Every illustrator has his or her favourite tools. Mine is a 6B pencil, for sure. Read in this blogpost what is so special about a 6B pencil and why you have to understand the hardness scales to optimize your results.
You may know an HB pencil from school. They are good for writing. I’ve drawn about 200 pages of comics with a common pencil until I bought a mechanical pencil. Still, I worked with HD mines for years. I loved the sharp lines and I had more control in comparison to a common pencil. I learned the downside while colouring. Whenever I worked with a mechanical pencil, one could clearly see the pressure I worked with. I read some articles on pencil hardness scales and tried different kinds of tools.
After some years, I came to the result, that mechanical pencils are only good for small and detailed drawings. Here you can see a sketch on my DARK portrait of Jonas and Martha. The whole sketch is on A4 paper, so the details are quite small. I could not draw this with a common pencil – but I don’t enjoy drawing with mechanical pencils.
The pencil hardness scale
Reading a lot about art and sketching, I tried lots of techniques e.g. charcoal or cross-hatching. I figured out that one cannot do cross-hatching or shading with all kinds of hardness. The pencil hardness scale goes from 8H (hard) to 8B (soft / black). If you want to draw with a H mine, you have to press quite hard onto the paper. B mines are way software and darker, but they can easily be smudged. I still don’t own the whole pencil hardness scale, since I was not able to spot the difference of 7B to 8B or HB to F. I figured out that I was not able to work with harder pencils than 3H. The lines just disappeared. All in all, I own four different pencils: HB, 3B, 6B and 8B. You can see those in my photograph above.
Which hardness is made for what purpose?
As said before, F, HB and B are good for writing. But since I don’t like to write with pencils at all, I barely use them. Therefore, 3B became a sort of all-rounder. I really like this hardness for rather small, postcard-scales drawings. I figured out that my pictures become larger the softer and broader my pencils are. 6B is perfect for me. The lines are about 2-3 mm thick which leads to portraits about the size of a hand. I need only a couple of traces to portray somebody. With a 6B pencil I have full control about darkness and pressure.
I only use 8B if I plan illustrations that will be printed bigger than A4. Some artists told me, that they also like H pencils, because they have thin and precise lines. They use them for details. But I don’t use any hard pencils at all. I guess they are best for technical drawings.
Why you should try out a 6B pencil
The thing I like the most about that 6B pencil is its versatility. I can draw bold and thin lines and I can use it for cross-hatching or shading. In comparison to other degrees of hardness I feel like I have the best control with it. I don’t have to think too much about smudging the lines, which is one of the biggest downsides of the 8B pencil. You can still use a common rubber, though I prefer foam rubbers or art erasers.
If you’re quite new to drawing, you should try different degrees of hardness. You don’t need all 18 of them, but maybe a few B and a few H just to have an impression. I guess you only need the full set as a professional landscape and portrait painter. I only need three or four different degrees of pencil hardness, but I use them wisely.