For the past 5 years I have been drawing extensively with the Castell 9000, a very fine German pencil. These pencils are manufactured by Faber-Castell, a family owned company that began way back in 1761. With over 250 years in the pencil making business, it should be no surprise that countless artists depend on Faber-Castell. In a letter dated from 1885, Vincent Van Gogh wrote this to a fellow painter:
“I meant to tell you about some pencils I discovered, made by Faber. They’re this thick, very soft, and of a superior quality to carpenter’s pencils. They produce a capital black and are very agreeable for working on larger studies.”
When you spend hours and hours hunched over a drawing board, you develop an appreciation for the subtle. For example, the lines from this pencil are exceptionally smooth. Always, in fact. The graphite used in lesser quality pencils can go abruptly from silky to scratchy, which is troublesome when you’re working on tightly detailed passages. Another quality I appreciate is that the Castell 9000 never crumbles or breaks unexpectedly. In their product brochure they attribute a special bonding process which prevents their leads from breaking....all I know is that it works and I don’t have to replace my pencils as often.
While smooth lines and break resistant leads may not seem like much, when the tools you rely on get in the way and become a distraction, it ultimately has a negative impact on your art.
Paper plays a big role in determining the use of soft or hard pencils. For the majority of my work, I tend to alternate between six pencils (2H, H, F, HB, B & 2B). If you’re just starting out don’t feel pressured to buy a complete set of pencils from 6H to 8B (that’s sixteen pencils and I've never met anybody who uses that many) You can achieve almost anything with the basic selection I use and it could be pared down further to a minimalist set of H, HB and 2B. That would be perfect for sketching birds in the field.
I do have one small problem with the Castell 9000. It’s that dark green barrel. If you’re out in the forest or sketching along a wooded trail, these pencils are almost impossible to find if you accidently drop them. I’ve lost a few myself, so I speak from experience. To get around this, take an old Bic razor and break off the handle (file down the sharp bits). The pencil inserts perfectly into the handle and will stand out on the forest floor. The handle also makes an ideal pencil extender that can be reversed to protect the tip when you’re on the move.
UPDATE (April 2017): I've discovered an exceptional pencil made by Pentel that every drawing enthusiast should try. It's a mechanical pencil, but with unique qualities that set it apart from any other products on the market.
Here's my review: Pentel Orenz 0.2mm