After using one for a while, you may come to find that your normal HB pencil isn’t quite doing everything you want it to. Maybe it’s not dark enough, or maybe you’re having difficulty making lighter marks. Worry not, because the wonderful world of art has a range of pencil leads from ‘H’ to ‘B’ that will help you make the marks you want!
For graphite pencils, there are two non-standard scales that we use to grade the leads, the numerical scale and the HB scale. The HB scale is the widest used, and is the one usually mentioned for artist pencils.
In the US, the one we tend to be familiar with is the numerical graphite scale. This scale has pencils leads on a scale of 1-4 from softest to hardest. The average pencil lead used for school pencils is a #2 on this scale. The lower the number, the darker the mark, and the higher the number the lighter the mark. You typically won’t find art pencils labelled with this system.
The HB graphite scale measures pencil leads on a scale of hardest (H) to blackest (B), pencils on the H side of the spectrum make lighter marks, and those on the B side make darker marks. Numbers from 1-9 are included in front of the letter to denote how H or how B a pencil is.
The HB scale is the one used for artist pencils, and the average on the scale is an HB pencil that is approximately the numerical equivalent of a #2 pencil. Due to how expansive the scale is, I will be covering the H and B sides separately.
What the ‘H’?
In pencil language, ‘H’ stands for hard, and pencils on the ‘H’ side of the spectrum have noticeably harder leads. Because the leads are harder, they wear slower and the marks are lighter.
These pencils are good for sketching is you have a heavy hand because they don’t smudge that much, and you can erase a little easier since not as much graphite is put down on paper. They can also help you with maintaining different values if things tend to get more muddles when you draw.
‘B’ stands for blackness, and pencils on this side of the spectrum lay down heavier and darker marks. Since they lay down more graphite, they also wear down faster, the leads are softer and marks made with them are easier to blend since there will usually be excess graphite on the page.
These pencils are good for very dark shadows or areas that you need to cover more quickly. These pencils can be helpful to those with a lighter hand as they will force you to practice more with values and add depth to your drawings.
Which Should You Use?
Luckily pencils are some of the least expensive art supplies on the market, individually they usually run just under $2 USD per pencil. If they are purchased in a pack they are less expensive. Even better, unlike other media, there isn’t really a best or go to brand. Since they are inexpensive, you can get a set or a few pencils from each end of the spectrum to experiment with and figure out what works best.
Keep in mind that while the HB scale is non-standard between brands, they are usually close, so you can successfully mix brands. I will be leaving some links to some affordable brands that I have used in the past in the products mentioned section.
I’ve Got the Pencils, Now What?
Start using them! You can refer to my blogs about thumbnail sketching and steps to better drawing to get a place to start.
While it can be helpful to do exercises where you don’t use an eraser, I’m going to link to some erasers that I find work really well below.
Good luck , and have fun drawing!
If you have a piece that you’re proud of, you can post it on Instagram with #mxfeature so that I can see it! Once a week I’ll pick a random drawing and feature it on my stories.