An ordinary pencil contains enough graphite to draw a constant line for 35 miles.
For some time people have been requesting I put together a small article about the tool of my trade and answer a few questions about it. I have given this some thought and have tried to relate why I think the pencil is so important as an instrument for all artists and why it is still relevant even in today's new world of technology.
I often come to the conclusion that I am still unsure of myself when faced with the almighty steadfast canvas and oils that have so long stood the test of time. But is pencil any the less for not being so durable or for not being the final tool for so many of the great masters?
Because the walls of our familiar state-funded galleries are not lined with drawings of graphite pictures does it mean that this medium is any less worthy of the adoration given to it by so many? My feeling is there is a place for all and although the pencil is now becoming an accomplished finishing tool in its own right it will probably always at best come second place to the art of painting.
The first pencils as we know them today were invented in England in 1564 with the discovery of graphite, and its ability to make a harder, sharper and darker mark than that of the previously used lead. The substance of graphite was actually discovered in an accident with gunpowder, with graphite being an element of the after effect from an explosion. Although being often described or labelled as lead, graphite is actually a form of crystalised carbon.
It was not until 1662 that the pencil was formally taken into mass production in Germany. This was then later developed and pioneered by companies like Faber Castell throughout the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.
Favoured for its convenience, taken anywhere and everywhere there was no doubt it could be unrivalled as the way forward for all artists.
Believe it or not, an ordinary pencil contains enough graphite to draw a constant line for 35 miles. It still has to be said, that although the pencil since its invention was probably the most commonly used tool in sketching, it was often still only a tool for preliminary work, in preparation for paint.
In its infancy, it was the obvious choice for early illustrators as the work was easily reproduced for the pre colour printing press. It also became quite apparent that with just using a graphite pencil alone, numerous tones and shading could be derived with relative ease and these could be reproduced with excellent quality at minimal cost. There was no doubt that pencils could be almost unrivalled as an instrument of artistic convenience.
Photo Courtesy David Dancey-Wood 2021
We can ask ourselves if the humble pencil is often relegated to the ranks of a student medium and overlooked as an instrument of art in its own right. In today's world, pencil art is all but slowly getting its own seat at the grown-ups table and, is starting to get the respect it deserves alongside traditional styles of mediums of old. I myself often enjoy a break from the palette of grey and love to have a splash with my watercolours or slap it on thick with my oils. Switching from one medium to another is a tricky business as the discipline for one will often be the reverse of what it is for another, and often I find myself dedicated to one type of art at a time particularly when producing finished works.
Love it or hate it, the pencil is here to stay as I noticed the other day that even in digital art they have strived to produce software and tools that will mimic and reproduce graphite as closely as they can.
A writing tool that with its sheer simplicity can not be surpassed, the pencil, is used by NASA in space as it is not affected by gravity or temperature fluctuation. One thing is for sure, nothing will come close to replacing a tool that is so convenient and so easy for everyone to pick up, experiment and experience the joys it can bring.