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Do you have the best pencils for the project at hand? Whether you're a professional artist or you're learning how to draw, it's important to have the right tools for the type of work you're doing.

And that's where we can help. In this guide, you'll find the best mechanical pencils, drawing pencils, colouring pencils and watercolour pencils for all budgets. These are our pick of the very best pencils for artists and designers – so whether you already know the fundamentals of pencil drawing or you're just learning, you can be sure you've got the right pencil in your hand. 

(And once you've picked your pencil, why not pair it with a designer notebook?)

The best mechanical pencils 

Metallic Rotring Rapid Pro Drafting Pencil

This beautiful metal drafting pencil is truly one of the best pencils for pros. It features a hexagonal body and a circular cross-hatch metal grip. 

The cushion point mechanism allows the sliding sleeve to give slightly under pressure to reduce lead breakage while writing. The pencil includes a clip and eraser under the cap. It's a fantastic mechanical pencil suited for layouts and typography.

Metallic Faber-Castell Grip 2011 Pencil

The Faber-Castell Grip Mechanical Pencil has won several design awards and has become deservedly popular. This wonderful pencil feels second-nature thanks to the perfect-sized triangular barrel covered in raised rubber dots, which allow for a firm and comfortable grip. 

Furthermore, the pencil comes with a handy extra-long twisting eraser and 0.7mm HB lead.

The best pencils for drawing and sketching

Three Palomino Blackwing pencils

In the pencil world, Blackwing has an impressive pedigree. It developed something of a cult following before being discontinued in 1998. In 2010, Palomino bought the brand, and the result is more than worthy of the Blackwing name. There are three main pencil options to choose from: the Blackwing (similar to a 5B), Blackwing Pearl (4B) and Blackwing 602 (3B). 

The leads have wax added to them, making them super-smooth to use, and create velvety dark marks. We gave them five stars – you can read our Palomino Blackwing pencils review here.

Caran D'ache Graphite Line gift box

No, you haven't misread that price. And yes, that's the correct picture. The Caran D'ache Graphite Line gift box really does come with fewer than 20 pencils, plus graphite sticks and accessories, at a price that would make even Jeff Bezos blink, but what you're paying for here is top-quality graphite.

The Graphite Line has been carefully developed and perfected in the Geneva workshops of Caran d’Ache to explore all the different shades of black and deliver thick and thin lines, gradation, flat-wash, blurring and watercolour effects. It's an insanely expensive set of pencil, but we suspect that once you've tried it, you won't want to use anything else.

Lyra Rembrandt Art Design Graphite Pencil Set tin

For a much more reasonable price, this set of hexagonal design pencils from Lyra is the ideal way to unleash your shading skills. The full Rembrandt Art Design set covers 17 grades from 9B to 6H, and this box features a good, representative sample, enabling you to really get creative with your shading.

Each pencil is encased in pure cedar wood and packs an ultra-fine graphite lead that's also suitable for more rigid technical drawing techniques.

Small tin of six Derwent Graphic Medium pencils

The Cumberland Pencil Company has been making some of the best pencils around since 1832, and it shows in the quality of its Derwent brand. 

These pencils, which are sold individually and in sets, make smooth, easy lines on the paper, making them ideal for bold line drawings and freestyle sketches.

Tub of Cretacolor Charcoal Powder

As an alternative to using a pencil for sketching and illustration, have you considered using graphite powder? The Cretacolor Charcoal Powder is made using a special deep-firing method to produce a dense, rich charcoal. Develop large-scale drawings or mix with water and a binding agent for additional tonal effects.

The graphite powder produces luminous light and dark shades of grey, it slides easily, smudges, blends, and rubs off like chalk. Fixative must be used on the final artwork and is suitable for wet or dry techniques on paper or canvas. Artist Kelvin Okafor is an avid user of the product, and his portfolio of drawings is spectacular.

The best pencils for colouring

Three coloured Derwent Procolour pencils with the edge of the tin behind

Derwent is well known for making good quality, reliable pencils. Procolour is its latest range of colouring pencils, released in 2017. The pencils themselves feel substantial, with a sturdy circular shaft.

The leads aren't too waxy or too brittle and have a high pigment level for wonderful gradation of colour, even with a light touch. We gave them four and a half stars in our Derwent Procolour review.

Tin of BIC Conté colouring pencils

If colour is your thing, you can't go wrong with this beautiful set of colouring pencils from BIC Conté. These high-quality art instruments have a wood-free, synthetic resin design, which make them completely splinter-free should they break.

But this is definitely not a case of style over substance, as these pencils also boast a 3.2mm pigment-based lead, providing smooth, even and consistent coverage for artists of any age.

Colourful tins of Prismacolor Premier coloured pencils

This pencil set is suited for students and entry-level artists. Soft, thick cores create a smooth colour laydown for superior blending and shading. The pencils are a true art medium with thick, soft leads containing brilliant permanent pigments that are smooth, water-resistant and lightfast.

Colours are easily blended on all art surfaces to form an infinite variety of hues and shades. Their thick leads resist breakage so you may get as dramatic as you dare.

The best watercolour pencils

Tin of Staedtler Karat Aquarell watercolour pencils

Staedtler claims to have invented the colouring pencil, so it should know a thing or two. These watercolour pencils come in sets of 12, 24, 36 and 48, they have high-pigment, break-resistant leads and a good quality wooden shaft that sharpens well. Of course you can use them dry, or add water for extra fun. 

These are a reliable brand and a great option for beginners or more advanced artists. We gave these five stars in our Staedtler watercolour pencil review.

Box of Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils, with watercolour brushes and an artwork

This set is named after the famous German artist Albrecht Dürer. These are very carefully made using only the highest quality materials, including vibrant pigments and a unique binder medium, and they offer over 100 years of fade resistance.

These pencils are perfect for both drawing and painting techniques. They come in tins of 12, 24, 60, and a full range of 120 watercolour pencils, and are ideal for any artist.

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Most of us have drawn and painted posed models in the confines of a studio. Or we’ve sketched animals in a taxidermy collection. It may be easier to draw such a subject that holds still in controlled light conditions, but the results can often look lifeless and unnatural, more mannequin than man.

The remedy is to head outside and hunt for lifelike poses and authentic lighting – real humans and real animals alive in their natural habitat. However, sketching moving subjects from observation is a formidable challenge that can frustrate even the most capable artist. In this feature, I will share my top 10 strategies of how to draw moving subjects.

01. Start with simple tools

Even basic tools can create a strong impression

The simplest set-up for sketching people and animals is a graphite pencil or a ballpoint pen and paper. If you want to add some colour you can use a small set of water-soluble coloured pencils, perhaps yellow ochre, red-brown, dark brown, and black (for some options, look at our guide to the best pencils for artists).

These can be dissolved with a water brush (a hollow-handled refillable tool with a nylon tip). I like to have a second water brush filled with a convenient background colour, such as dark blue or black. There is a variety of brush pens available that will let you sketch quickly with all the advantages of a brush, but without the need to dip into a reservoir of ink or paint.

02. Sketch key poses

Moving subjects rely on stock positions

If an animal or person is awake and moving, they’re not going to stay in the same position for very long. So observe them for a while before you start drawing. Look for characteristic poses that your subject keeps returning to. Try to get a feel for how long they’ll stay in each position. Even if it is standing, a horse will shift its weight from one leg to another, but it will eventually return to its first position. 

Start in the upper-left corner of your paper and draw quick little thumbnails sketches of each of the most characteristic poses. Don’t bother erasing, just start light and leave the first statement of action. Each sketch is like a snapshot from the continuous action going on in front of you. The set of small studies will be a summary of key poses and the range of motion. 

03. Learn the structure

Once you master human anatomy, drawing movement gets easier

If you want to draw from memory, practise copying simplified skeletons and structural breakdowns of humans and animals it becomes are second nature. It’s essential to know the basic forms of the skeleton. You can study diagrams in books, but I prefer to go to a museum with good skeletons and work from those, because that’s the only way you’ll get a sense of the three dimensions. As you’re sketching someone, switch your eyes to ‘x-ray vision’ and imagine what the skeleton is doing underneath. 

04. Let sleeping dogs lie

Tire out a dog and you’ve got a perfect sleeping subject

If you’re lucky, you might catch an animal or a person sleeping. A dog will typically hold a sleeping pose for 10 or 15 minutes, but you never know when they’ll shift position. Since I don’t own a dog, I often draw and paint canines that belong to friends and acquaintances. It often helps to take the dog for a walk before sketching it. The walk tires out the dog so that it will settle down. Also, if the dog is just getting to know you, a walk makes the dog more comfortable with you.

05. Remain inconspicuous

Keep a steady view to get an accurate image

When I’m sitting on a bench, in a restaurant or in a concert audience, I can’t hold the sketchbook anywhere near the line of sight, because setting up an easel isn’t an option. Also, I like to remain relatively inconspicuous.

With the sketchbook down in my lap, there are two issues to overcome – head bobbing and accuracy. To avoid head bobbing, I tip my head forward to a middle angle, and I adjust my reading glasses to the best angle, so I can see the sketch and flick my eyes up to see the subject without moving my head. To improve accuracy, because I can’t reach out my arm to do sight-size measurements, I make mental notes of slopes and alignments during the lay-in stage.

06. Sketch musicians

Musicians create unusual poses as they play

Musicians make great subjects because, although they move a lot, they come back to certain poses. The amount that they shift varies a lot, depending on the performer and the kind of instrument. A few are reliably rock-steady – Irish flautists, for example, especially if they are playing into a microphone. 

Be aware of the etiquette: If the venues are free, or outdoors, or in a pub, the vibe is more relaxed. If in doubt about whether it’s OK to sketch during a performance, it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you can, ask permission to come to rehearsals.

07. Try the flash-glance technique

Close your eyes occasionally to take a mental snap shot

If you’re dealing with fast action, here’s a tip for making your eyes work like a high-speed camera. As you watch your subject, snap your eyes closed from time to time. The last pose that you glimpsed will hover in your short-term memory for a few fractions of a second. I call this after-image the ‘flash-glance’, and it’s usually enough to recall the basic silhouette or limb positions for a quick notation. 

This can work especially well at dance performances and sporting events, where you’re likely to see actions repeated, and you already have an idea of what the extreme poses might look like. At first, when you try this technique, just try to sketch what you really remember observing. Over time, you’ll be able to recall more details of the pose.

08. Train your memory

Memory and imagination go hand in hand

Knowledge, memory, and imagination are closely related. You can make the most progress when you alternate between observation, book study, and memory. You can draw an animal from life, and then draw that pose later in your sketchbook just from memory. 

Even if that memory sketch doesn’t look very good, it helps you come face to face with what you know and what you don’t know. Then, back in the studio, you can supplement gaps in your knowledge by sketching from action photos. The more you can internalise the animal’s structure, the better you can refine a sketch when the person or animal has changed position.

09. Practice on friends

Pubs are the perfect place to practice

Art friends usually don’t mind being sketched, because they understand what you’re trying to do. You can sketch them at a pub, a studio, or a restaurant. At a restaurant, you’ve got about 15-20 minutes after you order your meal while you wait for your food. Of course, everyone will be not holding still, plus you want to add something to the conversation. 

It helps to sit in a seat with good lighting on your work and on your subject. Look at and ‘around’ the person you’re sketching. As they talk and gesture, think about what pose and posture is most typical of that person.

10. Visit zoos and farms to sketch animals

Zoos offer unique sketching opportunities

Zoos offer a great opportunity to sketch animals that would be difficult to observe in the wild. The animals often return to the same poses or movements so you can spend more time on your sketch. If you talk to one of the keepers, they can tell you about the animal’s schedule and feeding routine, and which parts of the zoo are likely to be least crowded. 

If the zoo has large habitat-style enclosures, you can set up a spotting scope on a tripod to bring you closer to the details. Farms and agricultural shows also offer the chance to observe fine specimens of domesticated animals up close, as long as you don’t mind the crowds.

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