This guide reviews the pros and cons of 3 different pencil styles as seen through the lens of classroom use.
Before we begin, you should know that I have a controversial stance when it comes to drawing pencils. I do not believe in getting a wide range of pencil hardnesses and softnesses for my students. In fact, I don’t believe in giving them any range. My students get one pencil with one type of lead, that’s it, end of story.
Why? I have found that when first learning how to draw, my students do not know how to extract the full range of lights and darks from one pencil, leading to very grey drawings with very few value steps represented. This problem is compounded when given the choice of multiple different lead hardnesses and softnesses.
Therefore, I give my students a medium lead and teach them to extract its fullest value range – the lightest and darkest values that that particular pencil will yield.
This pencil philosophy has additional benefits. It keeps the art supply costs down as only one pencil per student is needed, and it keeps your teaching from getting derailed by an endless stream of students asking which pencil they should use for which part of their drawing. Most importantly, it teaches students a deftness of touch and mastery of their material by having them focus on only one pencil.
So, if you agree to offer only one pencil to your students, which pencil should it be? Keep reading to discover the pros and cons of 3 different types of pencils for use in the art classroom.
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PENCIL #1: Refillable Lead Pencils
Refillable lead pencils are the choice of many professional atelier-trained artists.
- Flexibility. The lead is easily changed out for different hardnesses and softnesses so you can experiment to see which lead works the best for your students and the specific drawing projects you are teaching.
- Durability. These pencils can take a lot of abuse and still hold up well.
- Environmentally Friendly. These pencils are endlessly reusable, so if you are one of those magical art teachers who is super good at keeping your art supplies from walking off, they can be used for many years in the classroom.
- Weight. I have found that when students are first learning how to manipulate their pencil in a nuanced way, that weight can help them control their lines better.
- Sharpener. Although it won’t give you a perfectly stabby point, there is a sharpener in the cap that will help your students keep points on their pencils.
- Lead Extends. The lead extends so that students can get full sweeping movements without the lead losing contact with the paper.
- No attached eraser. As art teachers know, it can be super annoying to have to hand out erasers in addition to pencils.
- Expense. This choice is prohibitively expensive for most art teachers, especially those of us who have high rate of art supply atrophy in our classrooms.
Pencil #2: Mechanical Pencil
I am obsessed with these pencils. These are by far my favorite choice for teaching drawing to students.
- Affordable. You can get 36 of these for the comparable cost of a single refillable lead pencil.
- Eraser. Even though these have a pink eraser that typically makes art teachers cringe, this eraser is actually very, very good. This eraser leaves no colored streaks behind, and has very good pickup of unwanted lines.
- Lead Extends. You can extend the lead on these pencils quite far without it breaking off, which allows for sweeping movements of the hand without the lead losing contact with the paper. To me, this is its most important feature for teaching atelier-style drawing skills.
- Thin Lead. Are you tired of admonishing your students to please, please, please sharpen their pencils? This lead is thin enough that even when placed in the hands of a “I-will-never-sharpen-my-pencil-and-you-cannot-make-me” student, it stays sharp enough to maintain line clarity.
- No Pencil Shavings on Floor. The pencil lead continuously extends. No sharpening is needed – ever – leading to a shaving-free classroom floor.
- Recognizable. These pencils are unusual to see in day-to-day use in the school so it is easy to recognize if someone swiped one from the art classroom.
- Disposable. Unfortunately, there is no way to refill the lead on these pencils. That means once the pencil lead is used up, the entire pencil becomes useless.
- Too Good. Other teachers steal these pencils from me constantly. You will see them innocently weild them in staff meetings where you will think about awkwardly confronting them about it but will probably just silently simmer over your impounded goods.
Pencil #3: Traditional
Sometimes, simple can be better. However, to really take advantage of a basic pencil for atelier-style drawing purposes, you need to know how to sharpen them properly with a knife and sandpaper in order to get a longer, exposed section of lead. This tutorial by atelier artist Sadie Valerie will teach you how to properly sharpen a pencil for atelier drawings.
- Fun. It can be fun to sharpen a lead pencil like they did back in the day. It always makes me feel like a “serious” artist.
- Hex Shape. These pencils don’t roll off of surfaces and break. This is an important feature when you spend a lot of time sharpening your pencils as it helps protect your handiwork from the conniving floor.
- Knives. Probably not a good choice for students to have knives.
- Mess. Sharpening traditional pencils with an elongated lead makes a big mess. It is best done over a trash can, so you would need a class set of trash cans. Which means your school’s janitor probably won’t like you very much either.
- Breakage. These pencils are easy to break when the lead is extended. This can cause frustration for students. It also means you go through pencils faster.
- Time. It takes a lot of time to sharpen pencils this way. If you have 45 minute class times, this probably isn’t the right solution for you as sharpening a pencil can easily take up half of that time.
That completes our review of the 3 major types of pencils for classroom use. What do you think of these reviews? Which pencils do YOU prefer to use in your classroom? Let me know in the comments below.
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