Graphite was used by the Orient to produce an ink and by the Aztecs as a mark making tool way before Europe knew anything about it. When it was found in Bavaria in the 15th century nothing much happened either but when, a century later, the purest deposits of graphite ever were discovered in Cumberland, England, it was promptly used by shepherds to mark their sheep then sold as rough mark making sticks wrapped in string. In time, a cottage industry of pencil making developed there (a thriving business these days known under the name of Derwent) but first… someone had to invent the pencil!
Necessity being the mother of all inventions, it was war between France and England which, imposing a very annoying embargo on Mr Napoléon Bonaparte, brought along a resolution to the many attempts to extend powdered graphite with gums, resins and glues. How was his administration, his Empire, to run smoothly without graphite sticks? The French Republic offered a reward to anyone who could come up with an idea… and, 4 days into his research, Nicolas-Jacques Conté -a fascinating scientist/artist/balloonist with a project-a-day attitude- came up with a solution! He developed a process of roasting a mixture of clay, purified graphite and water in a kiln, and then encasing that substance in wood… the pencil was born. ( By the way it’s him up there and the lost eye is not due to a pencil but to a too close study of gas for his balloons!)
Soon after, Joseph Hardmuth found that the greater the amount of clay used in the mixture, the harder the pencil point, which gave us all these H and B variations of grey (even a little F lost in the middle there). I’m not quite sure what these letters really stand for but you could trick your memory with H standing for Hard and the more Hs (2H, 3H etc.) the harder the pencil will be. B then is the opposite: 9B is usually the end of the chart and that’s a pretty dark and greasy graphite pencil there. I have been asked for numbers above 2H (Faber-Castell does go to 6H) but harder than hard doesn’t seem to appeal much and usually 2H is where artists and pencil boxes begin.
If you would like to read how a pencil is made today, there’s a good description in the coloured pencils page.
Graphite is on the whole much easier than charcoal: less dusty and more durable, its slippery nature makes it glide on surfaces yet it has a natural adhesion AND it can be so easily erased! It can be shaped easily into a variety of things -including the craziest shapes and the thinnest of leads of course which is why there are quite a variety of graphite tools. A new option is watersoluble graphite and that seem to really appeal to many for quick sketches with a twist. For fast life drawings for example I can see how it might even be an all rounder tool.
The Graphite Pencil is the most common writing and drawing tool in the world. (By the way, although there is a lead in your pencils -that middle bit which carries the colour, white, grey, etc. is called a lead in all of them- but please remember once and for all that lead pencils do not exist! I really wish art teachers stopped using that confusing name when they really want you to get graphite pencils, but I guess I’ll have to live with another misnomer in my life!)
Drawing would not be quite the same without them even if most pencils produced in the world do not end up in the hands of an artist but more used by school children practicing writing and adding up. Pencil by the way comes from pencillus meaning “little tail” in Latin. In medieval times the word was used for a little drawing brush for ink. The graphite pencil with it’s wooden handle and fine tip too seems to have simply adopted that rather unsuitable name.
Definitely, if you want to draw, a variety of hardnesses is a must but graphite pencils are produced by so very many companies, and are so very different from brand to brand that I would not be able to tell you which one to get. Some brands are waxier, you might like the smooth easy line they produce, some are harder and will keep a better point, give you a more defined line and you might like those. You might even prefer the woodless pencils which are pleasant to sharpen and can be used on the side to produce bigger strokes. However, if big marks are your thing, I would recommend you get a truly BIG pencil or even an uncoated rectangular stick.
Mechanical Pencils is another way to go, especially if you like to work very fine and need a consistent point. Since a vise is not used to hold the lead, it is free to rotate as a line is drawn so that a consistent line width is produced. You can sharpen your leads -some brands have a little sharpener at the top of the pencil under the eraser which is convenient- mostly you keep going and that’s the beauty of this tool. Leads and lead holders are common in 0.5mm, 0.7mm and also 2mm but can also be found in 0.3mm and 0.9mm. Most mechanical pencils advance in increments but some these days automatically advance the lead as it is worn down, eliminating even the need to stop and make adjustments… ha! Progress!
Graphite Sticks are, amusingly enough since it’s how it all began, relatively new in the art world. Today of course they too are not pure graphite but mixtures of powdered graphite and clay. Artgraf in Portugal has just produced the mega stick photographed up there and it’s watersoluble! Nice…
Derwent also produces “Fine Art Graphite Blocks” and these are quite delicious! The blurb says ” You can create a wide variety of textures and effects with these generous graphite blocks; subtle blending, fine lines and deep tonal work are all possible. Available in 6 shades from Olive Green to Burnt and Raw Umber, chunky blocks of XL Graphite are naturally water-soluble too.” Quite obviously Olive Green or Raw Umber are other pigments but in the XL Graphite blocks the main ingredient is graphite to which is added a little pigment to give a hint of colour… amazing is it not?
You can find graphite powder in most stores and spread it, buff it etc. and you can now also find tins of watersoluble graphite, made by ArtGraf, and play with your graphite and a brush, it’s very pleasant! But wait until you try the graphite kneadable putty they have just invented!! I could tell you about it at length but it really has to be seen to be believed and so… a link to a little video!
I know this is the drawing section but a little PS about Graphite Gray PBk10 pigment (or powder as it is most often referred to) which is sometimes available in paint ranges… It’s not something you would think of using in your drawings perhaps but I have recommended it to a few artists who wanted some of the precision / consistency you can get to with paint and it has seemed to solve their issues so just passing on that it exists in certain ranges.