencils
    • Most commonly used
  • Charcoal pencils
    • Creates very dark values
  • Carbon pencils
    • Creates dark values but easier to work with than charcoal

Graphite is often referred to as lead. But graphite, or any other material within a pencil, does not contain any lead as it’s harmful to one’s health. By ”lead”, most people mean the middle part of a pencil that leaves marks.

Graphite pencils

Pencils are typically made out of graphite. Graphite is used most when it comes to sketching, shading and writing. It’s what’s used in schools.

Charcoal pencils

Charcoal pencils are made out of charcoal. They sit within a wooden case. Charcoal pencils can be sharpened, but they are often made out of a harder wood which makes sharpening them with a knife the preferred method.

Be careful when using charcoal pencils in an electric sharpener. Trust me, my expensive sharpener doesn’t work anymore after I used a charcoal pencil in it!

Carbon Pencils

Carbon pencils are pencils that are made out of graphite and charcoal. It has the smoothness of graphite and the darkness of charcoal. They are much less dusty than charcoals.

This pencil is a combination of graphite and carbon

They are great to use for your darkest value.

Which types of pencils are used most?

Types of most used pencil casings are:

  • Wooden pencils
    • Most commonly used
  • Mechanical pencils
    • No need to sharpen
  • Woodless pencils
    • Covers greater area at once

Wooden pencils

Wooden pencils are the most used pencils there are. They require to be sharpened after the lead gets too short. You find them at any craft store.

They are most commonly made out of cedarwood. They can be sharpened by any sharpener or by knife. Other types of wood include pine, basswood and poplar.

Mechanical pencils

Mechanical pencils are popular because you never have to sharpen them. You fill them with pieces of graphite which you can buy in different gradations. The tip will always be sharp. They are excellent to use for tiny details.

Woodless pencils

Woodless pencils are, as the name suggests, graphite or carbon pencils without a wooden casing. They can be sharpened and treated as regular wooden pencils. Since it does not contain wood you can cover greater areas with this pencil.

What types of pencils are best for sketching?

The best type of pencil that is best for sketching is the one that feels most comfortable for you. There is almost no difference in the material when it comes to graphite pencils. So, the only option is to choose from what lies best in your hand.

Personally, I like something with a thicker barrel for extra precision, like the Faber Castel mechanical 0.7mm pencil.

Pencil grades explained

Pencils are categorised according to a grading system. Each pencil has a grade that determines the hardness of its lead. HB sits in the middle of that grading scale, making it great for sketching and writing. Soft(er) lead is marked by the letter B (for bold, some presume). The hard pencils are marked by the letter H.

The higher the number before the letter, the softer (darker) or harder (lighter) the lead becomes. An HB pencil is similar to an American number 2 pencil.


H6 pencils and up are not used that much because they are way too hard. You can basically achieve the same results with an H4 by drawing lightly.

However, personally, I find they come quite in handy when I’m working on portraits. Sometimes I think it’s better to use a harder pencil so I don’t have to worry about using light pressure.

What is a pencil F?

F stands for fineness. F lies one scale above an HB pencil, making it slightly harder. F and HB pencils are very similar. I interchangeably use them.

What is the world’s best pencil?

The best pencil in the world is, according to several creative legends, the Palomino Blackwing pencil. This pencil is used by many famous artists including Disney animators, Looney Tunes animators and prestigious award winners. What makes the Palomino Blackwing pencil so good? The Blackwing pencil is made out of premium Japanese graphite encased in Genuine Incense-Cedarwood.

The famously rectangular eraser on the end of the Blackwing pencils is instantly recognisable. These pencils have been categorised into their own grading system: Extra firm, Firm, Balanced and Soft.

They come in:

  • Blackwing Natural
    • Graded as ”Extra firm”
    • Similar to an HB pencil
  • Blackwing 602
    • The original pencil
    • Graded as ”Firm”
    • Similar to a B pencil
  • Blackwing Pearl
    • Graded as ”Balanced”
    • Similar to a 2B pencil
  • Blackwing Matte
    • Graded as ”Soft”
    • Similar to a 3B pencil

You can shop them here:

Here’s a video on the pencils by SuperRaeDizzle:

Let’s explore some other top brands for pencils!

Best brands for pencils

Many, many brands produce pencils. Here are 5 pencil brands that are great to use and are easily available:

  1. Staedtler
  2. Faber-Castell
  3. Bruynzeel
  4. Derwent
  5. Blackwing

Since graphite pencils don’t really differ much in quality, you need to focus on the manufacturing of the pencil itself. The brands above are known for their professional sturdy products, so choosing their pencils is always good.

Watch out for the following things when picking out your next sketching pencil:

What to look for:Why?
What kind of wood is the pencil made from?Sometimes electric sharpeners can’t handle wood that’s too hard
How thick is the lead inside the pencil?*You need to buy the same size refills
(Positive) reviewsGet informed about any problems with the seller or the product
PriceMake sure the seller isn’t charging too much compared to other sellers
Does it come with an eraser? And if so, is it refillable?Refillable erasers are better because you don’t have to worry about using them up
*Applies to mechanical pencils only

Best pencil sets for sketching and shading

I sooo recommend buying a full set of pencils. Sets usually contain either hard or soft pencils or limited pencils from each hardness (like 2H-6B for example). I have one Derwent set that contains F-8H and one Bruynzeel set that contains 8B-B.

Here are 4 pencil sets for sketching and shading that are very good quality and affordable:

Having sets like these allow you to explore each pencil. I’ve learnt that I do use 6H and up when I’m working on commissioned portraits. Most people don’t recommend buying a whole set, but, pencil sets aren’t expensive.

How do you know which pencils you like when you don’t try them? But yes, most likely you’ll be using 2H, HB 2B 4B and maybe an 8B for the darks.

H6 and up pencils are excellent for when you are tracing. When tracing a picture, you need a hard pencil.

Also, an H9 is so hard that it indents the paper. This is great for when you are drawing hair! Slightly indenting the paper, and then going over it with softer pencils create hair strands that take your drawing to a higher form of realism.

Best mechanical pencils

As I mentioned before, mechanical pencils are great because the lead always stays sharp. This makes them great for travel.

You can switch out the leads of the mechanical pencil. This way you can use the same pencil with different gradations. You can also choose which thickness you want the lead to be. They go from 0.2mm to 5.6mm. 0,7mm is by far the most common one.

Anything above 1.0mm and below 0.5mm is fairly rare.

Mechanical pencils are durable because only the lead gets used. Most of the time you can buy replacements for the eraser that comes with it.

I love mechanical pencils because I like a thick barrel. I especially love my Faber Castell mechanical pencil. It was a bit pricy, but that’s because it’s Faber-Castell. There are plenty of cheaper options out there!

Here’s the link to get the same one:

Most commonly asked questions about pencils

Here are some of the most asked questions. Have any unanswered? Leave them in the comments down below!

Which grade pencil is best for sketching?

Typically HB pencils are recommended for sketching.

Which grade pencil is best for shading?

Typically, B2 and up (B4, B6 etc.) are best for shading since they are darker, softer and thus easier to blend.

What is a number 2 pencil?

An American number 2 pencil is equal to an HB pencil.

What are graphite pencil substitutes?

Instead of using graphite pencils, you can use pastel or charcoal pencils. Charcoal pencils are darker, allowing them to have a bigger range of values. Pastels also have a great value range. The difference is that pastels are much easier to erase than charcoal.

However, the downside is that charcoal isn’t that smooth and sometimes contains hard bits and pieces which can damage your paper. They can get very dusty.

Pastels come in a lot of different colors. But like charcoal, they are quite dusty. So a pastel mat instead of regular paper is recommended.

Pastel pencil swatches + Pastel drawing in black and white of lips

Which pencil is darker 2B pencil or a HB pencil?

A 2B pencil is harder than an HB pencil. The B’s stand for bold (soft and dark) and the H’s stand for hard. HB sits right in the middle of the B’s and H’s.

I hope informed you well enough to go buy your own pencil set. If you prefer to use your colored pencils in your drawings check out how to blend two colored pencils for an ultra-smooth result. Have fun drawing!

♡ Laura

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