Before we look at different brands of graphite pencils, it’s worth mentioning the grades of pencils. It would have been confusing as all hell if manufacturers called the differing grades dark, darker, darkest, darker still and light, lighter, lightest, superlight. So they came up with the number plus black/hard differentiation. Best explained in this simple diagram –
The left hand of the scale is the hardest leads, the harder 9H being the lightest. The right hand of the scale is the softer, blacker leads, giving dense, black cover. The darkest and softest being the 9B.
I hear tell of a 20 grade range made by Koh-i-Noor…but these are the things of myth and legend. Or are they?
Derwent Sketching and Onyx
There’s not much to criticize about Derwent’s chunky Sketching and Onyx range. They are fun to use, with broad sweeps of graphite, dark inky marks with deep shine and especially dark graphite in the Onyx collection.
The Sketching collection comes in 3 grades – HB, 2B and 4B all with a lightfast rating of 8. Derwent claim they are great for “Quick, bold stroke for freestyle sketching” and they are absolutely right.
The Onyx collection comes in 2 grades: Medium and Dark. Both are darker than a 9B graphite pencil, with dense, jet-black tones that can be controlled by pressure. They hold a fine point for a while and have a 4mm core.
Derwent really spoil us artists don’t they? This collection contains 24 pencils: 9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H and 9H. These pencils have
Caran D’Ache Technograph
These come in 12 degrees of hardness: 6B to 4H and are hexagonal barreled too. They are very, very light in your hand which I haven’t yet decided is a good thing. Yes, you feel free and can sketch as fast as you like, but I also like the feeling of a nice, solid pencil. It’s a personal thing I guess and the cores are great so I am just being picky.
Matching the dark green of their coloured pencils, Faber-Castell’s 9000 range is housed exactly the same and the livery of the pencils match too. My tin comes in 12 degrees of 2H to 8B. I love these pencils – responsive, clean and black leads. The F pencil is my very favourite pencil – not because it shades well, blends well or anything like that, but simply because it gives a light, fine, confident line for drawing outlines that cover well with coloured pencil. It is Mr Reliable.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100
A lot of artists cite their love for these pencils and it surprised me at first. Staedtler is a name I associate with school days and reliable pencils and erasers. So to find so many artists using these in their artwork raised eyebrows.
They come in 16 degrees of hardness: 8B to 6H, though in this collection you get 19 pencils, you get duplicates of 6B, 4B and 2B. Their desirability is in the details: clear lines, break-resistant, subtle differentiation of shades, easy to sharpen, easy to erase and handsome livery. Plus they’ve got the coolest name. Lumograph. Cool.
Derwent Charcoal / Sketching Watersoluable / Natural Graphite
The Derwent Natural Graphite are nifty little squared blocks of solid graphite that resist rubbing off on your hand and making a mess. They come in 3 versions of which you get 2 sticks each: Hard, Medium and Soft. The Hard is maybe a little too hard and I found it difficult to get a good consistent line. But the Medium and the Soft are wonderfully responsive and smooth across what I consider quite rough, cold-pressed paper that I use for all my test swatches. They blend smoothly too. The square blocks mean that you can do detailed work with the corners and broad swatches with the edges. These are very good for sketching freely on a large scale project and just for having fun really.
The Derwent Charcoal selection comes with 3 versions too: Dark x 2, Medium x 2 and Light x 1, plus a white Tinted Charcoal pencil. These are naturally watersoluable too which means you can have a little extra fun. Now, I am not a fan of charcoal, it’s way too messy, but these pencils give you the clean control that I prefer. Also when you lay down the charcoal isn’t very dusty or messy, which was a surprise to me. The give you a lot of control and I can see me using these for sketching and pastel works when the darks need to be punched up. A lovely little collection in a silver tin with a sharpener.
These are the Derwent Watersoluable Sketching pencils. I already have these in the normal version and I love the chunky barrels with a broad core that smoothly sweeps along a support. I had to have the watersoluable version too and I wasn’t disappointed. Too much. It comes in 3 versions: Light Wash, Medium Wash and Dark Wash. You’ll see by my test swatch that the Light and Medium don’t dissolve the lines completely – well, neither does the Dark to be fair but it is less noticeable. You do get a lovely inky wash though from the Dark and I think these are best considered for pushing your graphite drawings, adding a new dimension.
Derwent XL Graphite and Charcoal
First up, here are the Derwent XL Graphite. 6 blocks of chunky, heavy graphite – 6 cm x 2cm x 2. They come in Olive Green, Dark Prussian, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Soft (which is a light, silvery graphite) and Very Soft (which is very black) and are water soluble to boot. They come in a dinky little tin and are cushioned in dense moulded foam. Each block is very heavy in your hand and very tactile. They all lay down smoothly and when you add water to them you get a solid wash – some of them a very dense, painty wash: Very Soft, Burnt Umber and Olive Green.
Next, we have the Derwent XL Charcoal blocks. Again, we have the same-sized 6 blocks in White, Ochre, Sanguine, Mars Violet, Sepia and Black. Once again, these are water soluble and when you add water to the pigment you get a lovely, thick, painty wash. The black is especially dark and luxurious.
Both the Graphite and the Charcoal blocks are dusty and crumbly which you’d expect with the media. Derwent also sell grippers – little rubber sleeves that go over the blocks to protect your fingers. They also sell some grating blocks to carve patterns into your blocks or turn them into a powder for various applications.
Over all, I am impressed with the feel of these and the weight. Adding water creates impressive washes and I think these will be a lot of fun.