When considering graphite pencils, Staedtler is a brand that comes up repeatedly. For artists, the company’s Mars Lumograph pencils are often recommended but Staedtler also has another version of this pencil called the Mars Lumograph Black. I have spent the past year testing these pencils (among others). Continue reading for my Staedtler Mars Lumograph review and also some of my tests with the Mars Lumograph Black pencils!
Before we get to the work I did with these pencils (including the portrait you see in the header image), I’m going to go through some of the technical details about these pencils.
What’s the difference between the Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Mars Lumograph Black?
Don’t get confused between these similarly named pencils. Both pencils are made by the same German manufacturer (Staedtler), however they have different properties and produce quite different effects visually.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils are standard graphite pencils and produce results similar to other artist quality pencils. The graphite shines on the surface of the page, as you’d expect. The standard Mars Lumograph pencils glide across the page a little bit more smoothly than the Black version. You can distinguish this standard form of the Mars Lumograph pencil by its blue color.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils are still graphite pencils but they are unlike any other I’ve personally tried. The graphite of the Lumograph Black pencils doesn’t shine at all. Supposedly this is because of a higher carbon composition. I can confirm that none of the drawings I did with the Lumograph Black pencils shine (even when angling them in the light). The Lumograph Black pencils also have a darker tint in general. This combined with the fact that the graphite doesn’t shine means that the marks from these pencils can get very dark. You can distinguish the Lumograph Black pencils by their black appearance (as opposed to the blue color of the standard version).
As you can see from the above image, there is also a difference in graphite diameter between the two versions of the pencil. The Lumograph Black pencil (pictured right) is the same size as the standard Lumograph pencil (left), however the Black version has a far larger graphite core. I’m unsure why this difference exists but I’m guessing it could have something to do with the intended application. The Lumograph Black pencils are typically going to be used to shade in very dark areas, so they will be used heavily. I imagine that thicker graphite core helps them last longer.
Swatches with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Lumograph Black pencils
I bought the 12 pack of Mars Lumograph pencils and the 6 pack of the Lumograph Black pencils. Here is a swatch test of each. With these you can may be able to pick up the differences between them all. In the bottom row, I did side by side comparisons of each type of pencil with the same grade. The Lumograph Black pencils are unsurprisingly darker in shade. The biggest difference is that the Lumograph Black swatches don’t shine when angled in the light.
There are other differences between the two versions of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils but those are less important and I’ll talk about those in my individual comments of each.
What is similar about the two kinds of Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils?
The artistic effect of these two pencils is completely different however the Mars Lumograph and Lumograph Black pencils do have some similarities in use.
Both the Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Lumograph Black pencils are hexagonal and have what I’d describe as a standard pencil size. I could give you measurements but the best way to describe their diameter and thickness is ‘average’. They’re neither too large nor not too slim. They’re easy to grip and I have no real complaint with how they feel in my hand. My wife is currently using the same company’s coloring pencils and they also have the same size.
The nibs don’t break easily
What I was pleased about with both versions of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils is that the graphite inside them is very resistant. I’m a bit careless so sometimes drop pencils on the floor or just press too hard on them. I’ve dropped several of the Mars Lumograph pencils on the floor and they’ve also rolled off my desk a few times. I even dropped the whole tin from a drawer once and was worrying that I may have ruined them. So far none of them has broken graphite inside when I sharpen them. Every time I picked them back up off the floor I was expecting the graphite to be shattered inside… so far it hasn’t happened.
I’m sure that the Mars Lumograph pencil’s graphite is breakable but from my experience at least, it’s quite resistant. It’s this resistance that could make me buy these pencils again because the strength of a pencil’s graphite can be under appreciated! The resistance of the graphite is something that Staedtler themselves makes a big deal of, so I’m happy that this wasn’t just marketing hype… the nibs do resist shock quite well.
Sustainable pencil wood
For the ecologically aware among you, it may interest you to know that the wood that Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils are made from is sustainable. The company sources the wood from special forests that are managed specifically to make it sustainable. The wood carries the PEFC label as well as the Efficient for Ecology certification. Only wood that originate from forests that are managed for ecological sustainability carry these certifications. Another interesting thing about the PEFC certification is that the wood also has to be sourced from places proven to provide economic and social sustainability.
Personally, I really appreciate it whenever brands source their materials from sustainable sources, so this is a nice bonus to the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils (both versions).
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Review (Standard Kind)
Now let’s dig deeper into the standard Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils. Their full name is the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencils. There are several other kinds but I bought these standard ones. I bought a 12 pencil pack and have been using them very regularly over the past year. I got the 2H – 8B pack because having that dark 8B pencil is usually quite important for my drawings (the other 12 pencil pack only goes up to 6B). You can buy packs of Lumograph that include 12B pencils too, which isn’t a grade every manufacturer produces, I’ll have to try testing it at some point.
I’ve used these standard Mars Lumograph pencils for a lot of different things. I’ve written notes with them, drawn lines on walls (for DIY), done under-drawings and of course I’ve done dedicated graphite artwork with them. In every case they’ve never given me cause to complain, they work really well for most things.
Tactile Experience (Staedtler Mars Lumograph)
Although often described as ‘soft’, the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils are made of fairly hard and resistant graphite. Their softness is more in tone than in the actual resistance of the pencil. I think the reason people describe them as having soft graphite is because they glide across paper very smoothly. The graphite in these pencils is quite unlike the Caran d’Ache Grafwood pencils that I previously reviewed, which feels softer and more buttery. The graphite in these standard Lumograph 100 pencils is much softer than that in the Lumograph Black ones which I’ll talk about later.
The nibs of the Lumograph 100 pencils feel almost like they could be made of plastic as I drag them across paper because they offer very little resistance. Each artist will have his or her own preference with regards to texture and tactile feeling. I personally prefer the buttery texture of the Grafwood pencils but actually, the Mars Lumograph pencils still feel very pleasant in use.
Another tick in the box as far as tactile experience goes is that the Lumograph 100 pencils don’t grip the paper very much and the tip rarely gets caught in the grain (texture) of the paper’s surface. For me, it’s a good thing that they glide so easily because some pencils get caught in the paper’s texture and that can lead to accidentally making darker marks than one wishes. I do however prefer the buttery feeling of the Grafwood pencils that I tested previously.
People who are heavy handed or put a lot of pressure on their pencils while drawing will probably really like the Mars Lumograph pencils because the graphite in them is hard enough that pressing down on them hard isn’t a problem. They also last quite a long time before needing to sharpen them again. It’s for these reasons that I don’t personally consider these pencils as having soft graphite. It feels smooth but it’s also hard and resistant.
Work I did with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 Pencils
I used the Mars Lumograph pencils to do quite a lot of sketching and used them to do the under drawings for a lot of cartoons over the past few months (including some on this website). I did two dedicated graphite drawings though and describe how I felt while drawing both below. The pencils can reach a nice dark tone and it’s possible to get a good range of contrast with them. I find it easy to control the contrast and tone.
This is a drawing of my great grandfather (click to enlarge). The original photograph was hanging around at home because I’ve been working on my family history and seeing the old clothing style and that retro football, I thought it’d be fun to draw. While I drew this, I made a fair amount of corrections and found the pencils quite easy to erase (very important for pencils). The drawing is a bit overcooked but I had a lot of fun doing it. What I liked about the pencils while drawing this is that they’re able to achieve both subtlety and heavy shadow quite well.
This is just a drawing I did of my own hand as a test (again, click it to enlarge). What I like about this drawing is that you can really see the darkest and most subtle tones that the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils are capable of. If I had done this drawing with the Grafwood pencils, I would have gotten a smoother finish when laying down the lighter shadows on my hand. As it is, I’m very happy with the effect I got from the Staedtler pencils, which shows the pencil strokes more (some people prefer this).
The one thing that my pack of Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils lack is a very light tone. The 2H pencil of these pencils doesn’t give as much of a nice light and smooth tone as my Grafwood pencils do. It’s possible that the lighter pencils that Staedtler does could achieve something similar, mine only go down to 2H though.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Review
Using the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils result in a very different kind of drawing. All of the drawings I do with the Mars Lumograph Black pencils are high contrast and usually contain quite large areas of black tone, because that’s what these pencils are best at.
Tactile Experience of the Black version
The tactile experience of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils is very different to that of the Lumograph 100 pencils that I talked about above. The form and size of the pencil is the same but the graphite inside the Lumograph Black pencils is much harder than the graphite in the Lumograph 100 pencils. The result is, the pencils give far more resistance on the paper to the extent where they feel a little chalky. The Lumograph Black pencils feel like they scratch, whereas with the Lumograph 100 pencils feel like they glide.
To be totally honest, the tactile experience of the Lumograph Black pencils isn’t anywhere near as nice as the feeling I get drawing with the Lumograph 100 pencils. Of course this is a subtle thing and when I’ve been drawing with them for a long time, I forget about the tactile experience and focus entirely on the drawing itself. It has to be said though, the Lumograph 100 pencils feel better than these black ones do while I draw with them.
Drawing a portrait with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Pencils
I love this portrait I did of my wife using the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils. She is a very good (and beautiful) subject to draw with these pencils because her hair is almost black and her skin is still fairly light. Drawing this portrait of her was a lot of fun because I got to play with both the deepest black tone of the pencils and also the lightest shades for the shadows around her face. And I have to say, she’s quite happy with this portrait of her too 🙂
The Mars Lumograph Black pencils are grainier than the Lumograph 100 pencils
One important comment I have for the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils is that they give quite a lot of texture to drawings. The portrait I did of my wife was done on very smooth paper (Daler Rowney Smooth Heavyweight), yet the tone that the pencils lay down is still quite grainy. Depending on your needs as an artist, the grain may be great for you or undesirable. If you use a paper stub or something else to blend the pencil, you can still smooth it out. I personally don’t like the effect that such smoothing gives, so I prefer to leave the texture of pencils alone.
A trick I use to smooth pencil marks is to use the lightest grade pencil as a smoothing tool. So for example, for my wife’s hair I used the darkest 9B pencil and then I went back over it with a HB pencil. The HB pencil didn’t add any extra tone to the hair but it did smooth out the grainy appearance that the heavier pencils give.
Indeed, the grainy texture of these pencils is in my opinion their biggest weakness. I don’t know if the grain is due to the higher carbon content but it did bother me a little at times. On my wife’s hair I was able to smooth the texture with a lighter grade pencil but for her skin I had to be more careful and used an eraser a few times when the grain of the paper showed too much.
This is another test I did with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils. As this is just a boot, it doesn’t matter too much if the grain of the paper shows through a bit. I did this on smooth paper again (Manga Paper by Sakura). For a very rustic style drawing like this, the Lumograph Black pencils are a great choice.
Mars Lumograph Black Pencils: Good for comic under drawings
If you are a comic book artist or someone who enjoys using black ink a lot, the Lumograph Black pencils could be a really great choice for you. I use ink quite a lot myself and know how annoying it can be for the shine of a pencil to show too much through or around the ink. As the Lumograph Black pencils don’t shine, they’re way better for planning out ink artwork.
Another good thing about the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils is that the deepest tones are so dark that they sometimes remind me of black ink. The texture of the pencils won’t be smooth enough for most artwork in ink but I would definitely use these pencils to plan out such artwork or do thumbnails. If I used these to plan out the lighting of a scene for example, it would be a great application. The massive advantage of using these pencils to plan out ink artwork is that they can be erased quite easily, even after I apply the deepest black tones.
The Mars Lumograph Black Pencils leave a deposit sometimes
One undesirable effect of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils is that they sometimes leave a deposit when applying very deep and dark tones to the page. For example, when I was shading my wife’s near black hair, I often noticed that the pencils were leaving tiny bits of graphite everywhere. Removing those tiny bits of graphite is a bit of a pain because they sometimes can’t just be blown away. I sometimes had to wipe the bits off the page, which meant I sometimes had to tidy up smudges. Not a huge problem but still, not ideal either.
Are the Mars Lumograph Black pencils a good replacement for charcoal?
Charcoal is a completely different medium to these Lumograph Black pencils. The techniques you’d use between these two different tools are very different and so are the effects you get with them. That said, if you simply want the ability to reach very dark tones, then using the Lumograph Black pencils could be a good choice. The Lumograph Black pencils are far easier to control than charcoal is and doesn’t require as much cleanup. The graphite from the Lumograph Black pencils also sticks to the page better so doesn’t require as much fixing spray.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black vs a Black coloring pencil
Understandably, you might be wondering if the Mars Lumograph Black is just a black coloring pencil. It isn’t. The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black is made from graphite and coloring pencils are made from pigment, with usually either oil or wax as the medium to stick it all together. Although you can use a black coloring pencil to draw, the experience will be somewhat different to the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils will last far longer than a black coloring pencil would. The reason is that the graphite in the Lumograph Black pencils is quite hard and doesn’t wear down as quickly. Even with great coloring pencils like the Polychromos by Faber Castell, the nibs on them wear down very quickly when we start applying tone heavily. With Lumograph Black pencils, the tips on them stay sharper for longer and the pencil itself will last longer.
The difference in appearance will depend on what coloring pencil you use but what you’ll likely find is that the coloring pencil gives a smooth finish whereas the Mars Lumograph Black pencils show the texture of the paper a lot more (as I already described above). What I’d recommend if you’re in the habit of using black coloring pencils to draw a lot is buy the Lumograph Black pencils to do the majority of your drawing and then finish the blackest areas of your drawing with the coloring pencil. The Lumograph Black pencils will erase far more easily than most coloring pencils, so they’ll make the initial stages of your drawing easier.
Drawing Progression of portrait with Lumograph Black pencils
I thought it might be interesting for you to see how a drawing progresses with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils. You can click the images to enlarge them.
My workflow starts out with animation style planning (figuring things out with big circles etc). I didn’t photograph the earliest stage but basically I start with a big circle for the skull, a point for the chin and two circles in the centre for the eyes. I plan things that way because I’m an animator and it’s the way that I’m used to drawing. I also used techniques like measuring distances with my pencil and mapping out light planes. The other lines on the drawing are where I’ve used reference points across the face to size things up correctly.
After I planned out the proportions, I applied my first layer of tone and erased some of the construction lines. At this stage, most of the shadows are the same tone. At this stage the pencil work is still quite light and easy to correct. If I stopped at this stage it would be fine but I’d consider the drawing timid (as if I was afraid of committing to it).
This stage is mostly the same as the last, however now I’ve added the darkest tone I intend using in the drawing (the hair).
After I’ve put in more detail to the hair, I start darkening areas of the face more. The reason I leave the right part of the drawing unshaded until the end is because I’m right-handed and want to avoid smudging.
Finally I add the rest of the hair’s shading and make some final adjustments to the face. I realised right at the end that the eye direction was slightly off, so I had to erase part of the eyes and redraw the irises. If you compare the two images above, you’ll notice that in the first she’s looking slightly away from us and in the corrected one on the right, she’s looking at us (which is what I wanted). Eye direction is quite difficult to get right so it’s common that I make adjustments at the end like this. It’s a good thing that the pencils erase quite easily! If I erase very dark tones, they do leave some grey behind but it’s nothing too severe and I can correct it easily by scratching the paper’s surface or putting in a small amount of white ink.
Concluding my review of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Pencils
I’ve really enjoyed reviewing the Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils. As I mentioned before, I used these for a really long time for a variety of different tasks. It was initially an accident that I bought both kinds (the standard Lumograph and Lumograph Black sets), however I’m now glad that I was able to compare both.
Pros / Cons of Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 Pencils
- Graphite is very resistant.
- Wood and graphite quality is excellent.
- Smooth tactile feeling when drawing.
- Can achieve subtlety and contrast well.
- Modest price.
- Not colored to show the difference in tone between pencils.
Pros / Cons of Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Pencils
- Very good for contrast.
- The graphite doesn’t shine.
- Wood and graphite quality is excellent.
- Graphite is very resistant.
- Modest price.
- Pencils feel scratchy rather than smooth.
- Has a more grainy quality so the paper’s grain shows more than with softer pencils.
- Leaves a slight deposit after shading really dark tones.
- Not colored to show the difference in tone between pencils.
I’m very happy with all of the artwork that I produced with both versions of the pencil and that’s partly testament to their high quality. The Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencils (the standard ones) have a great tactile experience and they perform as well as most other artist quality graphite pencil. Where they do stand out is in their break resistance. I was quite impressed that during the year that I’ve used them, the graphite never broke despite me dropping the pencils occasionally.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils are very unique and I’ve never used a pencil like them before. Whereas I could take or leave the standard Lumograph pencils, the Lumograph Black pencils are a welcome addition to my arsenal of tools. I wouldn’t be able to get the same effect from any other pencil brands as far as I’m aware, so that’s a big bonus for these. I think Staedtler did an excellent job of revisiting the pencil with the Lumograph Black pencils.
The standard pencils (Lumograph 100) don’t really have any downside. They’re really easy to use when producing art and I didn’t personally have a problem with them. The Mars Lumograph Black pencils on the other hand, had two small issues. The first is that they are quite grainy and show the paper’s texture a lot even on smooth paper and the second issue is that tiny bits of graphite fall onto the page when I shade really deep blacks. The latter issue is quite small but depending on what kind of artist you are, the extra texture that the Black pencils give may bother you slightly. It isn’t too much of an issue for me because they’re still very unique. I will be using them for high contrast work rather than subtle shading though.
Should you entirely replace normal pencils like the Lumograph 100 pencils with Lumograph Black pencils? No. The Lumograph Black pencils are really unique and I like using them, however they aren’t the best pencil to use for very subtle work. They’re quite scratchy and hard and usually, I prefer pencils to be softer so that I’m not feeling as much of the drag on the page. I will only be using the Lumograph Black pencils for high contrast work or for times when I don’t want the usual graphite shine.
Where can you buy Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils?
My Staedtler Mars Lumograph review is finished, so maybe now you want to know where to get them! I’m affiliated to the shops below, which means if you use my links I may get a small amount of commission when you buy something. It doesn’t change the price for you but it means that I get a few cents in my coffee fund jar to fuel myself with more caffeine to write these articles!
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 (Standard version)
Blick’s Art (USA)
Jackson’s Art (UK / EU)
Rougier et Ple (France / EU)
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black (Darker, reduced shine version)
Blick’s Art (USA)
Rougier et Ple (France / EU)
Last modified: August 8, 2021