Pencils 101

As some of you may know, a couple of years ago I got into a fight with my cover artist, one that not only caused me to lose one of my dearest friends, but also left me in something of a bind, as at the time I had two books that were ready to go to print, but no covers to go with them. This year, in an attempt to avoid a repeat performance, I decided to try to learn to draw.

Now, I’m not going to inflict my pathetic attempts on you (I may be getting better, but I’m still at a stage that can be described as the adult version of refrigerator art), but the thing is that, being on the obsessive end of the spectrum, having a limited budget, and I wanting to get the biggest bang for my buck, I wound up doing more research on the subject of the different kinds of pencils than I ever thought I would.

What can I say, I may have been a bit naive going into that one, but back when I was little I used whatever pencils my parents had bought for me (and you can bet that those were nowhere near professional quality) and I never gave the matter much thought, so I wasn’t really expecting the number of options to be as huge as it is, and while I did find product reviews to be useful, those reviews tend to exist in isolation. They refer to a single product, but for the most part they don’t really go into detail as to what the different kinds of pencils are, and how they compare to one another. In fact I couldn’t find a place where the information was both presented in a coherent fashion, and aimed at absolute beginners.

Given the popularity of adult coloring books, I suspect I’m not the only one who has suddenly found herself struggling with this particular issue, so making it clear that I am not a professional, here you have my attempt at an explanation (and yes, there are going to be a number of posts in this series, otherwise things would get too unwieldy for comfort, but you can think of this one as a basic road map).

Now, before we delve head first into the world of colored pencils, let’s take a step back, ditch the colored part of the equation, and have a quick look at traditional graded pencils.

These are the ones you grew up thinking of as plain, old pencils, and in most parts of the world they range from 9H to 9B. Those are gray/black. H pencils are harder, and the higher the number, the lighter the tone, B pencils get blacker the higher they go, and they meet in the middle in the form of the traditional HB pencil that is used by school children everywhere (in the US system  that would be #3).  The basic pencil lead is, and has always been, made out of graphite –no, in spite of the name lead does not come into it– though there are also specialized pencils that use charcoal or carbon instead. If you want to give those specialized pencils a shot keep in mind that charcoal pencils smudge like crazy, but enough with the graded pencils, now let’s move on to the fun stuff: colored pencils.

Now, as I mentioned above, back when I was little I used to think that a pencil was a pencil, and that was the extent of it. That is obviously not the case, and as the different brands try to get one leg up on the competition, the number of choices keeps expanding. But let’s try to tackle some of the basics, so that by the time you go shopping you have at least a general idea as to what all those details you find in the description actually entail.

For the most part color pencils can be said to belong to one of a number of categories.

For basic pencils you have hard and soft cores, with the soft cores being further subdivided into wax and oil based. Over all the hard cores are better for drawing lines and hold a finer point, the soft cored ones are better for blending and providing a smooth coverage, and are the ones people tend to use with those adult coloring books. Of those soft cored pencils, the wax based ones are both cheaper and more common, while the oil based ones are considered more professional. Also, keep in mind that that wax and oil based pencils handle fairly differently, so if you are used to one kind –usually wax based– and want to give the other one a try, you may find that there is something of a learning curve. It’s nothing major, but it may catch you off guard.

Next on the list are watercolor pencils. As their name seems to suggest, in addition to being used as regular pencils, these can be used to paint watercolors, and are extremely versatile, all you have to do is add water. A word of caution though: for the most part these don’t work with adult coloring books (simply put, if you are going to be adding water to the mix, you are going to need a different kind of paper).

Our last category are pastel pencils. These are fairly tricky, as they are basically hard pastels masquerading as pencils. They have the advantage that, unlike regular pastels, they can be sharpened to a fine point, but their cores are much softer than those of regular pencils. They tend to smudge, and can leave quite a bit of dust behind. Also a word of advise: while I mentioned above that their great advantage is that they can be sharpened to a fine point,  if you go over the reviews of pretty much any set in this category you are going to find a gazillion negative ones complaining about the fact that the leads keep breaking when you try to sharpen them. For the most part this has nothing to do with the quality of the pencils themselves, it has to do with the fact that these pencils are not meant to be sharpened using a regular sharpener. Of course, the fact that these complaints are par for the course means that identifying a set where this is due to a lack of quality can be all but impossible.

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