Time Out for Art: Know Your Pencil!

We’ve been posting pencil drawings at Zeebra Destinations for several weeks now, and today I want to share the exercise that was the most helpful to me when I started drawing as an adult.


On a blank sheet of paper, make a 1″ x 10″ rectangle, and divide it into 1″ squares.  Number the squares from 1 to 10.  Starting in the right-hand square (#10), use the pencil to make the square as dark as the pencil will go.  (Holding the pencil with an overhand grip and using the side of the lead will enable the artist to cover more paper faster and helps to avoid a streaky look from indenting the paper with the point.)

Leave the left-hand square (#1) blank because the white of the paper is the lightest value.  Starting in square #2, pencil in as light a tone as possible that is visually different from square #1.  Continue, making each square darker and working to get an even progression from the lightest square (#1) to the darkest square (#10).

The second part to this exercise is to draw another rectangle the same size as the first rectangle, but this one is not divided into squares.  Leaving the left hand edge the white of the paper, try to pencil in the same values as in the first part of the exercise, but this time in a smooth progression from light to dark.

Pencils vary considerably in how dark a mark the lead will make.  This is due to the ratio of graphite to clay in the lead.  Clay is added to give the graphite some hardness.  More graphite makes a softer and blacker lead.  There are several designation systems used in classifying pencil leads, but no set standard for how soft or how black a pencil is.  I have several pencils in my studio and made squiggly swatches with them above to show some of the variation available.

I’d like to hear about your experience if you try this exercise.  Does it make you more comfortable with this art medium?

4 thoughts on “Time Out for Art: Know Your Pencil!

  1. My husband did a similar exercise years ago when he was in art school, only he had used oil paint to do it. He’s recently gone back to painting again and I suggested he do the chart to help recover his skills more quickly. Surprisingly, he did and it sure took a lot less time than when he did it all those years ago.


    • I’ve done these charts in watercolor, too. It must be a fairly standard exercise, which means that a lot of people are helped by it. Glad to hear your husband is getting back into painting! You sound like an encouraging spouse.

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