The Watercolor Corner of the Internet!

Pencil Leads Explained (Which is Best for Watercolor)

Published:

Updated:

Pencil Leads Explained

Disclaimer

As an affiliate, we may earn a commission from qualifying purchases. We get commissions for purchases made through links on this website from Amazon and other third parties.

Pencil leads are defined by a combination of numbers and/or letters e.g. 2H, 6B, B or just regular HB. Then there are the thickness of leads, not to mention wooden or mechanical pencils. There’s a lot to talk about, and it’s all in this article.

I’ll also go over the right pencils and leads that you should use for drawing and for watercolor painting.

Pencil Lead Hardness

For clarity I will be referencing the European system for pencil grades, as I’m from the UK; so most of my pencils use this system, including my Japanese brands. I also feel it is a more comprehensive grading system.

In layman’s terms the harder the lead, the lighter the pencil marks; conversely, the softer the lead, the darker the pencil marks.

Pencil Lead Numbers Explained

I will be using the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencil range for most examples, which is great all around pencil set.

Harder leads are rated with an H grade, then with a corresponding number to denote how light the lead is. Starting at H, then 2H, going up to 10H

Softer leads are rated with a B grade, then with a corresponding number to denote how dark the lead is. Starting at B then 2B, going up to 9B

HB is a middle grading that usually works for most pencil jobs.

There is also an F grade for ‘Firm’. This grade sits between an HB and an H.

Here is my comprehensive chart with all the grades, but importantly with a column for a wash of watercolor to show how much pencil shows through. So take note, I am using Staedtler pencils, Arches hot pressed watercolor paper and Windsor & Newton Professional watercolors:

It’s a very subjective choice about how much you want your pencil lines to show through. I tend to opt for a softer lead from 2B to 6B.

Best Pencil Lead for Watercolor

The best pencil lead for watercolor is between the 2B and 6B lead pencil. If I had to pick one then it’s the 6B. This is the grade I use to lay down lines while not showing too much through the watercolour washes on top.

Pencil Leads Explained
Watercolor and 4B pencil

But this is a very subjective answer. You may not want any pencil to show through the painting, in which case I would suggest picking a lower B grade pencil. I think the sweet spot for the best pencil lead for watercolor is between 2B and 6B.

I personally think 9B is too crumbly and you’ll be sharpening constantly. A 7B or 8B pencil are crumbly, but still soft for my preference.

On the flip side you may want your lines to be very sharp and fine, in which case I would use a HB to 2H grade pencil.

The harder pencil lines are too fine for me and are better suited to technical drawing on smooth paper.

Tombow Pencil Lead (Japan)

My favourite brand of pencil is Tombow Mono from Japan. These pencils get softer quicker so the 6B is equivalent to 11B or 12B from Staedtler. I think the Mono 6B is too crumbly for me when used for watercolors.

I think the sweet spot is between 2B and 5B, and I usually use a 2B or 4B depending on how much pencil I want to show through.

Tombow Mono

I feel like the Tombow leads start at 2H for best hardness to use for technical drawing or regular drawing. For watercolor you could start as hard as a H all the way to 5B.

Tombow Mono

Derwent Graphic (UK)

Derwent pencils are possibly the most well known pencil brands in the UK and I have been using them most of my career. Similar to Tombow, Derwent leads lean softer much quicker than Staedtler.

Derwent Graphic

Throughout the B range they all feel very soft to draw with. Even the B lead feels crumbly. For watercolor painting the B and 4B lead is my preference and closest to the Staedtler’s 4B to 6B leads.

Final Thoughts

This article on pencil leads explained’s sole purpose is as a reference for watercolour artists who use pencils to lay down lines. I hope you’ve got all the info you need on the different pencil types. I’ve used all three brands extensively and I would say Tombow and Derwent work well with watercolors.

  • Premium quality drawing pencil with unbelievably break-resistant lead!
  • Particularly suitable for writing, drawing, sketching and hatching, as well as for professional graphic and artistic applications on paper and matte drawing film
  • Design set of 12 finely graded consistent degrees in portable metal storage tin: 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H
  • The super-bonded lead wears evenly and is easy to erase and sharpen
  • First-class materials and manufacturing processes guarantee outstanding and unbeatable product quality

Staedtler from 4B upwards works for watercolors. Anything else is meant for drawing or drafting and that’s what I feel the Staedtler Mars Lumograph is aimed at, especially with the bigger range.

Tombow’s only go up to 6B whereas the Staedtler all the way to 12B.

If you can spend the extra money, get the Tombow Mono line. These are quality pencil leads that I love using for watercolor painting. Even though they only go up to 6B it’s a quality lead that is smooth to draw with.

Links

If you have any more questions do pop down in the comments below and I can reply back directly.

Don’t forget to follow me on any of my social medias, Instagram and YouTube for more content, and Twitter for up to date news on what I’m working on.

More articles like this can be found here.

About the author

Latest Posts

  • Watercolor Brush Shapes Explained

    Watercolor Brush Shapes Explained

    Watercolor brush shapes (and sizes) are sometimes a bit confusing, knowing which brush is the right one to get can be difficult to work out. What’s the difference between a mop and round head, or the difference between a size 00 and a size 2? This article will also help you work out the types…

    Read more

  • Pencil Leads Explained (Which is Best for Watercolor)

    Pencil Leads Explained (Which is Best for Watercolor)

    Pencil leads are defined by a combination of numbers and/or letters e.g. 2H, 6B, B or just regular HB. Then there are the thickness of leads, not to mention wooden or mechanical pencils. There’s a lot to talk about, and it’s all in this article. I’ll also go over the right pencils and leads that…

    Read more

  • Best Black Ink for Watercolor Painting

    Best Black Ink for Watercolor Painting

    I once took an hour to sketch a landscape in black ink, and when I added watercolors, to my surprise and horror, the dried black ink reactivated and ruined the entire painting. You don’t have to make this mistake because I’m going to show you which black ink to use for watercolor painting. The best…

    Read more