What Are the Numbers on the Pencils for Shading?

Updated April 17, 2017

Artist pencils come in differing levels of hardness to create multiple shades of black and grey. There are softer pencils for lighter grey shades and harder pencils for darker grey or black shades. Artists will typically use many different grades of pencil to achieve a final, properly shaded drawing. After drawing with pencil, artists usually apply an art fixative that will protect the pencil marks from smudging. Fixatives come in options that include "matt," "gloss" or "workable," which allows you to continue working on your drawing after it has been sprayed.


Unlike traditional lead pencils, artist pencils are usually made with graphite, which is a metallic carbon. The various graphite hardness levels are delineated on the sides of drawing pencils with a corresponding number and letter. Drawing pencils can be ordered online, or found in art stores across the United States. Because they are speciality pencils, they are not usually found in supermarkets or chemists. Common drawing pencil brands include Derwent, Faber-Castell, General's Kimberly, Prismacolor, Sanford, Reeves and Staedtler.

Dark Shades

The softer graphite drawing pencils are known as "B" pencils. Artists use these pencils to achieve darker shading in drawings. Any soft drawing pencil you use will be marked with a number, followed by the letter "B." The corresponding number indicates the grade of graphite softness. The higher the number, such as 7, 8 or 9, the softer the pencil will be and the darker your shading will appear. For example, 9B is black on paper. It is harder to erase extremely soft graphite pencil marks as they make very dark lines on paper.

Medium Shades

In the middle of the graphite shading spectrum are medium grade pencils, which produce medium grey shades. The most common medium shade is labelled "HB" on the pencil, and is a combination of both "H" and "B". Another medium shade grade is the "F," also known as the fine point pencil, which is usually used for making initial outline sketches that can be easily erased or covered later by darker shading.

Light Shades

Harder graphite pencils that produce light grey shades are marked with a number followed by the letter "H." Like the "B" pencils, the numbers on "H" pencils indicate the hardness of the graphite. When assessing your light grey shading choices, the higher the corresponding number, the harder the pencil will be and the lighter the shade of grey will look on paper. The hardest and lightest pencil in the series is 9H. "H" pencils erase more easily than "B" pencils.

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About the Author

Crystal Vogt has been an editor and freelance writer since 2005 and has had her work mentioned on MediaBistro, Yahoo! Finance and MSN Money, among other outlets. She received her M.S. in journalism from Boston University and holds a B.A. in English from UC Santa Barbara.