Getting a grip with Graphite Pencils: A beginner’s guide

Graphite Pencil

All great art starts with a sketch – Picasso owned an impressive 175 sketchbooks filled with ideas at the time of his death. Pencils are a great way to sketch ideas quickly or make beautiful, detailed drawings. Using a good range of graphite pencils allows you to explore a broad tonal value and achieve varying results.

How are pencils made?

All wood-encased pencils are made from three major ingredients: graphite, clay and a small amount of binder. Back in the 17th century these were ground down by hand, put in a cylindrical mould and fired in a kiln. Today, Winsor & Newton pencils are made with sustainably grown, easy-to-sharpen, aromatic cedar wood.

How to understand pencil grades

If you’re new to picking up a pencil, the first thing you will notice is that there several numbered and lettered grades. These work as a guide to help you select the right pencil to fit your needs.

Here’s the scale for graphite leads:

8B 6B 5B 4B 3B 2B B HB F H 2H 3H 4H
This scale runs from Softest (left) to Hardest (right)

B = Blackness
F = Fine
HB = A combination of H and B
H = Hard

Graphite Pencils tones


  • A ‘B’ range pencil indicates it has soft lead – the higher the number, the softer and darker the lead.
  • The higher numbers in this range have a greater concentration of graphite. Generally, ‘B’ grades are best for shading and smooth coverage of large areas.
  • The ‘H’ range makes a more subtle grey mark, the higher the number, the less graphite is included, these are best used for delicate, intricate drawings.
  • The ‘F’ grade is used to indicate that the pencil lead is a special formulation that will maintain a fine point.
  • The most popular pencil, ‘HB’ is a combination of hard and soft leads which makes it a great all-rounder.

Whether a beginner or a professional, having an array of pencil grades is essential to achieve a tonal range in your work. Generally, the best way to start drawing is with a hard pencil which will make a light mark that erases easily, allowing you to adjust your drawing frequently at the beginning. Then, as the drawing develops and requires a darker mark for shading or bold details, move on to a softer pencil. Multiple layers of a hard lead will never produce black; therefore, you need a softer pencil to be able to achieve a truly dark mark.

Top tip

Your sharpener is your best friend. Use a quality pencil and keep it sharp so you have fine point that will not break with pressure. You can refine the point of your pencil with the artists’ old trick of placing a piece of fine-grade sandpaper on a table and gently running the side of the lead across it.

Browse our full range of pencils here.