Choosing A Pencil for Life Drawing

I love pencils, specifically non-graphite pencils including charcoal and pastel pencils – but a few times, these pencils have driven me bonkers. This post is about finding the best pencil for you, how to sharpen and use these pencils.

After using willow charcoal sticks for a while, I decided to commit to pencils, non-graphite pencils, like we talked about in the last article. Originally, I went for one of the most popular options out there, an amazing pencil – the conte pierre noire 1710b. This pencil would unlock all the marks I needed. This pencil would have me doing the amazing gestures I wanted to do in no time! 


Why I love these types of pencils

You can use your overhand grip and your whole arm, skills I’d learned by using charcoal sticks, and just let it glide across the paper (especially smooth newsprint) using a light touch. You can drag it down straight to get thin lines, you can pull it across its length to get fat soft marks. You can do everything in between. It’s as expressive as a willow charcoal stick but a bit cleaner and doesn’t lift off the paper at the slightest touch.

More than the pencil you use, the really important thing is building up those two skills – using your whole arm with the overhand grip, and being able to draw lightly. I think pushing too hard was a big problem for me for a long time, and when I’m tired and feeling lazy, I start doing it again. So I was ready to really work on my line quality and mark making with these pencils.


Sharpening woes

But then everything crumbled. Literally. 

To really get the power of this pencil, you need it to be sharpened like this: strip back the wood with shallow passes of a single edge razor, and then gently sand the lead to a tapered point. That tapered point means you can put down as much of the pencil as you like. You have so much range of the strength and thickness of the mark you make, it’s amazing.

But 4 out of 5 pencils would snap as I sharpened them.

They’re not cheap. Worrying about how to sharpen them also was a distraction from what really mattered which was learning to draw.

But more than that, every time I snapped a lead, my confidence took a hit. I thought “I can’t even sharpen the pencil, let alone do a great drawing with it?!”



I was getting so crazy I switched to other similar pencils. I tried a few different ones.

Eventually I started using coloured pencils from koh-i-noor which are really inexpensive. They snapped a lot because I used to press too hard, but it didn’t matter because you could easily get it going again, no razor blade needed. Mayko uses these a lot – simple, inexpensive and effective for the lines she needs. But I still wanted that beautiful range of marks from the charcoal pencils.

Eventually, I found the Wolff’s carbon and it became my favourite alternative. It’s easy to sharpen and puts down good marks. So I was able to do what really mattered, which was work on my skills.

I liked the softer ones, the 4B and 6B best. Soft pencils are good because you can get a good range of marks from them and they’ll glide across the paper creating nice gestural curves. But that doesn’t mean that 4B or 6B are right for every pencil. Those labels vary across pencils, so for other pencils you might want a 2B or a 10B – it’s best to try the pencils to see how soft it really is.


Pierre Noire

But the richness of the Pierre Noire’s marks, the depth of the tones, was just irresistible. So I made a plan. One of the problems was that as I stripped back the wood, I could see the lead was already snapped inside. My theory is that was happening during delivery, which makes sense.

So I decided to only buy them at the art shop and not get them delivered. 

Secondly, I decided I would transport the pencils carefully. I am a little overboard with this. I wrap my pencils in kitchen towel and them put them into this stiff little pencil case, and then I put that into this pencil case. Today I’m going to try something new – a hard wood box filled with kitchen towel.

Thirdly, I would use sharp, fairly fresh razors. Fourthly, I would get into a zen, relaxed state while doing the sharpening, and accept the risk of snapping before starting. By some miracle, this combination of precautions worked!


Even though I now had a lovely pencil, my marks – especially quick gestural marks – weren’t looking the way I wanted. I had a hunch that my paper could make a difference. I tried fancy paper. I tried super cheap newsprint for packing. I tried more fancy newsprint. The problem wasn’t how fancy the paper was, it was that it was all a little bit rough.

I eventually found a super smooth newsprint pad that was cheap and the right size. So now i’m in gesture drawing heaven and again focused on what really matters, which is practice. 

But the fun doesn’t need to end there. There are other wonderful pencils out there and I really want to explore some of them and show them to you so you can find ones you like. Like we talked about last time, you should worry about skills, not materials. But making this article gives me a great excuse to spend some time exploring different pencils, so very quickly, here’s 3 more pencils.


Generals charcoal

Some of my favourite artists including Lane Brown use Generals charcoal pencils, so of course I was excited to try this.

It’s a little trickier to get here in the UK, but quite easy I think in the US. It’s lovely and has those deep dark rich tones. It feel a tiny bit grittier and less smooth across the paper, it seems like you push a little harder than the Pierre Noire. That’s neither good nor bad, it just depends which you like more.


Pitt Pastel

These pastel pencils are a little fragile too like the Pierre Noire, so you can snap them. But I love the marks they make, and they feel really nice to use. Plus there’s a variety of lovely colours to try with them. I think I’m going to use these more and more.


Richard Powell uses a graphite pencil – a super soft 10b which he holds with an overhand grip, to create amazing gestural drawings. So, I want to try it too because I love how he uses them.

As you can see, finding the right pencil for you can take quite a bit of experimenting and practice, just like other art skills. So go ahead, pick up any pencil and start practicing with us!



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