All About Graphite

Over the years I’ve experimented with so many different types of drawing tools. Right now my favorite is graphite, since it allows for depth, easy correction, softness, and shading to create realistic portraits. When drawing with my favorite graphite pencils, it’s a matter of coaxing out the forms, gently, with layers and layers of crosshatching, until the shadows, negative space, and features all come together to seem real.

(detail) by Meghan Oona Clifford |
From R e a l e y e s G a l l e r y

Graphite was used as a marking tool by the Aztecs long before Columbus went on his Caribbean cruise. Europe did not discover graphite until 1400, when it was found in Bavaria and promptly mistaken for lead. The substance was not called graphite until 1789. The purest deposits of graphite ever found were discovered in Cumberland, England, in 1564 and were in continuous production until 1833.

The advantage of graphite over charcoal is that it is less dusty and naturally adheres better to a ground. It can easily be fashioned into a variety of writing and drawing instruments, which can be used to express great detail and subtlety. Graphite is also more easily fixed to a ground and in general has a more durable surface.

Graphite Pencils

Graphite Pencils are the most common writing and drawing tools today. In Latin pencillus means “little tail” and describes a small brush used in medieval times for drawing with ink. The term “pencil quill” is still used sometimes to describe a type of small pointed brush used for signmaking and graphic arts work. In some cultures, the word “pencil” is still used to refer to a small brush. It would seem that the graphite pencil derived its name from the fact that it has a wooden handle, like a brush, and a small tip that can be fashioned into a point.

The first graphite pencils were blocks of graphite that were shaped into sticks and wrapped with string. Since graphite was at first mistaken for lead, they were called lead pencils. Soon after the discovery of the graphite deposits in England, it became clear that the amount of available graphite was limited and conservation measures rapidly followed. Several attempts to extend powdered graphite with gums, resins, and glues, which were pressed into blocks of grooved wood, had only limited success.

The invention of the modem pencil has been credited to Nicolas-Jacques Conte, a French scientist under the commission of Napoleon. In 1795, he developed a manufacturing process of roasting a mixture of clay, purified graphite, and water in a kiln, and then encasing the substance in wood. Soon after, Joseph Hardmuth found that the greater the amount of clay used in the mixture, the harder the pencil point. This led to the development of the various degrees of hardness of pencils. The modem process for making pencils involves producing a paste, like that of Nicolas-Jacques Conte, and partially drying it through filtration. It is then extruded into long strands and fired at 1900°F. The strands, which are still slightly porous, are then filled with natural waxes for the purpose of lubrication and to help the graphite adhere to the ground. They are either packaged for use in a lead holder or inserted into a wood casing.

Today, graphite pencils are made in different degrees of hardness by regulating the amount of clay added. The greater the quantity of clay, the harder the lead and the lighter the overall drawn line will appear. It is common to have several different degrees of pencils to vary the detail and the light and dark areas of a drawing. The more “Hs,” the harder the lead. The more “Bs,” the softer the lead. HB and F are intermediate grades between the two types. B through 10H are commonly used in drafting. 8B through F are preferred for artwork. Writing pencils have their own hardness scale, which roughly coincides at certain points with the drafting scale.


8B . . . 4B-3B-2B-B-HB-F-H-2H-3H-4H-5H . . . 10H

softer to harder

More info on Art Materials.

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