Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bear Tools, Part I.

Bear Tools, Part I.

An Examination Of Drawing Implements

Occasionally, someone will write me asking what sort of pens, pencils and paper I use. And just as occasionally, I'll write back with a legitimate answer or gypsy curse. So I've decided to preemptively answer some of these future emails by posting an article, much like I did a few weeks ago with Entering Illustration, that will address some of these common questions. Of course, pretty soon into this article, I realized there's just too much to say for one piece. So I'll be examining my various drawing apparatuses over a series of articles, with this first part concentrating on...

Pencils and other Starter Tools

As I've mentioned before, every drawing almost always starts as a pencil rough. While some of these eventually turn into ink drawings or paintings, a good percentage of them really don't progress past the rough stage, and just turn into a refined pencil drawing. For both roughs and refined pencil drawings, I generally only require the use of 2 or 3 specific pencils, and some supplemental tools.

Blue Faithful, the 3H Pencil

Image of Blue Faithful

Meet my oldest friend in the toolbox — the 3H Pencil1. We've been together so long, I'm not even sure when I got him. Or who made him. But the majority of drawings I've done in the past 5 years or so started out with him. I generally use him to "feel out" a drawing, lightly penciling in shapes and space at the start of a drawing. He's sort of the pencil equivalent of Lewis & Clark, venturing into the vast wilderness of the white page and returning to me with an important outline of what's there. For example:

Sample Image

See? Before 3H, I didn't even know Reginald existed. His sweetie, however, remains a mystery to all. Moving on...

A Family Tradition: The Mechanical Pencil

Image of Mechanical Pencil

While hard-hearted 3H and his ilk live long, steady lives, Mechanical Pencils tend to live fast and hard, and then quickly die out, their soft guts splayed across a hundred scattered sketches and drawings. So I find that I need to employ entire families of Mechanical Pencils in order to keep drawing. This is Red the XIV, from the Bic-Matic Grip Pencil clan. All the members of Bic-Matic Grip Pencil clan have served me well. Their soft #2 Medium graphite tips have stayed perpetually sharp, and provide most of the line and tone in every drawing. In the example below, we see Reginald has now been blocked in with a few Mechanical Pencil strokes. From this point I could either smear those lines to get tone, or go in with another pencil (whom you'll meet soon enough).

Sample Image

Sadly, I plan to abandon this particular Bic-Matic Grip Pencil clan once the last member of the clan leaves the box. I've decided to start using a Mechanical Pencil with refillable insides, so to be a bit more environmentally responsible. But I shall not forget their many contributions to my important work.

The Versatile Mr. H

Image of H Pencil

This is my second oldest friend — the H pencil. His chief value, for me, is his versatility. On occasions where 3H goes vacationing in the couch cushions or the bottom of my bag, good ol' H is willing to do the initial rough exploration on a new drawing. But he's not limited to that. H very often is used for hatching and shading, though the amount of darkness he provides depends very much on what paper I'm using. I've included a sample of H in action below, but he's also appeared in a couple other articles.

Sample Image

Rubber Eraser

Image of Rubber Eraser

What we have here are rubber erasers, also known as a kneadable erasers. I use them for almost all my erasing needs, though it's not like I have anything against other erasers (for instance, I'll often use the little chap topping Mechanical Pencils). I suppose I use them because they last a long time, and their pliability means I can combine them into a supereraser for cleaning broad areas of a drawing, or I can tear off little pointy nubs for erasing tiny areas. Like noses. Or Elephants... in drawings of the Earth from space.

The only problem with these guys is that they tend to pick up every bit of detritus they touch. It's probably the filthiest thing I use on a daily basis, not including my aforementioned library of gypsy curses. Often I'll start to erase with one, and not realize a piece of mechanical pencil got lodged in its side, and dark strokes will suddenly appear where I'm supposed to be erasing. Their idea of a practical joke, I think.


Image of Tortillon

These fellows are called Tortillons. I employ a number of these to create tone in a drawing, by smearing the loose graphite lines of the Mechanical Pencil. While they are probably my favorite tool, they do have a bit of a drawback, mainly the fact that the concept of dry paper rubbing on dry paper makes my skin crawl in the same way fingernails on a blackboard would affect someone else. Luckily, I'm able to tolerate it while drawing, but man... the hair on my arms is sticking straight up just typing this paragraph... let's just go to the samples so I can relax:

Sample Image 1 Sample Image 2

A Quick Note on Digital Tools

I would be negligent if I didn't mention the use of digital drawing tools, particularly Photoshop's paintbrush and brush shapes, when talking about drawing. I won't get too in-depth on the subject, at least not in this article.

Often, when something doesn't erase as well as I'd like, or if I'd like to add a line here, or a highlight there, I'll add these touches in Photoshop. I still try to get everything as perfect as possible in real-life, but to be honest it's rare to always get things just how you want them. And it's important to note, that in preparing a drawing or painting to be seen on the web, you'll almost never get a scan or photo that looks exactly how you're seeing it in the real world. Tools like Levels, Hue/Saturation, and Sharpen help you more accurately translate the real-life appearance of your art to the web format.

Well, that's about all I have to share regarding the tools I use for roughs and pencil drawing. Next time, I'll be going over pens I think. Or maybe hot air balloons. You can't do a drawing without a proper dirigible, right?


1In case you're unfamiliar with the naming convention for pencils, H stands for hardness. The higher the number, the harder the pencil (and lighter the line). As pencils get softer, a "B" is added. And then the higher the number before the B, the softer the graphite (and darker the line). I'm not sure what B stands for. Probably Bsoftness, where the B is silent.

Comments on this Article

There are currently 45 comments.

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I believe those are Staedtler pencils. My pencil selection is governed by natural selection. The idiot ones wander off and get eaten by the trash/vac. Leaving only the true survivors (typically 6B and 9H). Now if they'd only mix gene stock, I'd have a tool I can actually use.

glindon marten

Another great post, thanks for the tips and techniques. You are a scholar and a gentleman.


Toadhall - Ah! Thanks so much. When 3H and H move on, at least now I can replace them with relatives.

Glindon - No problem! Now you repay ME with singing tips!


There needs to be much more of this (but no less of anything other).


Well, after I run out of posts about the drawing tools I use, and I can do one on some back-alley surgerical tools I created.

Robert Higdon

I'd like to read more about the day to day hygiene products that you use. Tell me more! Tell me more!


Thanks to this excellent article, Iíve just checked that my friend the 3B guy has 3Bs for Blackness. This certainly reflects an inherent darkness.

Dave S.

I'm pleased to discover we share an affinity for the mechanical pencil family. I've always felt a touch dirty relying on such a sterile unartistic tool, but it's what gets the job done for me.


Robert - Well, I use all the standard stuff. Soap. Shampoo. Full-body wax.

Sophie - AH! That makes sense!

Dave - I tell ya, sharpening is for suckers. Next time I see you, we'll trash the whole pencil aisle at the local art store. Except for the 3H's and the H's. Those are cool to sharpen.


This evokes memories of pitiful creations from my college drawing class. Despite the professorís wry comment, Iíll never be an illustrator.


At least picking the flower made the "PLOIK" sound and not "KIOLP" or Reginald would have been in trouble.

I'm also glad to see that you use a mechanical pencil. Now that I think about it, I haven't sharpened a pencil in years.

Manuel Martensen

What else could i add?

You are a scholar and a gentleman.


The 'B' stands for 'Black'. This is the one and only fact I learned in drawing classes, and why I cannot draw.

(It also adds an evil tint to my new nom-de-blog, don't you think)


Jordan - Uh oh - what was his wry comment?

Ryan - Flowers always go PLOIK. Now, vegetables, they're gonna go SCHRUNK when you take one up.

Manuel - Being a scholar's not hard. All you need to do is refer to your glasses as "spectacles".

Bananaglyph - I wouldn't say an "evil" tint. I'd say a "delicious" tint. Speaking of which, the reappearance of this naming convention was a delicious treat for my humor bone.


I love the allusion to Cow Tools, easily the most baffling Far Side ever. You even got the grumpy shoulder slump! Top notch!


Cool beans! I used to use kneadable erasers, and then they crumbed to a blacken pulp and i'm to lazy to buy more!

Steve Killen

I usually have trouble using kneadable erasers, though this is probably because I spend more time erasing than actually drawing. It's still a mystery to me why my sketches don't end up as negative spaces.


Paul - I was hoping someone would notice that. Man, I love that comic :D

Alison - I keep mine flexible by constantly playing with it. My finger oils keep it soft and pliable! Maybe!

Steve - I used to use white erasers - plastic erasers I think they're called - but I'd need to use a rubber one every so often and I got tired of carrying two kinds of eraser everywhere. Plus, I'd have to slice up the plastic eraser into small bits for small areas, and that wastes a lot of eraser.


I'll just repeat what Paul said...awesome far side refrence and yeah he pretty much said everything I was going to say! geez pfft i'll copy him anyway. You've really captured that expressionless cow so well, especially the lifeless eyes.

Eric Banana

This article is most timely as I'm currently rehearsing for the part of J.S.Staedtler in the upcoming biopic of the man and his empire.

It's not going to be an easy role to play. The violence is rather extreme, especially in the tragic scenes of the 1864 Poopenhoffen pencil revolt.


WARNING: Pencils are distinct from pens, which use a liquid marking material.


Thanks, seriously, for the notes here. I took commercial art in the beginning of what has become an 8 year college career and although I still have my varied pencils, I had forgotten the value. I use BIC mechanicals mostly, but they are so soft that they smear in moments. I see you also showed how even that can be useful. Too cool.

Thanks again as always, and by the way, if I see a giant earth-crushing rubber eraser deleting everything in it's path, I'll know who sent it.


Wacom Cintiq 12WX

it rules


Perhaps the "B" stands for "BOLD" but I'm not really sure either, for all I know maybe it is some weird latin word that no one even really speaks anymore but for some reason they want to keep it in existence in some form so they attach it to a pencil and call ti a day!


Wow. I've used Tortillons for years and never knew they had such a fancy name - they've always been "smudge sticks" to me. BTW. Figleif. LOVE IT!!! Wasn't he the viking who conquered the new world and discovered Hanes? :-)


Forgive me if I'm being ignorant, but why is the mechanical pencil pictured not refillable? You should just be able to remove the eraser and pop more lead in...


Damn. That's the third time this week that I've aimed for 'evil' and ended up with 'delicious'.

I guess the writing's on the wall in thick black 6B for my career as an Evil Mastermind. A 'Delicious' Mastermind has exactly zero credibility when it comes to holding the world to ransom for a billion dollars.

Dr Terry Wrist

@ Bananaglyph...

In the current climate of terrorist paranoia you could adopt some 'evil' with just a small addition to your name... TALIBANANAGLYPH.


I feel slightly yellow...



oh kevin.


Yesterday someone gave me a compliment on a booksketch I was working on in a coffee shop. To compliment his compliment, I gave him a *free* pencil with my site's name/logo on it, to which he replied "Wow, I never use pencils."

At which point I stared at him blankly; uncomprehending.


Sounds like YOU met the man who never makes mistakes. I admire that kind of confidence.


Huzzah! I'm not the only one who's bothered by paper rubbing against paper!

Wonderful article! It's time for me to get sketching before this new-found inspiration goes away ^_^


As someone trying to master the basics without schooling - it is great to see this kind of info. Thanks!


Awesome posting.

I love me some bic mechanicals too!
(and as Cody observed, they are refillable in just that manner!)

So, I got some different colored bic pencils and filled the red ones w/soft lead and the gray ones with hard.

(I'm really quite proud of myself, except they seem to walk away...)

Dylan Meconis

You should be able to refill any mechanical pencil by holding down the eraser and then feeding a single piece of lead into the empty nose of the pencil.

A bit awkward, but I have Bic mechanicals that, if they were children isntead of art supplies, could very well be enrolled in public school by now.


I know what you mean about the dry paper on dry paper, I have a similar affliction. The thought [or image] of me or anyone biting into wet wood [say a popsicle stick] sends shivers up my spine and leaves me covered in goose bumps like I am right now.


I love your site design.


i use a whole slew of refillable mechanical pencils for drawing. i even have them color coded for the different colors of 'graphite' (i.e. red, blue, green, graphite). i also use different lead widths (5,7,9) but prefer the good old 3mm for most things. i really found your post on inking tools helpful and it made me want to try my old rapidographs again. a really awesome pen you might like is the disposable japanese brush pen with real synthetic hairs made by, i think, sakura as well. not to be confused with the crappy felt 'brush' pens sold most places. these are available in deluxe and cheapo (my fav) and waterproof and regular ink. these require some getting used to but you can get lots of line variation in one tool and the blacks are ultra-black. looking forward to your next post on painting tools.


Thanks Darkvictoria - a couple people have suggested the brush pens; think I'll give em a try :D


'B' appears to be 'Blackness': (CTRL/CMD+F and type 'Blackness', it's somewhere on the bottom of that page)


An even easier way to refill the disposable mechanical pencils is to just pop the eraser out and drop the lead into the hole that's left. Of course, you need enough eraser to grip (or dig your nails into).

Generally I find losing the pencil before the eraser gets too worn down helps...


You got a fun informative blog going. Should you feel inclined to delve deeper into brush pens options this is my picture review of a selection of mainly Japanese brush pens

Ian H.Thain

I think the "B" in pencil classifications stands for "Black". So "HB" was "Half-Black" and so on. Mind, I'm going back 60-odd years, and things may have changed.


I was recently at an art store and noticed they have "sketch books" and "drawing books"; What's the difference?!

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