You don't see it in finished artwork -- so you don't give it much thought. Yet, the graphite pencil is a powerful tool: both for preliminary sketches and for use on its own. And just like any tool, it comes in different varieties and price ranges. This blog post and the accompanying Youtube video will help you wrap your head around the graphite pencils used in (urban) sketching.
Graphite pencils are the most common type of pencil used for sketching. They are made of graphite, which is mixed with clay, shaped into a slender cylinder, and wrapped in wood. The wood is there so you can grip the pencil and also sharpen it when it gets dull. Some pencils may be made of lower-quality wood, which can impact the performance and durability of the pencil. Low-quality wood may be more likely to split or break to your sharpening, which can be frustrating.
Here are the key points I make in the video. Watch the video below to see how different pencils work on paper.
Hardness is the key feature to take into consideration:
The hardness of graphite pencils is measured on a scale known as the HB scale. The scale ranges from very hard to very soft, with HB being the middle point. The hardness of the graphite is indicated by the number you can find on each pencil ranging from 9H (very hard) to 9B (very soft).
Using hard pencils is a very common mistake. Here's why you should avoid it:
If your pencil is hard, it is very difficult to erase.
The lines appear flat and lifeless.
If you press harder, the lines still look very light.
Using soft pencils makes it easy to:
erase the lines you don't need;
vary the darkness and the thickness of the lines;
create lively sketches with varying tones, textures, and shades.
2B is the best choice, regardless of the brand.
Even though the HB grading is universal, the actual hardness may be different across brands. HB pencils (neither hard nor soft) can be great for sketching, but you will find that some brands are harder than others. To be on the safe side, I recommend using a 2B or 4B pencil, especially if you are a beginner. Using even softer pencils might be fun, but it is tricky because softer pencils tend to smudge easily.
Winsor & Newton soft graphite pencils (usually come in a set of 4: HB, 2B,4B and 8B) should cover your basic sketching needs.
Mechanical pencils are great for sketching on location.
Mechanical pencils are also a popular choice for urban sketching because they don't require sharpening and come in a variety of lead sizes.
I usually use a regular 2B pencil for the preliminary sketch. Then I paint it with watercolors and use my mechanical pencils to add details like stones and grass.
This is not a number one necessity, but it is very useful. It is a woodless pencil made entirely out of graphite, with only a thin coat of lacquer. It comes in different grades of softness and can be sharpened with a regular pencil sharpener. It is versatile and allows you to make both broad and fine strokes.
Colored Pencils I Use in My (Urban) Sketches gives answers to most common questions about colored pencils. It also has links to other useful blog posts.