Best Drawing Pencils in 2021

A good artist pencil, with nice, bold, consistent and flowing graphite and a good feeling in the hand, is a treasure, and even among pencils designed and made for artists and their work, some feel and work much better than others.

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Pencils may, in fact, be the most widely used art tool there is, and there can be such a vast difference between good art pencils and the normal dime a dozen variety.

So I have decided to put together a buyer’s guide for the best drawing pencils, with a very brief discussion about what makes a pencil good and a few suggestions of great drawing pencils available today.

In this article we’ll look at some basic and frequently asked questions:

  • What is the best drawing pencil to use for sketching and drawing?
  • What is the best drawing pencil for shading?
  • What is the best drawing pencil for sketching out before painting?
  • What are the best graphite drawing pencils?
  • What is a charcoal stick?
  • Who makes the best charcoal sticks and charcoal pencils for drawing and sketching?

I’ve also just posted two related articles, so please check those out as well:

What Makes Great Drawing Pencils?

I said this would be a brief discussion, and really I’ve already covered it. But, as people say when driving through very small towns if you blinked you might have missed it. 

Just above I wrote “nice, bold, consistent and flowing graphite and a good feeling in the hand,” and really that’s it. While in-depth analyses of processing speed, memory and resolution may be necessary when trying to find the best art tablet or laptop, let’s be serious here – these are pencils.

And yet not any or every pencil will do. Lots of drug store / supermarket pencils don’t really flow well, don’t really feel right in the hand, and don’t, well, inspire. But a good pencil, with bold and well-mixed pigment, a nice shape and heft, durable wood, strong graphite, and a great eraser, is not that much more expensive, and is so very much more effective and nicer to use.

We can talk about pencil grades, which is actually quite important to know. A normal graphite (commonly called “lead’) pencil may come in a wide range of hardness, from 9H (ultra-hard) to 9B (ultra-soft). We might want to think of three useful distinctions or divisions:

  • The standard school pencil is usually HB, which confusingly can also be called a #2 pencil, and is right in the middle of the hardness scale.
  • Harder pencils (2H – 9H) are great for technical drawing, control and detail, cross hatching and other fine line techniques
  • Softer pencils (HB – 9B) are very expressive, and good for bold, strong and even dramatic lines, shapes and sketches. A 9B will lay down an extraordinarily intense black line, while a 9H is so hard that the line may barely be visible.

Harder pencils will also last longer, and can be sharpened to a very fine tip, but if you work with good art pencils even the softest should be strong enough you don’t have to worry about breaking it when you’re in the zone and should be easy to sharpen as well! 

Source: Untitledmind72 at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s the Difference Between Graphite Pencil and Charcoal Pencil?

I’ll also be recommending some charcoal pencils below, in addition to the more normal graphite pencils, since charcoal is a very popular choice amongst artists. Basically, charcoal pencils are similar to the more standard pencils with graphite (or again, as they are called, “lead”) center, but instead of a graphite/clay/wax mix the core is a combination of charcoal and wax.

The hardness of charcoal pencils usually ranges from HB to 6B, so all on the soft and expressive side. Charcoal pencils are loved by artists not just because of their softness, but also because they tend to be physically big and bold as well, and charcoal can make even stronger, more intense black than the softest normal graphite pencils. Some artists prefer to use charcoal more with large paper or canvas, since charcoal pencils are wonderful for laying down big, dramatic swaths of black, but this is really a personal preference, and charcoal pencils can be good for lots of things.

Personally, I would always want to have a few really good charcoal pencils as well as a range of really best graphite pencils on hand.

How Can You Find Qaulity Drawing Pencils?

As I’ve been realizing more and more recently, the real value of my buyer’s guides is not so much to offer some sort of technical breakdown of products, but lies rather in my own experience as a working professional artist who has tried, in this case, lots and lots and lots of different pencils, both graphite and charcoal.

So let’s forget about the complex technical issues behind pencil selection – what kind of wood is the casing made from? What is the exact ratio of graphite to wax? What color is the eraser? – and focus instead on what pencils actually work best for drawing, sketching and the like.

My own feeling about this is that you should probably get a nice set of graphite pencils – from the hardest to the softest – to have total expressive range, and then a few good charcoal pencils as well. So in this buyer’s guide to the best pencils available for artists I’m going to include three of my favorite brands of graphite pencils, with a few great suggestions from each, a few really excellent charcoal pencil choices, and a couple of really useful and high quality pencil sharpeners.

All of my recommendations can be found below, but here is a cheat sheet with a few of my top picks:

Overview: Best Drawing Pencils in 2021

  1. Caran D'ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set
  2. Caran D'ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set

    15 GRAFWOOD graphite pencils (9B - 4H)

    3 water-soluble TECHNALO pencils (2B, B, HB)

    3 GRAFCUBE 10 mm sticks + 3 GRAFCUBE 15 mm sticks

    1 sharpener, 1 blending stump, 1 double pencil sharpener, 1 TECHNIK rubber


    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils in Metal Case
  4. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils in Metal Case

    Graphite Pencils in Metal Case, Break-Resistant Bonded Lead, Grades 12B-10H, Set of 24


    Buy Now on Amazon
  5. Derwent Charcoal Pencils in Metal Tin
  6. Derwent Charcoal Pencils in Metal Tin

    Best Charcoal Pencils for Sketching and Drawing

    Metal Tin, 6-Pack, 5x Black / 1x White


    Buy Now on Amazon
  7. General's Pencil Pure Willow Vine Charcoal Sticks
  8. General's Pencil Pure Willow Vine Charcoal Sticks

    Best Charcoal Sticks for Sketching and Drawing

    Pack of 5

    

    Buy Now on Amazon
  9. X-ACTO Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener
  10. X-ACTO Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener

    Best Pencil Sharpener - Electric

    Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener, Auto-Adjust Dial, SafeStart Motor, SmartStop


    Buy Now on Amazon

At the end of the article, in the Bonus section, we’ll look at the possibility of getting a really good complete drawing and sketching set – not on the level of the best professional drawing pencils, for sure, but including erasers, sharpeners, sketch pads, handy travel cases and lots of different graphite and charcoal pencils – a decent choice for an artist on a budget who needs it all, and a great gift idea!

Caran d’Ache Graphite Drawing Pencils

  1. Caran D'ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set
  2. Caran D'ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set

    15 GRAFWOOD graphite pencils (9B - 4H)

    3 water-soluble TECHNALO pencils (2B, B, HB)

    3 GRAFCUBE 10 mm sticks + 3 GRAFCUBE 15 mm sticks

    1 sharpener, 1 blending stump, 1 double pencil sharpener, 1 TECHNIK rubber


    Buy Now on Amazon

Caran D’ache Graphite Line Gift Box Set

Yes, this is an expensive set of pencils, and the Technograph series below are good enough for any artist, but it needs to be said right up front that these Caran D’ache Graphite Line pencils are quite possibly the best made, and will elevate anybody’s art to a higher level.

Perfect flow, consistency and control, intense and consistent pigment, superior hardness and long life even with the softest leads, a truly premium, solid and controllable feeling in the hand, and beautiful results every single time.

It may be hard to justify spending two hundred dollars on a set of pencils, but if it is within your range of possibility I wouldn’t hesitate – so many artists are constantly saying these are the best pencils they have ever used, that they provide new levels of control and expressivity, that they are the best investment they’ve ever made. Just make sure to remember that if you have kids or siblings of primary school age, never ever leave these pencils lying around!

Caran d’Ache – Technograph Graphite Drafting Pencil Set 12 (777.312)

These may look like normal supermarket pencils, but they are far from it. The Caran d’Ache Technograph pencil set has some of the very best graphite pigment available, which lays down with amazing flow and consistency, and they are overall extremely nicely made and long lasting pencils which feel great in the hand, and with lead that is strong enough to take an extremely sharp point and keep it.

With a nice selection of hardness ranging from 6B to 4H, this Caran d’Ache Technograph pencil set allows for any kind of technique or style, from deep, bold blacks to the finest and most precise detailing, and always provides truly beautiful results. A great choice for a premium yet affordable single set, and very highly recommended.

Caran d’Ache Water-Soluble Technalo Graphite 7 Piece Pencil Set (779.307)

But sometimes artists just want to have fun, and as seriously nice and useful as the Technograph set above is, the Caran d’Ache Technalo 7 piece pencil set is kind of, it must be said, cooler and more fun. The name is even the tiniest bit more fun – Technalo… Technalo… Ok, maybe it’s just me.

Really, though, this superb set of pencils allows for not only expressive range, with black pencils in three hardness, but even more expressive freedom, with three subtly colored (RGB) pencils and one white. And their water-soluble leads can be blended, washed, softened and mixed, used with watercolors or with all kinds of different techniques.

If you love Caran d’Ache products – and I think most artists who have tried any of their stuff do – an inexpensive dream set would be these in combination with the Technograph set above, for a really complete drawing kit. Even by themselves, though, these water-soluble Technalo pencils are good fun and really useful in tons of different ways.

My Fav: Staedtler Mars Drawing Pencils

  1. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils in Metal Case
  2. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils in Metal Case

    Graphite Pencils in Metal Case, Break-Resistant Bonded Lead, Grades 12B-10H, Set of 24


    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils
  4. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils

    12-Pack Graphite Pencils in Metal Case, Break-Resistant Bonded Lead

    Buy Now on Amazon
  5. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils
  6. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing Pencils

    Carbon Blend Provides Jet Black Lines, Professional Art Pencils, Tin of 6 Assorted Black Sketch Pencils

    Buy Now on Amazon

If Caran d’Ache pencils are the best, it’s not really by that much – these Staedtler Mars Lumograph art pencils are, in fact, considered by some artists to be even better, and they are undisputedly less expensive. 

In fact, these wonderful sets – which have either 24, 12 or 6 pencils ranging from hard to soft – are my own personal favorite, and I find them to be incredibly useful – controllable, natural and expressive – and of the highest quality. The Lumograph pencils have rich and vibrant black graphite pigment which always flows with ease and consistency, The specially bonded lead will sharpen to a really fine point and won’t break (even when I get a little carried away), even with the softest leads. 

The 24 pencil set has an amazing range of hardness, from 12B to 10H, and is actually quite affordable – and a fantastic value – but the two smaller sets are also brilliant, with more limited expressive range, perhaps, but with the same quality and durability, and any of the three would be a great drawing pencil set for any artist and any studio.

Prismacolor Drawing Pencils

Even if Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils are my favorite, and the ones I use most, I also have a soft spot in my heart for the Prismacolor Premier Turquoise pencils, and absolutely love using them – especially when I want a strong statement.

Prismacolor Turquoise pencils are really outstanding in the medium hardness to very soft range, and have bold, vivid and intense graphite which lays down with a kind of buttery smoothness and real consistency – definitely not a given with even premium soft art leads. The quality of their cores, combined with the shape and heft of the barrel, make these a real pleasure to use and a great tool for artistic creation.

The Prismacolor Premier Turquoise sketching pencils are also very durable – amazingly so for soft lead pencils – and take and hold even a fine point very well, which makes them great for work that requires a combination of strong expression and fine detail. Overall a wonderfully versatile set, which artists invariably love and use a lot.

These links are, respectively, for the medium hardness set of 12 (ranging from 6H to 4B), the soft set of 12 (H to 9B), and of the special jet black “Ebony” line extra smooth pencil in just one hardness (very soft and bold), but also in a box of 12. The first two sets have some overlap, but in pencils you’ll tend to use a lot, and all three together will give you a really full range and selection of exceptional sketching pencils.

Best Charcoal Sticks and Charcoal Pencils for Drawing and Sketching

With their ability to lay down really, really deep dark black, their wonderful feel in quick, bold sketches and with big gestures, their versatility and usefulness in all kinds and styles of drawing, and even in the kind of freedom their raw, sometimes messy nature seems to inspire, charcoal sticks and pencils are, to most artists who draw and sketch a lot, just as important to have at hand than graphite pencils.

General's Pencil Pure Willow Vine Charcoal Sticks

Best Charcoal Sticks for Sketching and Drawing

Pack of 5



Admittedly expensive, these are the best pure charcoal sketching sticks available today, and always inspire fierce loyalty and the most glowing recommendations from any serious artists who have used them. Unparalleled flow and consistency, remarkably long life and absolutely beautiful blacks. 

A less expensive alternative from the best maker of charcoal pencils – General Pencil Company – these compressed charcoal sticks still provide stunningly bold and saturated blacks, long life and great strength. A premium product for top level artists and a great choice for students or beginners, and a great way to get into the brilliantly expressive world of charcoal sticks.

A charcoal pencil is not made from pure charcoal, the way the charcoal sticks above are, but instead a mixture of charcoal and wax. And, also unlike charcoal sticks, charcoal pencils have a wooden casing, more like a normal pencil, which can make them stronger and also easy to sharpen. They may not offer the same extremely big and bold strokes of a stick, but are still far more expressive and dramatic than even the softest of graphite pencils, and wonderful to use.

And while there are a lot of different brands and types of charcoal pencils out there, Derkwent – who, it should be said, likes to make bold and vivid art products – makes as good a charcoal pencil as I’ve ever used, and at an amazing price for the quality materials.

Best Pencil Sharpeners

  1. X-ACTO Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener
  2. X-ACTO Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener

    Best Pencil Sharpener - Electric

    Mighty Pro Electric Pencil Sharpener, Auto-Adjust Dial, SafeStart Motor, SmartStop


    Buy Now on Amazon

I’m only going to mention two pencil sharpeners here – one manual and one automatic – because they are both so good, and such good values, I don’t think we really need to consider other options.

If you have never used a really fine pencil sharpener, you are in for a real treat. In fact, the ease and consistency of the process, and especially the beautifully sharp and long lasting point you will get, make a professional quality artist’s pencil sharpener a real necessity in any studio.

Bonus: Complete Drawing Pencils and Sketching Sets

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  1. Electomania 34 Piece Kit Drawing and Sketching Pencils Set
  2. Electomania 34 Piece Kit Drawing and Sketching Pencils Set

    Art Supplies Drawing Kit, Graphite & Charcoal Professional Pencils Set, Kids & Adults


    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Norberg & Linden XL Drawing Set - Sketching, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils
  4. Norberg & Linden XL Drawing Set - Sketching, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils

    Includes 100 Page Drawing Pad, Kneaded Eraser, Blending Stump. Art Kit and Supplies for Kids, Teens and Adults


    Buy Now on Amazon

I’m so glad you asked! Indeed, I have found two really outstanding complete sets, which include basically everything you need to sketch and draw to your heart’s content.

Best Complete Sets of Drawing and Sketching Pencils

When we say “best” here, it is somewhat qualified. What I mean is that if you want to really get the very best pencils for drawing and sketching, you should definitely look at the choices above – Caran d’Ache, Staedtler Mars or Prismacolor. 

On the other hand, if you would like to get a really cool, all-inclusive set that has every single thing you could possibly need, and with pencils that are of high enough quality to satisfy even more discerning artists, I have found these two wonderful complete drawing pencils kits, with graphite pencils, charcoal pencils, sharpeners, erasers, pencil extenders and more, all in a very nice organizing / carrying case.

The Norberg & Linden set has a little bit less, but the two sets are really very close in terms of contents and completeness. The difference is that the Electomania set has significantly higher quality pencils and items in general, and is better suited to a more serious artist or art student. Both, though, are of great quality, and either would make a great addition to your art arsenal or a great gift.

Thanks for reading this article – Best Artist Pencils for Sketching and Drawing: A 2021 Buyer’s Guide – and make sure to check out my related articles, on the Best Drawing Pens, the Best Mechanical Pencil for Sketching and Drawing, the Best Colored Pencils and the best Watercolor Pencils for Artists. And please also visit my site – Art Side of Life –  for tons of other inspiring ideas, resources, articles, buyer’s guides and a lot more!

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