Sunday, August 23, 2015

Part I: Best Graphite Pencils, Sticks, and Leads. And You thought They Were All the Same...

pencils in pile
My stash
During a recent shopping trip, I spent at least fifteen minutes in the pencil section of my local office supply store, evaluating each package with an intensity that drew the attention of a store associate. When I politely declined his offer of assistance with the usual "no thanks I'm just browsing", he paused, glanced at the wall of pencils, and then covered his confounded expression with a customer service smile before going about his duties. Then it struck me that maybe most people don't browse idly for pencils the way they would peruse a shoe store or book shop. I think it's safe to assume that my helpful sales assistant wasn't an artist. Fellow doodlers, sketchers, and graphite enthusiasts would understand that pencils are not created equally. Even my dear sister, who does not draw, has expressed how she loves the way a good pencil glides across a fresh new notebook. It is one of those underrated joys in life.

There are brands of luxury wood pencils sold in boxes of 12 for around twenty to thirty dollars, and those are the lower end of the luxury spectrum. Just look up Blackwing, Hi Uni, and Mitsubishi pencils some time, and you will see what I mean. They are not even marketed towards artists, which I would expect for that kind of dough. I have not tried these brands, but it's pretty tempting considering how much I love graphite. For now, I will just have to review the brands I have on hand: Staedtler, Prismacolor, Koh-I-Noor, Royal & Langnickel, Daler Rowney, Dixon Ticonderoga, Art Alternatives, and Portfolio Series by Crayola.

Today's post is covering Staedtler, Prismacolor, and Koh-I-Noor. 

A word about degrees

pencils organized by brand and type
a little neater now!
Artist drawing pencils come in a variety of degrees to help artists achieve a full value range in their drawings. Yes, you can render a broad range of values with a good #2 (HB) pencil, but you can only press so hard on HB lead for darker values before the pencil breaks or you leave noticeable impressions in your paper. The B grades of graphite lay down dark shades without a lot of pressure, which is important when you are creating a finished drawing rather than a sketch. Same goes with the lightest values. You can only be so light with your hand. I do not use the H grades as much as I use the B grades, but I still need them sometimes when I need to make distinct pale marks, like with hair highlights or flyaway strands, cat whiskers, and distant objects.

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Staedtler Mars Lumograph 

To date, my most extravagant graphite purchase has been a set of Staedtler Mars Lumograph drawing pencils, which cost around $25 for a set of all sixteen degrees. They are the best drawing pencils I have ever used, but also the most expensive. The store where I bought them had only the 16-piece set, and the markup there is ridiculous, so I had to shell out a few more dollars than I expected. I am not bitter about it, of course, since I am singing their praises, but I wish I could have bought only the soft degree set, which is available at most art stores and There are several smaller sets, and you can buy boxes of 12 in any degree.

Why Lumograph pencils Rock:
  • Smooth, velvety texture- blends beautifully
  • Solid core rarely breaks, even on softer degrees
  • High quality wood for casing (important for pencil's longevity)
  • Very nice value range achieved with middle grades (HB, B, 2B) alone
  • Degrees range from 8B (very soft) to 6H (rather hard)

Why Lumograph pencils Suck:

lumograph graphite swatches
small pic of the swatches
  • They don't- the price is higher, but, again, I can see why. 
I did some test drawings with swatches for this post to make a fair comparison between brands. I used smooth, lightweight sketch paper by Pacon that has qualities akin to newsprint. I used the crappy paper because I have found that most pencils can produce decent values on heavier textured papers, but cheap, nearly toothless paper reveals the flaws in the graphite's consistency. 

The Lumograph pencils are easy to blend and yield consistent, predictable tones even on the inferior paper. The H degrees produce crisp, light lines without scratching into the paper, and they did not smudge. The B grades produced dark values with ease, and I did not need to use a stump to blend. 

Lumograph closeup shaded sphere

Staedtler Mars Carbon Drafting Leads

I mentioned my trusty Alvin lead holder in my previous post about Stuff that Lasts, and since I use it almost daily, I don't think it is redundant to mention it again here. The 2 mm drafting leads that go in the lead holder are rather nice as well. I prefer HB and 2B, but you can get them in 7 degrees : 4B, 2B, HB, B, H, 2H, and 4H. You can buy them in packs of 3 or 12. 

Unexpected Bonus: I use a rotary lead pointer, also from Staedtler, to sharpen my 2 mm leads. Most lead holders have an alleged "pointer" attached on the end cap. These are pretty awful because they make a crappy point and get powder everywhere. The rotary pointer creates a beautifully tapered point, and it has a tub to collect the graphite shavings. By "shavings" I mean extremely fine powder, which is very useful for certain effects in graphite artwork. You can accumulate a nice supply of graphite powder if you use this sharpener often. You will want to empty it frequently because a full tub makes a mess if you knock it over. Graphite stains in carpet are quite frustrating to clean.  

Prismacolor Turquoise Drawing Pencils

I use a lot of Prismacolor products, in case you haven't noticed already, including their Turquoise, Scholar, Ebony, Premier Woodless Graphite, and Water Soluble Graphite pencils.  I am not going to detail every line, but I will say that all of these pencils are of good quality, even the cheaper Scholar graphite pencils. Turquoise (also called Premier Turquoise) is the artist grade line, and I think these pencils are almost as nice as the Lumograph brand.

I say "almost" because I noticed inconsistencies in the Turquoise H degrees when I tested them on the cheap paper. The most striking oddity was that 6H was darker than 4H, and it should be lighter. I double-checked to make sure my pressure was consistent for both grades. I also noticed that the B grades are not as dark as I would like when used on smooth paper. There is little difference between the 6B and 2B in the Turquoise line. I used the woodless 6B and Premier Ebony pencils to add the darkest values to my test sketch. One caveat: When I made swatches with the Prismas on the rougher paper in my sketchbook, I was able to get a better range of values.

Even though the Prisma Turquoise pencils do not perform as well on slicker paper, the graphite quality is very good. You don't have to worry about grainy or streaky bits when laying down solid areas of tone or when making subtle gradients.

Prismacolor Premier shaded sphere
I wish I had noticed the
smudge before taking pics

My Prismacolor Premier Graphite set included six Turquoise pencils, four woodless graphite pencils in HB and 2B, 4B, and 6B, and a few water soluble graphite pencils. I have used the woodless pencils to tiny nubs, so I had to guess the degree on two of  them- the only one still labelled is the 6B. I rarely use the water soluble pencils. They are fine for dry sketching, but I cannot comment on their properties when used for washes.

Why Prismacolor Premier Turquoise Pencils Rock:
Prismacolor Premier graphite swatches
prisma swatches

  • Smooth, consistent graphite content
  • Produce good value range on papers with at least a little bit of texture
  • Blend nicely, probably won't need a stump or tortillion
  • Good range of degrees from 9H to 9B (Ebony is very close to 9B in other brands)
  • Price is more affordable than Lumograph

Why Prismacolor Premier Turquoise Pencils Suck:

  • Smooth paper seems to inhibit Prisma value range  dramatically

Prismacolor Premier Turquoise ( A.k.a "Eagle") drafting leads: 

I have several packs of the Eagle leads in various degrees, but I really favor the 2B for sketching. I use Prisma 2 mm leads in my drafting pencil more often than I use the Staedtler Mars brand because I was able to get a bunch in a bulk listing at They are supposedly "vintage", hence the older "Eagle" branding on the packages. Even so, the leads are strong and the graphite is excellent. You can buy new Premier Turquoise drafting pencils and 2 mm leads, which range from 9H to 6B. Drafters use the harder degrees more, which is why more H degrees are available than B. 

Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Graphite Pencils, Sticks and Leads

As I have mentioned in other reviews, KIN products tend to be harder across the board, and I include graphite, charcoal, and their oil-based Negro artificial charcoal in this observation. I have a Gioconda drawing set that includes three graphite sticks and three water soluble graphite pencils, each in 2B,4B, and 6B. Again, I do not use graphite for washes, although I may try it soon. I also use some KIN 2B leads in my 5.6 mm clutch pencil and a very worn KIN (may be Cretacolor- both made in Austria) 9B woodless graphite pencil. 

After sketching with the dry water soluble pencils, I found the graphite to be a touch lighter than that in my leads and sticks, and it is slightly waxy- not crayon or candle waxy, but hard colored pencil waxy. The water soluble graphite renders smooth lines and shaded areas, and they work fine for lighter values in sketches and drawings. You don't need water to blend them. 

pic of Koh-I-Noor graphite stick and shaded sphereThe graphite sticks  are rather nice, comparable to Staedtler and Prismacolor, but, again, the values are much lighter and they feel much harder when you draw with them. I layered the 6B heavily when I made the test sketch in order to keep the final values comparable to the Lumo and Prisma sketches. The graphite sticks blend nicely with no annoying streaks, crumbs, or scratchy bits. 

Why Koh-I-Noor Rocks:

  • Good quality, consistent graphite content
  • Blends well, rarely need a stump or tortillion 
  • Progresso Woodless graphite pencils available in HB through 9B (No Hs)
  • Koh-I-Noor Professional Drawing Pencils available in 5H through 9B
  • Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Graphite available in 2B. 4B, 6B (leads, Aquarelle, and sticks)

Why Koh-I-Noor Sucks:

  • The sticks and leads only come in three degrees- yeah I have that in the "rocks" section because at least there are choices, but I would like more B grades in the leads and sticks. 
  • Kinda pricey (just "kinda" though)
  • Confusing product names and descriptions- some are from Austria, some made in Czech, brand names seem to change, what is up with that? (see my post on charcoal brands for more info).

pic of Koh-I-Noor Graphite swatches
My KIN swatches

None of these brands really suck. I just wanted to do something different than the boring "pros" and "cons" headings I see everywhere. I think all three companies offer higher quality products on the whole, but they are also at the upper end of my raggedy artist budget.

Part II in the graphite series will cover cheaper brands and a few stragglers that I think are worth mentioning.


  1. I agree the staedtler autographs are awesome .

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