What is the best pencil for drawing comics?
Wealthy, that’s what I would be right now if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen this question asked! I belong to several comic art facebook groups and this is probably one of the most asked questions I see. Who could blame you for wanting the best tool for the trade, after all, you want to produce the best work that you possibly can. Doesn’t it stand to reason that you should have the best pencil money can buy? Well yes, but mostly a resounding no! The truth is that there really is no “best” pencil for drawing comics. The best pencil is the one that makes the marks on the paper that you are happiest with. Sorry guys and gals, the Mjolnir of pencils does not exist! What does exist, is whatever pencil you find to be the most comfortable for you to draw with. It’s as simple as that! “But I saw so and so favorite artist using this type of pencil, so I need the same one so I can draw just as good”. I get it, I really do, but it doesn’t work that way. Lets get one thing straight, there is no pencil, pen, marker, drawing table or other random art supply that is going to make you a better artist. The only thing that is going to make you better at drawing comics is practice, practice and oh yeah…practice! So don’t get caught up in finding the lead and wood equivalent of the Holy Grail, just find some tools you like, stick with them and draw. Now, having said all of that, there are some pencils that are widely used in the industry. I’m going to go through a few of the choices to point you in the right direction. I’ll link to some of them for you to check out. Your job is to find out which of these is the best tool for you. Don’t go crazy, remember to work within your budget. For artists, buying art supplies is a bit of a rush, especially when trying out new tools. Sometimes we want to buy a bunch of stuff at once, and that is ok, but maybe pick up one of each type of pencil to see what works best for you. If you find one you like, stick with it. If you wind up drawing for Marvel, DC or one of the other prominent companies and you can afford it, order a box or two. So without further ado here are some of the most widely used pencil types for comics.
You really can’t go wrong with a lead holder. They are versatile, can take all different types of lead and they generally last a long time. I have some lead holders I use that I got back in 1989. I’m sure other artists have some even older than that. For those of you who have never seen or used a lead holder, it’s basically a metal or plastic tube, with a clip on one end for clipping to your pocket (or pocket protector if your the engineering type) and a push button on the top that actives a retractable gripper on the other end where you insert the lead of your choice. It’s super simple to use and you can change the lead out in like half a second, just push down and hold the top button and the lead slides right out. The lead holder usually comes with lead already in it, but typically you buy cartridges of different grades of lead that come 12 leads to a cartridge. Here are some examples to get you started.
This is an Alvin Ben B3 lead holder. This one is black with a metal tube body and takes 2mm lead. It’s a sturdy pencil and will last you years. Sturdy, simple and reliable.
Here is the Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder (780 C). I’ve had mine for years, I’ve used it for drafting, graphic design, comic illustration, sketch cards, you name it. I always see new artist asking about this one because they see Jim Lee using these, and for good reason. They are a good solid performing pencil. It has a plastic body, but again, treat it well and it will last for years.
Another solid performing pencil it the Prismacolor Turquoise. These are a bit thinner in grip than the Alvin and the Staedtler Mars, but still a solid piece of equipment. Like the Staedtler Mars, this one also has a plastic body and is really light. It has a one inch knurled metal grip surface at the bottom of the pencil to help maintain a nice grip as your drawing. Any of these will go a long way in helping you become the artist you want to be. Get one of each and see which one you like best, then practice your butt off and rule the comicbook world!!
Lead in a lead holder is sharpened using a special sharpener specifically for lead holders. Some are small and look like traditional hand held pencil sharpeners but with much smaller holes for the lead to be put into for sharpening. This one is the Kum 303.58.21 Plastic Lead Pointer Pencil Sharpener
The other type, which I prefer, looks like a small cup about the size of a paper bathroom cup. It has a top with a raised tube where you insert the bottom of the pencil with a bit of lead sticking out. You then move the pencil in a circular motion to sharpen the lead. You can get a really nice sharp point with these.
The two I have are the Alvin ALP41 Rotary Lead Pointer and a 27 year old Alvin standard Lead Pointer which I don’t think they even make anymore, but this one just doesn’t die so I keep using it.
While you can use any lead grade you want, most artist use a 2H lead for layout since it is a harder but lighter colored lead and HB lead for finishes. HB is a nice middle ground lead, it’s not too hard, not too soft, it’s just right. It gives a nice dark line without being too smudgy. If you go more towards the B grades of lead, like you would get in a traditional drawing set, they tend to be softer and smudge easily, something you don’t want to do to your comic pages. You want to keep your finished pages as neat as possible.
I like the Prismacolor Turquoise leads in 2H and HB. There are other leads out there, so again find the ones you like, but you can’ t go wrong with Prismacolor.
A nice thing about lead holders is you can also get non-photo blue lead for them. What is non-photo blue lead you ask. Non-photo blue lead was popular back in the day when reproduction technology wasn’t as advanced as what we have today. An artist could pencil their pages loose and sloppy with non-photo blue lead. Then they could neatly pencil over the blue guidelines they made and have the choice to pick the lines they wanted to accentuate in their drawings. When the pencil pages were finished, they would get inked and then photographed. The non-photo blue wouldn’t show up in the photographic process hence leaving behind the finished inks. Non-photo blue pencils are still in use today much in the same way they were years ago. Artist tend to like them because it allows them to draw loose and sloppy, but also the lead has a more waxy consistency so it glides easily over the paper. What’s cool is with todays technology, you can scan in your pencils and use Photoshop or another pixel editing program to drop out the blue lines leaving just your dark pencil lines, then it’s off to the inker. I personally like the Prismacolor Turquoise Non Photo leads
Mechanical pencils are very similar to lead holders, in fact they are technically lead holders, with some minor differences. Mechanical pencils use much thinner leads, usually anywhere from .3 to .9 mm lead. Like a lead holder you can get them in various grades H, 2H, 4H, B, HB etc. Unlike lead holders, mechanical pencils push a predetermined amount of lead out for every click of the button on the top, or side of the pencil. This is why it’s called a “mechanical” pencil, because it has a mechanism inside that dispenses the lead in metered amounts.
Like the lead holder, mechanical pencils are easy to use and come in various sizes depending on the thickness of the lead you want to use. For fine details you would use a .3 to .5 mm and for thicker lines a .7 to .9 mm.
You can also use non-photo blue lead in a mechanical pencil. Loading the mechanical pencil is slightly more difficult only because the leads are so thin and delicate. Usually you have to thread it into the tiny hole at the bottom though there are some you can load a few leads at a time into the top and the mechanism will feed them through as you click the pencil. You can find mechanical pencils in varying grip thicknesses.
The Pentel SideFX is a thicker pencil to grip and has the button for dispensing lead on it’s side. It also has a nice twist up eraser which is very convenient.
The Sukura SumoGrip shown in .5 & .7mm are also thicker grip pencils. These have a nice soft jelly rubber grip at the bottom which makes them very comfortable to use, especially if you have a lot of penciling to do.
If you also do a lot of digital art, these thicker grip pencils might be a better fit for you, as they are similar in thickness to the stylus pen that comes with a digital tablet such as a Wacom Intuos Pro. This way there is not much of a transition between thick to thin drawing tools if your an artist that works in both traditional and digital media.
As for the lead you can find mechanical pencil lead in different sizes and grades of lead. Though 2H and HB are commonly used, you can also find all grades of H through B leads. I have the Pentel Hi-Polymer Super brand of leads that go great with the Pentel GraphGear 500’s mechanical pencil.
Wood and Woodless Pencils
Your typical standard looking pencil, lead on the bottom, eraser (or not) on the top. Yes boys and girls you can actually be a successful comic artist using just standard looking pencils. If that’s what you like go for it. Like with the lead holders and mechanical pencils, I prefer to use these in 2H and HB but you can use other levels of lead hardness as well. Just remember if you go more towards the B’s–2B, 4B etc, the lead gets really soft and smudgy. Great for pencil drawings that use a lot of tones, not so much for comics. You can find these type of pencils anywhere and usually a box of a dozen is fairly cheap. I like Derwent pencils, but you can get any brand really, it’s up to you. These are wood pencils with a lead core just like the standard #2 pencils you used in school.
You can also get woodless pencils which are basically a pencil shaped piece of graphite wrapped in a plastic wrapper. Again, fairly inexpensive and you can find them in different grades of lead. You just sharpen them and go, simple really. I have a bunch of these and I like to use them from time to time. I have Generals Woodless Pencils and they work just fine. I have some hard lead and a bunch of soft lead for doing more tonal drawings. I would however reserve these more for sketching than comicbook pages as the leads tend to be more in the B range.
Remember the non-photo blue pencils mentioned in the lead holder section earlier, well you can find those in a wood pencil as well. You can get a box of these to keep on hand if you decide working with the blue pencil is what you like. I recommend the Prismacolor Verithin Non-Photo Blue Pencil You will of course need a standard pencil sharpener, any one will do for these type of pencils. I have a Maped Tonic 2 Hole Sharpener and a Kum Color Combi 218 sharpener which is for both normal and color pencils
So that about wraps it up for pencils. Hopefully this gave you enough information to get you going in the right direction. We’ll be back in a few days with a new installment, this time talking about the best How-To books for comic illustration.
See you soon!