Drawing Basics: The Best Pencil?

Dan Gheno, a New York-based artist and teacher, introduced me to the Pitt oil-base sanguine pencil, and it is my favorite material to draw pencil sketches with.

Pencil sketch by Patricia Hannaway.
Pencil sketch by Patricia Hannaway.

I like it because it has a nice warm tone reminiscent of the marks in some Renaissance and Classical drawings and because it is waxy enough to stay down on the paper and dry enough to yield to some erasing.


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It does not smudge like charcoal or even graphite, and I find that I don’t need to spray a pencil drawing with fixative when I’m done. Yet only the darkest and most rubbed in marks cannot be pulled up using a kneaded eraser. In short, it is forgiving yet stable and true. Good pencil? Forget it–sounds like a good spouse!

Faber-Castell, the manufacturer of the Pitt oil-base sanguine pencil, also makes pastels in the same colors as the oil-base pencils. But those are chalkier. You can recognize the oil-base pencils because it says “oil-base” on the shaft and because it is marked with the color of the lead on the very end of the pencil only. On the pastel pencils the lead color is indicated on the end and it also continues a little way up the shaft. I’ve been in a hurry in an art-materials store and grabbed the wrong one, and although the pastel pencil is a fine product, I wanted my favorite as I sat down to draw that night. And my favorite is the Pitt oil-based sanguine.

A confession: True or not, I think that the warm, traditional tone and clean marks (neither smudged nor compromised by unerasable mistakes) make my drawings look just a little bit better, and some days, I need that psychological lift. Big Smile

Someone please tell me I’m not the only person who geeks out over a specific pencil…and if I’m not, what is your favorite?

Pitt oil-based sanguine pencil for drawing




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Bob Bahr

About Bob Bahr

Hi. I'm the managing editor of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. Drawing magazine is primarily my responsibility so I spend a lot of time looking at drawings, talking with draftsmen, and drawing ... but I love to paint, too.

52 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: The Best Pencil?

  1. My favorite is the first pencil I learned to use ‘properly” china KOH-I-NOOR 5812C. I do most everything with it Even use it do do a sudokou or two. Learned from Oliver Grimley at PaFA in PA. I can change the graphite to the desired weight or adjust my touch ijust changing pressure. I’ll give yours a try. Not for change but to expand into color.

  2. My favorite pencil is made by Derwent. I enjoy working with the Derwent Sketching pencils especially the 2B & the 4B. I like the way they go on the paper & the richness of tone. Of course the 4B can smudge somewhat. I also like the way this pencil feels in my hand.

  3. I prefer the Prismacolor Terra cotta. It comes in erasable and in the regular wax base. I usually do prliminary sketches in the col-erase then switch to the regular Prismacolor. Works for me but I will try the Pitt oil base sanguine. Thanks.

  4. I guess you’re not the only one who geeks out over pencils, Bob.

    I’m guilty of being just as particular and enthusiastic when it comes to writing pens. There are a couple of high-end brands that I love, but my all-purpose favorite? Bic round stics, which run about 10 cents each.

  5. Appreciate all of the comments. Often, when drawing, I use whatever pencil is at hand – you all have given me something to look into, and I have made note of all pencils listed. I will look into the Pitt oil-base and Koh-i-noor first. Thanks…

  6. NJ, I love the Derwents, too, and go to them when I want to work in graphite. I also keep picking up my cheapo carpenter’s pencil. I love the wide variety of marks it can make. Anybody else try a carpenter’s pencil? When I feel like I’m in a rut, I pick one of those up and draw quickly.


  7. I’m with New Jersey Artist & Bob Bahr – the Derwent Sketching pencils are my faves. They lay down beautifully, with an almost creamy texture, and even with their limited selection (I’ve only ever found them in HB, 2B & 4B), one can easily achieve a wide range of values. Quite wonderful!

  8. I understand exactly what you mean, I use the Cretacolor Sanguine Oil, which is called the Rotel Fett. It’s wonderful, although you cant erase completely, I can lift and rework lines. This pencil is neither too dry or too heavy. And if you like Black, you can try the Nero, which is very similar.

    Although I have to say my favorite pencils are the woodless, and the watersoluble, my absolute being the watersoluble woodless 🙂

  9. I prefer my carpenter’s pencil when I’m in the field sketching before painting. It’s great for placement and getting in my darkest darks, quickly. I use it for fast rendering of architecture and in defining perspective. It’s broad, flat edge has ‘magical powers’ that keep me from dawdling and getting stuck in minutiae. In otherwords it helps keep me focused.

    1. Long ago my favorite was the Negro Pencil. But alas, it was discontinued. Love General pencils, especially with a true black. But my go-to from years of teaching was the buttery Ebony pencil!

  10. It’s nice to see someone else geeking out about pencils. I alsways thought I was the only one. My favorite in school was the Berol Turquoise 6B and I keep drifting back to it. I have used the Derwents too but never seem to be able to find them in my little art store so I stick with the Berols. They sometimes have little pieces of something in the graphite like pumice or something but it’s mostly all I’ve ever used. I used to have a Charlie Brown pencil that was great but gave it to my daughter to do her homework with and never got it back.

  11. I just switched from Generals to Derwent charcoal pencils, I love the Derwent pencils because rather than being soft, med and hard they have light, med, and dark. The difference being the lighter tone pencils are still very soft due to the ratio of clay the mix which is great for so many reasons. They feel beautiful to use. Just a recent discovery for me so I’m still pretty excited about it.
    You have me keen to try this oil based pencil Bob.
    Geek on pencil lovers

  12. Dallyn, I use that turquoise pencil in the field, too, when I’m sketching on the canvas before painting. Sometimes I use a green colored pencil instead–I can’t remember the mfgr.

    Anybody have a suggestion for a white pencil, when working on toned paper? I’m using a white Conté, but I’m not completely satisfied.

  13. From my first Jon Gnagy art kit, till now, and I have a New Yankee workshop type environment for woodworking, I’ve never thought to use my Carpenter’s pencil for drawing. I have to try this……thanks maggie40. I also use a KOH-I-NOOR for sketching.

  14. I have worked with Prismacolor Colored Pencils for 15 years and use an electric Panasonic Auto-stop sharpener, which still works well after 15 years. I would like to try the Pitt oil-based sanguine pencils, but don’t know what kind of sharpener would work best. Any helpful comments would be appreciated. Thank you!

  15. redrose, I sharpen mine with a razor blade because I like a long point that I don’t have to fuss with for a while — maximum drawing time instead of having to stop to sharpen it again. Sometimes I use a pocketknife because I always have that handy. Those little hand sharpeners sold in art stores make a sharp but short point, in my opinion.

    a friend has a super turbo electric sharpener that looks like a small howitzer, and it makes a nice long point but seems eager to devour as much of my pencil as it can. it has the appetite of a wood chipper!

  16. Well, my favorite — the Ritmo charcoal pencils of yore — are no longer made in the formula that I like, with enough clay or whatever component was mixed in to make it black as charcoal yet compatible with graphite. They came in three or four degrees of hardness. Now they are more like conventional charcoal pencils. If anyone has an old cache I’d love to know about it! Lacking those wonderful agents, I’ve been casting around for substitutes — the Pierre Noire line is not bad but hard to lift off, and I draw a lot by subtraction. For graphite I’ve been enjoying the Tombow Homograph Mono line — so smooth and blendable — and the newer Cretacolor line, smoother than their others.

  17. I admit to being a pencil geek too! I think my favorite for all around sketching is the plain old Ebony — you can get such a range of values from it and it holds a point a long time.

  18. Actually two …

    I lay down almost all my original line work with a .5 MM Pentel, using HB Leads, is comes up nicesly with a Kneaded Erasure if botch the job; when I am more happy with the work, I then go over those lines with a Design Ebony, very nice deep waxy line this gives. Really jumps off the page, but I dont oblitherate the HB lines, left in place in the right areas it lends a element of shading, although I am more drawn to pure line and a tonal drawing sort of look. For me a completed drawing still looks quite drawn, I respect (and am amazed at times) by some of the tonal drawings I see in American Artist, but I have also seen (in other venues) Tonal drawings that look like renderings of Wax figures. I like the immediacy of a more Lined look… any thoughts

    Blessings, BB.

  19. Derwent Graphic is my choice for drawing pencils. I find they have very little “grit” in them and provide a nice, consistently smooth line. I also use Faber-Castell 2 mm leads in holders. When I’m working in charcoal I like to use General’s charcoal pencils as well as their carbon pencils and their very black carbon sketch pencil. I’ve found General’s white charcoal pencil to be pretty good, but I too would like to hear if anyone knows of any better.

    I am curious to try the Pitt pencil you mention, Bob. I’ll have to order some.

    I too love pencils and am glad there are others out there who feel the same!

  20. BB, I enjoy seeing the artist’s lines, too. I guess it depends on the purpose or intention of the piece.

    I know some artists who feel that showing the lines draws too much attention to the process and by extension the artist. I argue with them, but it’s an interesting point.

    I like your idea of a darker, waxier pencil over the lighter HB. I’m going to try that. I usually stick with one pencil throughout a drawing, although sometimes I start with a carpenter’s pencil and then once I’m happy with the comp and with the proportions, I pick up a 6B.

    Last night at figure drawing someone borrowed my carpenter’s pencil and loved the tonal qualities and sharp lines it allowed, and I had to fight to get it back! Stocking stuffers…

  21. I tried the Pitt Sanguine oil based pencil and also the Terra Cotta. I found them nice to work with and I sharpened them on my regular Panasonic sharpener as I do my Prismacolor. Thanks for the tip

  22. Gosh, I’ve been using a pentel mechanical pencil #2 out in the field and for tracing because it needs no sharpening. Lazy….. !!
    It works well for drawing lines on watercolor paper.

    I don’t use the eraser that comes on mechanical pencils coz they leave a red mark. Like kneaded erasers best.

  23. I have not tryied these, although I would love to.
    I have tried the new graphtint by derwent, and they are something else. Tinted graphite. I am learning to use them and draw out the best in them.

  24. Yeah. I fall head over heels for “Academix” anything.
    They make the best pencils, sharpeners, and erasers. :3 The only thing wrong with their pencils is that they’re so easy to sharpen to death.
    I don’t particularly care for oil-based. Too waxy for me. I prefer good ‘ol graphite.

  25. I am glad you found a pencil that you really like. For me, it is one with enough shaft to grip and a enough “lead” to make marks. I drew for years with nothing more than an old No. 2.

  26. Does anyone have any suggestions on pastel pencils that mark like regular dry pastel sticks? I’ve been using Stabilo but I find them to be too hard. Thanks!

  27. I like them, too. If I’m doing a graphite drawing, then I use my Derwents, but when I want to do a tone or color drawing, I’ll use my Pitt oil-based or the Pitt pastel pencils.

  28. For me has to be the Lyra polycolour pencils, they are light, easily usable with other brands that I have used, they blend well too. What more could you ask for from pencils!!!!!

  29. I use drawing leads in metal lead holders. I usually have 12 of them sharpened or sanded and ready to go. I believe Staedlier leads are the best but lately they have not been that easy to find. Almost all of my drawing is preliminary work for paintings and I can be working on a drawing for months.

    As far as the grades of leads go, I always like to put in a good word for the “H” side of the pencil family. I’m usually using an F, 2H or 3H. I use a 9H for transferring a tissue drawing to a working surface. I have found that 4B and 2B pencils make the best graphite sheets for the transfer of drawings—rather than lead sticks of the same grade..

    If anyone cringes at the thought of using hard leads, take a look at some the drawings by Ingres.


  30. my current favorite is Conte Pierre Noire. I want to be able to go very dark, as i am all about value studies when I am not doing quick gesture sketches. I really cut my sketching teeth on Conte crayons – sanguine & black, but the Pierre Noire is easier to carry. I could totally understand when I read that van Gogh said the Conte crayons are the most intelligent drawing material.

  31. OMG! I’m such a pencil geek. I faithfully used Prismacolor pencils for 20 years when they were made by Eagle. Then when they were bought by Berol something changed. They just weren’t the same. The leads broke easily when sharpened, to the point where I actually got very little use out of the pencils before they became nubs. Aha! If you microwave them first that helps. What a hassle! Now I’ve discovered Colorsoft by Derwent and I’m newly in love. I love their softness and blending qualities.

    As for Graphite pencils, I have used Ebony (by Prismacolor 40+ years. LOVE them. They are a mixture of graphite and carbon, produce better blacks that straight graphite, smudge beautifully. YUM YUM! and they’re CHEAP!

  32. I’ll have to try these. My favorite pencils are the Palomino Blackwing series, especially the 602. They look great, and for some reason they loosen up my drawing. Inspiring to use.

  33. My favorite is the Ebony Design pencil by Sanford. One can carry that pencil into the field or the studio – or anywhere else and use it for light thin lines as well as jet black heavy lines – great for getting expressive line drawings! It has been around for years- just like me, and I still select it first when looking for a drawing pencil!

  34. My favourite is the stadtler 7B and 8B for the darkest shading. These pencils have a secret Ingredient, they wont tell you. But its probably Carbon, mixed together with grafitt. The 8B goes darker even than the derwents 9B and they dont shine like other pencils when you work them in to the paper.

  35. I recommend these pencils to the students I teach psychic illustration to. Because even the finest detail of a drawing can communicate extremely valuable information, it’s important that when they accentuate whatever imagery appears, the pencil they use has a fine enough point that it won’t inadvertently alter the content.
    Does anyone know where I can purchase /order these by the box? It seems most places online only sell them individually.

  36. I love Derwent Sketching pencils. Not the hexagon shaped ones, but the circular ones. They have good grip and great graphite, and they shade fantastically. The only downside is that you have to get them super sharp to get detail.

  37. Don’t laugh but I just discovered that Crayola colored pencils , the ones with the color of the pencil in three languages written on the end, will give you as much color on your paper as Prismacolor . I’m not sure yet if it was because I spilled my drink on all my pencils and the tips might have been damp, but I don’t think it was. Can you imagine the savings? But there is more than one kind of Crayola’s so make sure the end has three languages for the color. I would try one at the store on a scratch pad. I love Prismacolor but they are expensive when you use them as much as I do!