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How to Shade with Pencils, 4 Ways with Examples

Study drawing with pencils by Gvaat

There is a lot to know about how to shade with pencils. What pencils to use, how to hold the pencil, shading techniques and so on. We will go over it all together in this introduction to pencils shading. 

There are four main ways to shade with pencils: (1) shading, (2) hatching, (3) crosshatching, and (4) following the form. While there are many variations and techniques for shading, the vast majority of pencil drawing masterpieces ever-made were created with some combination of the above four. We will look at examples of each below. 

Pencils are some of the most basic and versatile drawing tools. They are accessible and easy to store, making pencils a great basic tool for any artist. Shading with pencils on paper can be a super enjoyable activity, it can also be frustrating at times, let’s discuss what to look for.  

Drawing with a very sharp 8B pencil / Gvaat’s Workshop

Pencil Grades

Pencils are made from graphite which is a form of carbon. There are different grades from about 9B to about 9H. The higher B numbers are softer and darker.  The higher H numbers are harder and less dark. The 9H is usually the hardest and lightest pencil, 9B is the softest and also the darkest, with an HB pencil somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. You will find that  HB pencil’s softness and darkness will vary depending on its manufacturer. 


Different pencil grades
Shading with different pencil grades / Gvaat’s Workshop

Using Multiple Pencil Grades in One Drawing

The great thing about pencils as a medium is that a few different grades can be used to build up an image. Using multiple grades of a pencil can provide an elevated sophistication to the value range used to render an image. You can start by shading with harder lighter grades to softer and darker ones, or in reverse from softer darker grades to lighter ones. Most artists work from light to dark. 

Here’s a drawing of an eye. The one on the left I did with just the 8B pencil, which is a great soft pencil and is definitely a must-try, and the one on the right I did with an 8B, 2H and an HB. (So I added a medium grade and a somewhat hard grade pencil to the 8B illustration). 

shading with multiple grades of pencils
Creating an image with multiple pencil grades / Gvaat’s Workshop

When we compare the two drawings, you can see that using multiple pencil grades to shade with can really add depth to the image. 

Controlling Line Weight

Another great thing about pencils is how easy it is to achieve different line weights just by adjusting the angle at which you draw a line across the surface. 

Line weight - pencil shading

To get different line weights with the same pencil sharpen it to make sure more of the lead is visible and then tilt it until the pencil is less than 45 degrees to paper. Glide and make marks, try different angles and see the type of marks you can make

Surface Coverage – Shading Techniques

There are many ways to shade with pencils. The four main techniques generally used are shading, hatching, and cross-hatching and following the form. Each one is demonstrated below.

1. Shading

You are shading with a pencil when your marks are very close together so that they form a continuous tone on paper. 

2. Hatching 

You’re hatching with a pencil when you have a gap between each mark and arrange them in a way to create continuous coverage. 

3. Cross-hatching

You are cross-hatching with a pencil when you are crisscrossing pencil lines to create coverage. Try experimenting with different coverage techniques.

pencil shading techniques Different coverage techniques / Gvaat’s Workshop[/caption]

4. Following the form

Often used in figurative drawing, pencil marks can follow the form of human anatomy, thereby making it easier for the viewer to understand the form being described.


following the form with shading


How to shade with pencils Pencil copy exercise from Drawing Course by Charles Bargue[/caption]

You are following the form when you are using any of the above three techniques to describe the form of the object you are rendering.

Pencil coverage techniques vary greatly by artist. Some of my favorite drawings are by Michelangelo. Although he used red and black chalk for his drawings, much of the visual representation of his drawings can be captured with pencils. 

If you carefully study Michelangelo’s drawings, you will see that his hatching technique when drawing anatomy is exquisite. Much of his hatching lines actually follow the muscles and the rhythm of the figure itself. 

It is a great idea to study your favorite artist drawings and analyze the coverage techniques they used. In the exercise of studying and redrawing some of your favorite works, lies a wealth of knowledge that should not be overlooked.

Blending with Paper Stumps

When it comes to shading with pencils, you can also use a paper stump for blending. Which is essentially a roll of really thin tightly packed paper. Use it as a blender, by rubbing the surface that already has graphite on it. Beginners tend to overuse this type of blending. Unless caution and precise control are exercised a drawing can begin looking very muddy. Strong drawings strike a balance between soft and hard edges, so use paper stomps carefully.

pencil paper stump for blending
Paper stump for blending graphite

Holding the Pencil


Different pencil holds for shading
Sketching vs Artist pencil grip

There’s no one way to hold a pencil. Try different ways to see what’s comfortable for you. However, keep in mind that generally speaking pencil holds that bring you close to the drawing like this sketching hold,  require that you step away from the drawing often to judge value and proportion of overall composition from a distance. 

It so happens that for most of us, when they are very close to the drawing we get somewhat lost in the details. 

So the next best thing is to move away further from the drawing once in a while to judge the overall condition of your current creation. 

You can also try the artist’s pencil hold. This hold creates an arm’s distance between you on the drawing, which is often necessary to judge proportion. It is best used with an upright easel. You will still need to move away from the drawing to judge proportions and values of the whole, but perhaps not as often as you would when you draw very close to paper. 

Using the upright easel try standing up in front of your composition and extend your arm from your shoulder with a slight bend in your elbow and hold the pencil with your thumb and your index finger as shown right below.  

There are many advantages to this hold like getting cleaner lines when you move your pencil from your shoulder and from your elbow and not just use your wrist for shading. Over time this practice will save your wrist from overuse.

Using Good Pencils for Shading

Poorly made pencils make drawing frustrating. You know you’re using a bad pencil if the lead is brittle and if you don’t get good coverage. The pencil is bad if when you are shading you can feel sudden unintended changes in your marks as you draw. The easiest way to identify bad pencils is to get experience drawing with a whole range of different types, including very good ones.

There are many great manufacturers that create wonderful drawing pencils. Some of my favorites are made by Koh-i-Noor. Staedtler, Caran D’ache and Tombow make great pencils as well as many other companies. What’s important is that you have a quality pencil to draw with. But don’t be too hung up on exactly the brand of pencil you have.

If you are already drawing with a pretty good pencil, switching to the very top manufacturer and their best and most expensive product is not going to change much. You’re much better off working on your art skills instead. 

What Pencil Range is Best for You?

By now you’re probably wondering which pencils you should be drawing with since there are so many variations of hardness and softness.

I’m not going to tell you that a face is best drawn with a 2H or 2B pencil, or that a still-life is best drawn with a 2B and 4B pencil. There are just too many variables to provide this kind of advice in a blog post. A lot depends on your skill level, your understanding of the material, your style, the type of surface or paper you are using, and the results you would like to achieve in your drawing and shading with pencils, your artistic vision and so on.

A better way to assess the best pencil to use for you is to look at drawings of others you really admire, study these drawings, and perhaps make a study copy of a few of them. 

As you study the drawings and try to replicate the techniques used you’ll find yourself going through many different pencils until you find what works best for you. Another way is to start with a mid-range pencil, like an HB, and move to softer and harder pencils as you progress.

Try Shading with This Exercise 

Work on this assignment to develop a basic understanding of the accessibility and range that you can get with a pencil. Create 5 value strips by using a new pencil grade for each to get a feel for what you can achieve with different grades. 

Measure out 5 same length strips on a piece of paper fill in each strip with a progressively softer pencil grade (example 4H, 2H, HB, 2B, 4B, or in reverse like below). 

Pencil shading strips

A good next step after trying out some pencils for shading is to try to render a three dimensional sphere. In doing that exercise, you will get a good introduction to how light illuminates form in drawing. If you are curious about it, check out my blog post Learn to Draw, Fundamentals of Light and Form.

Sphere pencil rendering / Gvaat’s Workshop