Part 1: Graphite pencils

Three Points of the Compass is not only keen on hiking, but he is also a poor but aspiring artist. I often include sketches in my trail journals not only as a record of my trip, but the very act of sketching forces me to look more closely at a subject. My sketches may be strictly amateurish, but I remember the moment I made them very clearly.

If sketching, there is no need for specialist equipment. Almost anything to hand will do. However good artists’ materials, especially if familiar, will mean that I am happier with my results. I can work quicker and with more confidence. However almost all of the ‘lightweight’ art kits you will find described elsewhere, are mostly impractical for a lightweight set up to take hiking. To this end, I have been refining and reducing not only the weight and amount of materials I take with me on a hike, but also its bulk.

This is the first of a series looking in turn at the various elements of my art kit that I have used in the past, a few thoughts on each piece, with a distillation down to what will eventually accompany me on my Long Walk. I haven’t looked at every medium there is, by no means. I have virtually no experience of oils and acrylics. I dabble in pencil sketches, either graphite or colour, enlivened on occasion by watercolour. I like to use ink, preferably a fountain pen for the increase in expression that these give, but technical pens have been a mainstay of my art kit for many years. We shall see what my refinement of weight and bulk has permitted me to keep.

Graphite Pencils

If taking a pencil on a hike, you may as well take a decent one if you intend to use it for anything artistic. Small things like good quality wood, finish, shape and actual drawing/writing ability should be top quality. Splintering poor quality wood in a sharpener, uncomfortable in the hand and a poor impression on paper are soon going to annoy. So instead of settling for a freebie from the office, pay a bit more money for a good product. A good pencil isn’t going to make a good artist, but it isn’t going to hold back the development of one either. So I look here at far more choices than is sensible, or even reasonable.

The Tombow Mono100 in 2B is amongst the World's finest pencils. Not only is great looking and beautifully finished, but gives a lovely soft line and a good feel on the paper

The Tombow Mono100 in 2B is amongst the World’s finest pencils (4.5g unsharpened). Not only is this Japanese made pencil great looking and beautifully finished, but gives a lovely soft line and has a good feel on the paper. So soft is the graphite that some smudging can occur. I feel the tone from this pencil is slightly darker than that from other 2B pencils looked at here

When deciding the contents of my lightweight, low bulk art kit, I like to include at least one traditional wood-case pencil, or at the very least, incorporate a clutch or mechanical pencil. This is quite a wrench for me, eschewing my lovely Derwent canvas pencil wrap and my favourite 29 pencils is a struggle. But in all honesty, many of the contents rarely get used. When drawing with pencils I find that I am not using anywhere near the full range on offer and it is the 2H, H, HB, B, 2B and 4B I am using most. Of these, my preference with pencils is for a fairly soft graphite ‘lead’ of 2B or similar. For a truly lightweight art kit, I am limited myself to a solitary pencil. Within this 2B grade there are quite a few choices of good pencil from which a selection can be made.

The understated Swiss made Caran d'Ache Grafwood pencil is a good choice. Each pencil is a different shade of pencil to reflect its grade of graphite. If taking a number of these, this makes it easier to select the desired grade at a glance. This is a 2B

The understated Swiss made Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencil is a good choice (4.9g). Each pencil barrel is a different shade of silver to reflect its grade of graphite. If taking a number of these pencils, this makes it easier to select the desired grade at a glance. Barrels on these pencils are also slightly thicker than normal so are particularly comfortable in the hand. If taking a sharpener, you need to ensure that the barrel of these wider pencils will fit into it

The beauty of having a pencil, quite literally to hand, is two-fold. There is absolutely no reason why a quick pencil sketch cannot be dashed of in just a couple of minutes to accompany later trail notes. There is no preparation other than pulling journal (or paper) and pencil from pouch or pocket. A sketch can be completed whilst standing, pausing just ever so briefly. At the very least, a quick tonal study will aid in later work. Different values are possible with a softer pencil simply by varying the pressure of pencil on paper. I know that this makes me look more closely at a vista or the subject before me than pausing for slightly briefer a time to take a photograph would. Another good reason to carry a pencil is to loosen up the hand. I am as guilty as most artists in being too fixed, too rigid, in my style. Like many others, I have a desire to ‘loosen up’ my work. A couple of minutes sketching with a pencil goes some way to achieving this, though this ambition and aim very much continues as a work in progress…

While I have many pencils that I like to use, the Palomino Blackwing 602 takes some beating. A re-awakened classic design, the graphite used in this pencil has a lovely even tone with no scratching, it sharpens well and doesn't wear excessively quickly. The famous replaceable flat eraser could be left at home in favour of another if wished

While I have many pencils that I like to use, the Palomino Blackwing 602 takes some beating (6.3g unsharpened). A re-awakened classic design, the graphite used in this pencil has a lovely even tone with no scratching, it sharpens well and doesn’t wear excessively quickly. The famous design of replaceable flat eraser could be left at home or supplemented by another if wished. Even the metal ferrule could be prised off. This is another 2B pencil with quite a dark tone. The graphite is Japanese, encased in a barrel of California Incense Cedar

There are a lot of pencils out there. I have a lot more pencils than most, and far less than many. Most of those I have shown here are just a few that I have purchased and that I have little hesitation in recommending for inclusion in most artists’ travel kits, even if not a favourite of mine. Though it must be said, not necessarily within a lightweight set-up. As mentioned earlier, when limited in what I can carry, my preference is for a tone of around 2B within most pencil brands. There can be some difference between brands, but more usually evident with the darker tones. My reason for only including 2B is purely because this is a lightweight, minimalist set-up, so I only include a single pencil. What I need to then do is to get as much out of the minimal items included in my lightweight kit as I can.

The Faber Castell in 2B. A justifiably classic pencil. Well priced and easily available both in specialist artists' shops and on the high street. Shading with these is smooth with no evident grittinessThe third pencil shown is an oddity today. A variant of the 9000, the Faber Castell 9008 Steno is advertised as being ideal for shorthand (writing in shorthand is called stenography). Part of the reason is its round shape, not encountered too often these days. Where it might lend itself to the trail though, is that stenographic pencils are particularly break resistant on account of the graphite being well bonded with its wood casing. Only available in a small degrees of hardness- HB, B and my favoured 2B

The German made Faber Castell 9000 in 2B is a justifiably classic pencil. The dark green 9000 (3.2g) is well priced and easily available both in specialist artists’ shops and on the high street. Shading with these is smooth with no evident grittiness. This pencil also comes in ‘Jumbo’ form (11.2g), the centre pencil shown here. Though these can be a little difficult to track down. The third pencil shown is an oddity today; this is a variant of the 9000. The Faber Castell 9008 Steno (3.6g) is advertised as being ideal for shorthand (writing in shorthand is called stenography). Part of the reason is its round shape, not often encountered in graphite pencils these days. Where it might lend itself to the trail however, is that stenographic pencils are particularly break resistant on account of the graphite being well bonded with its wood casing, but that quality goes for most pencils from Faber Castell. The Steno pencils are only available in small degrees of hardness- HB, B and my favoured 2B. The round shape does mean these pencils will roll off a table with remarkable ease and green is also not the most noticeable of colours if dropped amidst vegetation…

The above 9000 series pencils from Faber Castell are a good and easily available (in Europe) option. I find the graphite to  be of a consistently high quality with no grittiness. If wishing to include an eraser, then the shorter ‘Perfect Pencil’ replacement from Faber Castell could be taken. This is a shorter pencil that will easily last a fortnight but is only purchased as a B grade. As to the Perfect Pencil itself, most other pencils, of any grade, could be slipped into the extender/sharpener that comes as part of it.

The Perfect Pencil from Faber Castell is an 'all in one'offering, combining pencil, eraser, sharpener, point protector and pencil extender. Component parts shown below

The Perfect Pencil from Faber Castell is an ‘all in one’ offering, combining pencil, eraser, sharpener, point protector and pencil extender. Component parts shown below

Perfect Pencil- COMPONENT PARTS

For longer trips, it might be worth considering a thicker barrel of graphite, in which case one of the Faber Castell Jumbo pencils might be a good option, The lead in these is 5.3mm thick so a dedicated sharpener may be required. That produced by Faber Castell also gives a more oblique, 24°, angle to the point. These thick pencils are available in HB, 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B grades. If a thick stick of graphite is wanted, then alternatively, a lead holder could work well. I shall talk more on these on another page in this series on the subject of lightweight art kits.

If even the idea of carting along a wooden casing to a pencil, that does little more than hold the graphite, is anathema to some, then a stick of woodless, pure graphite might be the answer. There are various options available from a number of manufacturers. Capable of being sharpened in a regular pencil sharpener (or with a knife), the pure graphite is normally encased in a lacquer sheath that keeps the graphite off the fingers.  The woodless pencil produced by Faber Castell has earnt a place in my pencil roll for years. However I more recently came across the Rembrant Lyra Titan. This is a slightly thinner  (and shorter from new) offering that will save a few grams yet still produce good results. These are particularly suited to shading large areas quickly. In fact, the Lyra Rembrant Art Specials, a collection of twelve pencils (some coloured) produced by Lyra, makes a very good set in itself.

The Lyra Rembrant Titan is a stick of solid graphite laquered on the outside. This German made pencil weighs 10g when new. It is available in five grades, this one is in 2B

The Lyra Rembrant Titan is a stick of solid graphite lacquered on the outside. This German made pencil weighs 10g when new. It is available in five grades, this one is in 2B

With a solid graphite pencil the whole of the graphite stick can be utilised. However a fair amount of care needs to be exercised as these pencils can break fairly easily if handled roughly or dropped. I do use a graphite stick on occasion, but my preference is for the traditional wood cased pencil. Graphite sticks do have their place, just not in my travel art set.

Made by the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, the British made Derwent Sketching Pencil in 2B is quite a rare beast

Made by the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, the British made Derwent Sketching Pencil (10.5g) in 2B is quite a rare beast in this ‘flat’ barrel format. The image shows the black painted wooden barrel, not the graphite itself

An alternative to both the Jumbo pencils and the solid graphite sticks could be one of the uncommon, artists quality, ‘carpenters pencils’. These have a wide flat graphite core encased in a flat, octagonal wood barrel. This is a much tougher offering than the solid sticks of graphite such as the Lyra Rembrant Titan. Made in this manner, to a traditional design, the flat pencils not roll away like most round, or even hexagonal, pencils. In fact the reputedly oldest surviving pencil is one of this design.

More to the point, there is a lot of graphite encased here, so lasts well. A disadvantage is that unless one of the heavy specialised carpenters pencil sharpeners is taken, these must be sharpened with a knife. Difficult to find now, these flat pencils occasionally turn up on eBay and similar. I am down to my last few. I also show a couple of the coloured variants in a later post on colour pencils. What is particularly nice about these pencils is the variety of line that is possible, from fine lines to broad strokes for quick shading. All that said, even in its hexagonal shaped barrel form, the Derwent Sketching Pencil is a tried and tested product.

The Staedtler Noris eco is a slightly strange pencil. My no means a favourite of mine, the Wopex casing is a wood-plastic-composite and the graphite used is a particulalry tough product. What this gives you is a tough offering that will withstand knocks on the trail better. For those gram counters out there, the pencil shown weighs 8.2g against the similar sized Faber Castell 9000 pencil which comes in at 3.2g

The German made Staedtler Noris eco is a slightly strange pencil. By no means a favourite of mine, the Wopex casing is a wood-plastic composite and the graphite used is a particularly tough product. What this gives you is a tough offering that will withstand knocks on the trail better. For those gram counters out there, the pencil shown above weighs 8.2g against the similar sized Faber Castell 9000 pencil which comes in at just 3.2g

Charcoal, or carbon, is too friable for the trail. But some manufacturers have mixed it with with graphite, in various grades of hardness, that can produce lovely dark work. The German made Mars Lumograph black is available in 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. Drawings with these pencils lacks the lustre, or sheen, produced by normal pencils. Note that the darker, softer tones of the standard Mars Lumograph, the 7B and 8B, also lack this sheen as the graphite is mixed with a percentage of carbon. If considering these, as always, it is best to experiment first and ensure that not only are these pencils long lasting enough for a trip, but also any smudging that results can be controlled, or is acceptable, as it is unlikely that any fixative will be carried.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 2B and Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black 2B. Made in Germany, both of these pencils are made to a high and consistent standard. While the smooth Mars Lumograph has the usual 'graphite sheen' on the paper, the Mars Lumograph Black has a high percentage of carbon added, giving a matt, black shading

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 2B (3.5g) and Staedtler Mars Lumograph black 2B (5.3g). Made in Germany, both of these pencils are made to a high and consistent standard. While the smooth Mars Lumograph has the usual ‘graphite sheen’ on the paper, all of the Mars Lumograph Black has a high percentage of carbon added, giving a matt, black shading.

Not all pencil graphite thicknesses are the same, for instance the two 2B versions in the Mars Lumograph series differ. While the normal graphite pencil has a 2mm graphite core, the Mars Lumograph black 2B has a thick 3.6mm core and, with care, will last longer on the trail. Note that this pencil does not lend itself to a long point profile. So an appropriate sharpener is required, or knife.

If taking pencils on a longer hike, then there will obviously be the need to get as much out of them as possible. When reduced in length, pencils can become awkward and uncomfortable to use. The advantage of the mechanical pencils, with a high polymer mix to the graphite, is that the overall length of the pencil remains unchanged as the graphite gets used up and they can be used until the ‘lead’ is quite short. The clutch pencils too, can run down their lead core until quite short while still keeping their ease of use due to unaltered body length. This is not the case with a wood case pencil, so with these, a pencil extender can be useful. These come in different materials from a number of manufacturers and some are pretty heavy affairs. I have had my favourite lightweight wood pencil extender for a couple of decades and have no idea where it originated. Unless I lose it, I fully expect another couple of decades of service.

Three different pencil extenders. The wooden shafted model, very comfortable in the hand, weighs 6.2g. The plastic shafted, double ended Marie's extender weighs 6.1g and the metal tube extender from Caran D'Ache just 3.5g

Three different pencil extenders. The wooden shafted model, quite comfortable in the hand, weighs 6.2g. The plastic shafted, double ended Marie’s extender weighs 6.1g and the metal tube extender from Caran D’Ache just 3.5g

In two of the extenders shown, the pencil stub is inserted into the metal sleeve and a collar pushed toward the pencil, tightening around the shaft. Some extenders work better than others, not all extenders fit all pencil circumferences. It is best to make a pencil selection, then determine which extender fits it best. The plastic bodied extender shown here has different sized collars at each end; the wider sleeve fitting my pastel pencils well. A lovely simple and lightweight alternative to my wood and brass pencil extender is that made by Caran D’Ache. Placing the pencil in one end of the 88mm long tube, it acts as a pencil tip guard, placed in the other end, it works as a pencil extender, so double duty- result! The thin metal tube won’t take all pencil thicknesses and does scrape the paint off the side of the pencil barrels. Another thing to note is that the balance of a wood case pencil does alter entirely as it becomes both shorter, or is enclosed within any pencil extender, though that has never bothered me. 

For pencils in a loose roll, and especially if kept loose, it may be advisable to use caps to protect the pencil points

For pencils in a loose roll, and especially if kept loose, it may be advisable to use caps to protect the pencil points. Some caps, such as the one produced by Faber Castell, shown here, can do double duty as an eraser

These similar little 1g metal protective caps from Cretacolor (left) and e+m (right) are surprisingly robust and effective

These simple, similar little 1g metal protective caps from Cretacolor (left) and e+m (right) are surprisingly robust and effective if used with care

If taking carrying pencils in such a manner that the points could be damaged, or more importantly if carried in a particularly lightweight pack etc., a cap on the point is a wise choice, not only to protect the pencil point but also to stop it poking holes through fragile fabrics. These really need not weigh much at all. The soft caps supplied with new paint brushes could be re-purposed if desired instead.

Not all point protectors and pencil extenders fit all pencils. Not only the diameter, but also the shape of the barrel play a part in ensuring a tight, non-slipping fit. Perhaps not surprisingly, often it is accessories produced by the same manufacturer of a pencil that will provide the best fitting solution.

I have also enjoyed using the water-soluble graphite pencils on occasion. I have only used those from Derwent and Faber Castell. My success with these has been varied but they are good fun to use. I don’t think there is much difference between the softer tones in the Faber Castell range, but you can see what a brief puddle with a waterbrush creates, below.

The water-soluble range of graphite pencils from German manufacturer Faber Castell

The water-soluble range of graphite pencils from German manufacturer Faber Castell

So what pencil does Three Points of the Compass include in his lightweight art kit? Most of those shown here have accompanied me on my travels at one time or another. My choice may very well be different to yours, everyone’s preference is personal to them. I will reveal more in a later page in this series. Part 2 will look at Mechanical Pencils.

Eight pencils in 2B compared. Paper is a 95gsm creamy white, with a bit of tooth

Eight 2B pencils compared. A Tombow Mono elastomer eraser was used to remove graphite afterward. Paper is a 95gsm creamy white, with a bit of tooth