As a newcomer to the world of art this may seem baffling to you! If you pick up a pack of pencils at your local art shop, or these days online, you’ll most likely find a range which have been graded like so: H4, H2, H, HB, B, B2, B4.
In my pencil box and among the assortment of pencils I have accumulated over the years my set of H pencils are the least used.
This is because the H’s are the hard lead pencils (starting with H and gradually increasing in hardness with the number increase). The result of the hard lead is that any initial marks made with an H pencil are rather pale.
They’re not good for sketching with unless you want something that will easily rub out or get covered over, for instance, as a watercolourist, I often draw an image onto my watercolour paper with pencil first and to avoid any pencil marks coming through my transparent watercolour layers I could use a pale H pencil.
However, they are perfect for meticulous and detailed work as the hard lead stays nice and sharp. Any shading done with an H pencil will be pale but with all pencils you can build up tone by layering your marks or increasing the pressure of the pencil on the page. The nice thing with an H pencil is that if you take the time to layer up your shading, you can achieve a very smooth and subtle effect.
Moving onto the B’s
These, the most used in my pencil box, are the soft lead pencils. In the opposite way to the H’s the lead gradually gets softer as the numbers increase.
The B pencils are great for easy sketching as you get a good, solid mark from it straight away. They are also the best for blocking in areas of shade as the softer the lead the darker the mark. You can layer B pencil marks up if you want to get a really solid dark but otherwise this is unnecessary as you can get a far greater tonal range out of a B pencil than the H by changing the pressure applied onto the page.
The downside of the B pencils is that they blunt very quickly so are unreliable for fine, detailed work and need to be sharpened regularly. Work done with a B pencil can also smudge easily and particularly in sketchbooks you’ll want to watch out for images on one page transferring to the opposite. Slip in a separate page between your book pages if you want to avoid this transference.
Lastly the HB
In the words of Goldilocks, the HB pencil is not too hard and not too soft but just right. As the name suggests, it sits between the H’s and the B’s and is your good all rounder. Hard enough that it’ll stay fairly sharp for those details and won’t smudge too easily, soft enough that it’ll produce a nice solid line and give you a decent tonal range. This is the pencil you’ll want to start with. By all means practice with your H’s and B’s but start with your HB.
If you’re embarking on a new artwork, I would go in with the HB, practice, sketch out your ideas, work out composition, then bring in the H’s and B’s when you know what you want to do and what effect you want to achieve.
A final word on mechanical pencils
Mechanical pencils are my favourite because they are refillable and so don’t need sharpening! No more grabbing onto the last stub of your pencil trying to make the most of every last scrap of lead!
The lead comes in a small container and you can still choose your grade and the thickness. I always go for an HB because, well, what can I say? It’s the best! And also I always choose a very fine thickness so I can pencil in those details!
I hope this has been helpful and has given you a clear insight. If you have any questions though, just drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer!