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.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.) Click on the image to view an enlargement.
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.