Black Pencils: Some Recommendations

March 3, 2010

Black pencil recommendations and an impromptu give away.
Dot12_8_98 Left: One of my Daily Dots—a drawing of Dottie sketched from life using a Cretacolor Nero 1 pencil on the drawing paper page of a Michael Roger Press casebound sketchbook (the type of book I used for the first two years of the project).

The other day a friend asked me what my favorite black pencil was. She was having trouble getting the dark-darks that she wanted when she sketched with a pencil.

I don't even have to pause for a second to answer this question—but I do have three favorites.

First a little bit of context. When you are a graphic designer and illustrator it helps if you have a "graphic" life model and having two black and white Alaskan Malamute bitches was not just a coincidence. There was about them both that sense of beautifully displaced negative space, and of course Notan. You can see my comments about Emma, Dottie, and Notan here.

Because I wanted to reproduce the Daily Dots in a variety of ways (I made several different artist books with this material) I started the project with some graphite, but mostly with black pencil. It suited the paper I was using at the beginning of the project. (Later I would use watersoluble pencil, pen, and watercolor and gouache.)

Whether scanning or making a photocopy, I needed a black pencil that would reproduce well and retain its pencil quality. For a long time my favorite was the Cretacolor Nero 1 pencil. (This was formerly the Koh-i-noor Negro 1.) This is a pencil which uses a wax binder like most colored pencil brands, but it is a bit more smudge-able. The Cretacolor website doesn't specify what the black pigment is. It simply compares the lead to charcoals and chalks. Years ago someone told me the component in this pencil was carbon black— whether it is carbon black or bone black, it is a rich, dense black. You can achieve dark-darks with it. It comes in 5 hardnesses, 1 to 5 (the last being the hardest). I'm only happy working with number 1. It is the smoothest. This pencil has a habit of being a bit scratchy. Be aware of this when working so that you don't damage your paper. You can also purchase leads to use in a lead holder. These are particularly useful if you like to make large drawings.

The scratchiness of the Nero 1, however, caused me to switch off and on to another excellent black pencil—the Derwent Drawing Ivory Black. (Derwent Drawing is the name of the pencil line, of which Derwent has many.) This pencil also has a wax binder, but like the Nero 1, it is more smudge-able than regular colored pencils. This pencil uses bone black (also called Ivory Black) for its pigment. This is the deepest black pigment you can get. It is a deeper black than charcoal. I have used these pencils since the 1990s and love its smoothness of application. It is simple to reproduce drawings made with this pencil and retain a feel of the pencil line, even with crude photocopies.

Dot6_25_02 Right: A Daily Dot made with the Derwent Drawing Ivory Black. This drawing was made on a smooth printmaking paper, which enhances the smooth application of the line. For exact comparisons you will want to experiment with both pencils on the same drawing surface to discover which suits your working style the best. (Note
that the pencil was misidentified on the page—for reasons I can no longer
recall, that's what I called this pencil—perhaps earlier versions were
thus labeled on the pencil, but those pencils are long gone. I'm usually pretty exact.)

It is rare that I will sketch with graphite. I find that for the most part the slate color of graphite doesn't yield dark enough values for me. I also don't like the slickness that occurs when pressure or graphite pencils in the softer range (4B to 8B) are used. It's a personal preference. I have my black pencils.

When working with either of these two pencils you can add a watercolor wash over your sketch. The wax binder in both  makes them insoluble with water. HOWEVER, be prepared for your wash to be "muddied" by some of the pigment picking up off the lines and mixing in with your paint. It's that smudge-able quality of the leads. The extent to which the pigment is displaced will depend on a number of factors including the heaviness of your application and the heaviness of your brush action.

My other favorite black pencil is the Stabilo All in black. I have written a couple posts about these pencils, my discussion of the brown Stabilo All and its watersoluble nature can be found at this link. In general I'm not a fan of using this pencil as a watersoluble pencil. 

I am, however, a fan of using it dry. It is a bit scratchy, but it lays down a rich waxy line that you can shade back easily. The line has a delightful dense quality to it. The black Stabilo All creates a very rich dark indeed. (I am considering using it exclusively this year in my Fake Journal as a daily break from working with pen and ink.)

There is an additional drawing black that is available to artists—Litho crayons. According to his books the artist Stephen Quiller uses these to sketch with upon occasion. I am only familiar with Stones Crayons. They lay down a smooth and rich line, whether you are using them on a stone or paper. I have one problem with lithographic crayons, however, they have a slight odor, hard to describe—reminds me of being in the printshop—something I don't do often because of all the smells. I couldn't draw for long periods with these because of that. But for people comfortable with moderate odors or at home in a print shop, they would not be a problem, and would be worth some experiments.

I pulled out my set of Stones Crayons as I wrote this review and have decided to do a quick give away. They are languishing here in a drawer while someone less sensitive to smells can have great fun with them. I have a set that contains the following: one 1/4 inch Crayon #1, one 1/4 inch Crayon #3, one 1/4 inch Crayon #5, one crayon holder, one tablet crayon #3, one deletion hone, and one sharpener. (Note that 1/4 inch is a thickness, these are about 6 inches long each; very slight use. $10.50 value.)

If you would like to win this set, write a comment to today's post. The first 10 comments (different individuals, so you can't stack the odds with multiple comments!) will be put in a hat and I'll draw a winner. If there are fewer than 10 comments, well your chances will obviously be better. I'll make the draw at 9 p.m. tonight. I'll notify the winner sometime after that, get an address, and send this set on…where I hope it will have a fruitful life.

NOTE: It's 12 noon and there are 14 responses, more than the 10 cut off, so the drawing is closed. I'll contact the winner. If you have comments about black pencils I would still love to hear those however!

ADDITIONAL NOTE 3.4.10: Genine, who won the drawing for the litho crayon set, responded with her postal address so everything is completed, except my trip to the post office. Thanks for joining in.

Whether you win the crayons or not I hope you'll take some time to experiment with these black pencils in your sketching.

    • Linda
    • March 3, 2010

    Hi Roz
    Thank you for a super blog! I really like that you share your knowledge about art material and you inspiring me to try new material in my art making.
    I’m reading your blog at lunch break (working at Swedish government) and I looking forward to go by the art supply store on my way home to check out the pencils you recommend.

  1. Reply

    Roz, again thanks for sharing all of your knowledge, I will set off to the store later, list in hand to try some new black pencils. 🙂

    i would love to be tossd in the hat for the give away too.

    quick questions have you ever tried encaustic?
    thanks, Genine

    • Dori
    • March 3, 2010

    Hello Roz – Your precise critiques are Fabulous. Thanks!
    Please put my name in the drawing. Dori

  2. i would love to try these out! thanks for the chance!

  3. Reply

    I love the Derwent Drawing pencil, I’m going to have to pick up the other two and give them a try!

  4. Reply

    I have made a list of drawing pencils from your post and will try and locate them in New Zealand. If not there is always the web, it has made it so much easier to get supplies to far flung places. I may have to wait a while to collect and then trial them. Thank you for such an informative and inspirational blog. Journaling is becoming my passion.

    • joannet
    • March 3, 2010

    Hello- I am interested in the crayons. I also want to say I enjoy reading your posts and have experimented with the pens and pencils you use, with great success. So, thank you! Ny journal pages and my drawings look much nicer. And I enjoy turning the page s to make more.

  5. Reply

    I’m always interested in a new drawing medium. Hopefully I’m not #11.

  6. Reply

    Your drawings of the girls are beautiful. So much sensitivity in them, and I can tell your relationship must have been close.

    Weirdly, the only tool I’ve been able to use consistently for journaling is the Sakura Sumo Grip pencil with a 0.9 mm lead (as soft as I can find). The grip is large and soft, so doesn’t make my hand hurt. I often use the eraser end as a drawing tool, to lift out the graphite. Although I often do make myself draw in ink for the practice, I prefer the mechanical pencil.

    But I’d love to try the Stones Crayons for life drawing, so if you don’t mind, please put my name in the hat.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

  7. Reply

    Please put me into your crayon hat Roz. Thank you oh so much!

  8. Reply

    I think my all-time favorite pencil has to be Sanford’s Design Ebony jet black extra smooth #14420. The graphite in this pencil glides on like silk and the value range is exceptional. I purchase these by the dozens and when my high school Art I students begin their lessons on value I present each of them with their very own Ebony pencil. I have created a lot of Ebony fans over the years. 😀

    I have been following your blog for several weeks now and always enjoy reading your entries; they are very informative–meat and potatoes–with an ample supply of dessert thrown in. Keep up the good work!

    • Carole
    • March 3, 2010

    Another enjoyable post. I’m a quilter, not an artist, who loves reading about your dog(s) looking at your art and how to use art materials.

    • Patty
    • March 3, 2010

    A very informative post! (And for me, a serendipitously timely one, I just got some Neros last week.) I’d love the chance to play around with the Stones Crayons, please throw my name into the hat.

    • Roz
    • March 3, 2010

    Genine, I have done a little encaustic, set up at someone else’s studio. I love it and would do it more but I’m a stickler for health concerns and you really need a fan and lots of venting for this process, so it’s not possible in my current studio, which is set up for computer and watermedia work.

    Bwilliams—so many folks I know are fans of the Ebony pencil you have mentioned. I hope other folks will try it. It doesn’t yield a true black like the ones listed here (unless I’ve got my numbers wrong—I can’t find my Ebony pencil) but the range of values and silkiness are fantastic. It is a great thing to give to new artists! You are starting them on a great adventure.

    Maggie, I’m glad you enjoyed the postings of the sketches of Dottie. I do think I was unusually close to both dogs. Working with a tracking dog makes you alert to so many things even in daily life. It gives you a way to communicate that isn’t one way. I’m glad you have found a pencil that allows you to work without hand pain. I hope other people with similar problems seek it out based on your comment.

    • Roz
    • March 3, 2010

    Dori, Linda, Joannet, Carole, and Patty, just a heads up. Your comment didn’t leave me any way to contact you. Everyone else, when I click on their names, up comes an email address or blog address for contact.

    Two of you were out of the drawing limits, but if one of the other three of you had won I wouldn’t have had a way to contact you. Please keep this in mind for the next give away or contest. I would want to get your prize to you if you had won. I appreciate you all stopping by and taking time to write in.

  9. Reply

    Do these pens need to be fixed (like charcoal I mean).
    Love the blog by the way, and I thought I’d point you to Andrew Zuckerman’s Birdbook since you seem to be fond of birds…

    • Roz
    • March 3, 2010

    Erikun, I wrote a detailed message about the smudge factor of these pencils and Typepad wouldn’t accept it. Don’t know if one of the words I used was interpreted as having a double meaning or what.

    These PENCILS are more smudge prone than regular colored pencils and less smudge prone than charcoal.

    I don’t use fixative.

    I work with these pencils mainly outside of my journals on stand alone drawings. If I use them in a journal I do so on the recto page only. You may see ghosting of the image on the verso page if the journal is stored on a packed shelf.

    Of course it also depends on the paper.

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks for the bird book note—another reader sent me a link to a video on the photography sessions for this book and I posted about it. It’s great fun!

  10. Reply

    Thanks, that’s exactly the kind of information I was after. I’m going to try and give these pencils a try if I can find them.

    • Roz
    • March 4, 2010

    Erikun, glad the truncated response helped. Just don’t know why I couldn’t get the detailed one to post—sometimes too much detail isn’t good perhaps.

    • Gwen
    • March 4, 2010

    Hmmm…10th comment, but you didn’t say what the base number is…

    Great post, I’m comparing my blacks now.

    • Roz
    • March 4, 2010

    Gwen, when I closed the give away there were 14 comments. The cut off was the first 10 comments. I contacted the winner yesterday, and am just about to update the post with that information. Sorry you didn’t make it in time. Hope you’ll watch out for other give aways, and of course contests (of which I have a couple planned).

  11. Reply

    Roz, I think you are a mind reader. Whenever I’m lost in the maze of the art supply world, you magically post just what I need just when I need it. This is the third time now that has happened. 🙂

    Pencils aren’t my preferred medium, but I need some for three drawing classes this spring. I was lamenting how my scanner doesn’t play well with graphite, and you have posted the answer to my dilemma. Some Derwent Drawing Ivory Blacks are now on their way. I very much appreciate your detailed reviews! Thank you!

    • Roz
    • March 6, 2010

    Speck, I’m so glad I provided suggestions at just the right time! You will love the Derwent Drawing Ivory Black pencil, it’s a great one to work with.

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