Jason, who has recently joined, jointly run by myself and JD Hillberry, emailed to ask:

Just a very quick question, I am thinking of taking my drawings a bit more serious to supplement my wildlife oil paintings, so I have been reading both yours and JD Hillberry’s books, websites etc so I don’t make too many novice mistakes, and I wondered why you don’t appear to have gone down the same road as JD, regarding using charcoal pencils to get the non-reflective, VERY darks that seem impossible with standard soft graphite.

A quick question but the answer might take longer 🙂

First, JD and I work in completely different ways. JD’s work is more planned and controlled, such as using frisket to blank out selected areas. That requires a very accurate initial drawing that probably cannot be readily altered during the drawing process. However, I love working in graphite because it offers that direct mind-to-hand-to-paper connection – you think, you draw. So I begin with a very loose set of guidelines (except where accuracy is vital) and I constantly alter or even ignore them as I draw each section. I also begin top left and work down to the bottom right-hand corner (as a generalisation). Nothing is blanked out.

“A String of Memories” by JD Hillberry
“A String of Memories” by JD Hillberry
The entire image is drawn including the background, tape, and string.

When I first began drawing seriously I did use carbon pencils for a while (never charcoal) to achieve more intense blacks. But they always looked false because they lacked the sheen of graphite. At some point I realised I had to be a graphite purist in order for my work to have the unity I wanted, and to allow the mind-to-paper flow that I so enjoy.

I also found ways around the problem of weak darks – which isn’t a problem where prints are concerned because they can be corrected. If I need very intense blacks, I complete the drawing and spray with a matt fixative – that allows me to add further layers of soft grade graphite, and I can repeat that process as many times as required. In more general use, I found that 2B would give reasonable blacks (if applied with pressure – and my Mellotex paper can withstand a lot of punishment) but I could increase the intensity by layering with a harder grade – usually HB over 2B. The harder grade breaks up and smooths the courser grains of the soft graphite and fills the tooth that the softer grade left exposed. I also discarded all grades softer than 2B, because they are too grainy and leave a lot of tooth exposed (tiny white pits that visually dilute the intended dark value).

Finally, spraying a graphite drawing on completion with a matt fixative removes much of the sheen. With the reflective surface dulled, blacks increase in intensity, three-dimensional form becomes more solid, and the drawing has more visual impact. With practice, I draw in the knowledge that the value I’m creating will later darken and increase in intensity.

You can view Jason’s wildlife and other work at

JD Hillberry’s amazing Trompe l’Oeil work at

"Early Morn at Witton Marsh" by Mike Sibley
“Early Morn at Witton Marsh” by Mike Sibley
Drawn using graphite pencils only.

Are my leads GRAPHITE or CARBON?

Michael emailed to ask:

I was looking over your most excellent website regarding fine art drawings. I referred to some of your tools on the “tools and tips” page. I had a question. Basically you present drawings and drawing instruction in graphite. But the tools you use – particularly the Staedtler clutch pencils and leads are actually carbon, at least here in the US they are.

This a Staedtler “problem” I’m often asked about – particularly when an artist has ordered Lumograph “graphite” but received a pack of “carbon” leads.

First, a little history: The Staedtler Mars Lumograph brand dates from 1931 and the lead’s slightly waxy composition was formulated for the creation of graphite drawings that could be printed from without the need for inking. Over time this formulation replaced the plain Mars leads.

Originally wood-cased Lumograph pencils were designated as “2886” and leads (for leadholders or clutch pencils) as “1904”. These later became “100” and “200” respectively. I have in my possession packs of “2886” 2B wood-cased pencils and later “100” designated pencils, and they are indistinguishable in all respects – except for the gold writing that is now printed in white.

I also have elderly packs of 2mm “graphite” leads and the more recent “carbon” leads – both with the “200” designated stock number and they too are identical.

Staedtler manufactured two types of leads for holders – thin, for mechanical pencils and 2mm for clutch pencils. The thin leads were made from a technique known as “carbonisation” and, as I understand it, the raw materials used could have included natural graphite, pet and pitch cokes, and soots – in other words ‘carbon’. The graphite used for the 2mm leads is itself just a very pure form of carbon, so it seems likely that Staedtler just decided to call all their graphite leads for mechanical and clutch pencils “carbon”. So there you have it – the difference is zero, zilch, nada, nothing at all.

As Staedtler themselves say on their website under ‘graphite pencils and accessories’ “Easy to refill with “…STAEDTLER Mars micro carbon mechanical pencil leads”.

Graphite or “lead” pencils:

As you probably know, pencil ‘lead’ contains no actual lead, just graphite, so it is non-toxic and very stable, and graphite is a form of pure carbon.

Charcoal pencils:

These are made of charcoal and provide richer blacks than graphite pencils, but tend to smudge and are more abrasive than graphite.

Carbon pencils:

These are usually made of a mixture of clay and lamp black, but are sometimes blended with charcoal or graphite depending on the darkness and manufacturer. They produce a deeper black than graphite pencils, but are smoother than charcoal.

Incidentally, graphite has a flat plate-like structure where charcoal and carbon have rough grains. That plate structure reflects light – the common sheen displayed by pencil drawings – but the coarse grains of charcoal don’t reflect light at all, so blacks appear to be more dense. There is a solution – on completion, spray your graphite drawing with a matt fixative. The effect can be quite magical as the sheen disappears and your drawing pops with increased contrast. And a good fixative contains an Ultra-Violet filter to protect the paper against the effects of sunlight, so you should always fix your drawings.

With thanks to for providing some of the information.