If you're looking for a great gift for a young or beginner artist, these are some of the best pencil sets for drawing available in 2020.
A professional artist will often already have most of the paraphernalia included in these kits, and will only need to replace the particular pencil grades that they use the most. However, pencil sets can still be a nice gift as it could introduce the recipient to a brand of pencil that they haven't tried yet. Artists love trying new brands of products, we're always looking for the one that will fill a certain niche or help take our art to another level.
Why does brand matter?
Despite its name, pencil "lead" is actually made by cooking a mixture of graphite and clay at very high temperatures. Different mixtures create different grades of lead that produce varying levels of darkness, depending on the ratio of graphite to clay. In many languages, such as German, Arabic, and Vietnamese, the word pencil is literally "lead pen". This misconception occurred because the original deposit of graphite found in England in the 1500's was thought to be a type of lead, since chemistry wasn't very advanced at the time.
The pencil making process has been refined over the years and now they are mass produced in factories for everyday use. However, the care that goes into each step of the process has a big effect on the end result. For this reason, the same grade of pencil, e.g. 4H, 2B, 4B, will have different characteristics depending on the brand. And common pencils, like the ubiquitous No. 2 that we all know from school, can have chunks of clay in the lead that will grab and tear your paper, or otherwise prevent a smooth drawing experience.
Another issue that can affect your enjoyment when using a particular set of pencils is the alignment of the core within the wooden shaft. Poorly built pencils can have an offset or wobble to the graphite core of the pencil which makes it difficult to sharpen. When using a manual or electric pencil sharpener, it will cause the graphite to break and potentially ruin a big chunk of the pencil. Perhaps you've had that happen with some cheap No. 2 pencils you bought for school.
If you're curious how modern pencils are made, here is an interesting video that documents the process...
Recommended Pencil Sets for Drawing in 2020
All of the recommended sets include graphite pencils plus the following items. Any additional items or differences will be noted in the kit's review.
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Budget Friendly Set
This is a budget friendly drawing set with 40 pieces. It comes with everything you need to start sketching and drawing. The set contains 18 pencils, ranging in hardness from 5H to 12B. Most sets come with 12 pencils, but Mooker provides extra pencils for common soft grades that will be used up more quickly. The pencil quality is good for the price.
It comes in a nice, stiff case that securely holds each piece of the set and is very handy for drawing on the go.
A 100 page, 6x9 inch sketch pad is included.
If you are giving this as a gift to a child, be aware that there is an art knife included that you may want to remove, depending on their age.
Best Overall Set
The best mid-range set of pencils is the XL kit from Norberg & Linden. It provides a complete kit with everything you need to get started. This is a 34 piece kit, because it doesn't provide as many pencils as the set from Mooker. However, but the pencil quality is higher. The pencils range from 5H to 8B.
A 100 page, 6x9 inch sketch pad is included. Note that 6x9 inch may be a bit smaller than you are expecting, so you may want to look at getting a bigger sketch pad.
This set also includes an art knife, so be aware if gifting it to a young child. You may want to remove it first, or let their parents know in advance.
Best Quality Set
The Castle Drawing Set is a high quality drawing set that anyone would be delighted to receive. It includes 12 high quality pencils ranging from 5H to 8B.
What sets this collection apart are the included vine, or willow, charcoal sticks and pastel pencils. Vine charcoal is great for sketching. It's very soft and is easy to erase because it doesn't include the binding agent that is used in the charcoal pencils that all of these sets include. Also included is a dual-tipped rubber blending pencil, which will help blending the pastels. Willow sticks are great for
This set includes a unique carrying case that pops up and makes it easy to see and pull out your pencils. The pop-up sections lock in place with Velcro strips.
It does not include an art knife or a sketch pad, so those will have to be purchased separately.
An Alternate Option
Arteza has the goal of making quality art supplies available to everyone. So they provide an interesting assortment of useful items that aren't always found in standard kits. The items are of good quality and the price is reasonable.
This 33 piece set comes with 18 graphite pencils from 4H to 14B, 3 charcoal pencils, 1 white charcoal pencil for creating highlights, and 2 woodless pencils. There are 3 paper blenders, 1 metal sharpener, 3 erasers, and 1 hobby knife. The detail eraser has a brush on the end for brushing dust off the page without smearing.
This kit is unique in including a black Inkonic Fineliner Pen for the budding cartoonist to experiment.
While the set comes in a nice metal tin, it's not as portable as the zippered cases included with the sets recommended above. It also doesn't come with a sketch pad, but since the sketch pads that come with many kits are rather small that probably won't be an issue.
Professional Quality Recommendations
As I mentioned in the beginning, many professional artists won't need the kits above. After choosing a brand we are comfortable with, we like to keep using it to maintain consistency. While open to comparison and experimentation, we don't need all the paraphernalia that comes with a starter kit. Also, while the quality of the pencils in the kits above are adequate for beginners, with experience you can truly feel the difference these pencils bring to the table. The following pencil kits provide graphite of the highest quality and are used by professionals all over the world.
100 Years of Experience
High quality German pencils which have been mentioned with approval by Van Gogh and Goethe, are now part of everyday life and used by artists worldwide.
Faber-Castell manufactures 16 degrees of lead hardness, but this set is limited to the following 12 grades:
2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B
Faber-Castell 9000 pencils have been trusted by artists for generations and are a great set of pencils to use professionally without being too expensive.
A set of Japanese pencils with a full (and I do mean full) range of hardness.
10H, 9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F,
HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B and 10B
These pencils give you an assortment of hard pencils that are perfect for detailed technical work. The clay mixture of these pencils has been refined to the point where the hardest degrees of lead are still totally usable in your drawings.
Going up the scale towards the softer pencils gives you an amazing tonal range that has many artists singing the praises of this amazing set of pencils.
The Rolls-Royce of Pencils
This is an expensive set of pencils! Personally, I have yet to try them. I've had to satiate my curiosity by watching some other artists on Youtube share their experiences and compare them with other brands.
One of the unique details that Caran D'ache has created is the coloring of the outside of the pencils. You'll notice that the pencil itself is painted according to the darkness of the lead. It's a clever idea that looks beautiful, but it doesn't really seem to help in practice.
The consensus seems to be that while the Caran D'ache pencils do indeed provide a rich drawing experience, the quality jump from the Hi-Uni or even Faber-Castell 9000 isn't enough to justify the extra cost for many artists.
I hope that this review of the various pencil drawing sets that are available now will help you in making a purchase, whether for yourself or as a gift. In this post I focused on graphite pencil sets. There are many sets available for artists that want to experiment with different types of media that will be covered in a future post.
Please let me know how you feel about the recommendations above. I know that I left out some brands that are also beloved my many, such as Staedtler, Derwent, and Tonbow to name a few. If you'd like to make a recommendation of your own, please let me know about it!