Graphite, of course, is what we think of when we think of pencil drawing. The raw material is actually a crystalline form of carbon, and is compressed with fine clay to make the “lead” in pencils. Graphite has long been used for writing and drawing, and is in common use for all types of sketching.
That hasn’t always been the case. Many beautiful old drawings, by artists like Titian, da Vinci and Michelangelo, appear to have red or sepia-toned lines. These were done as preliminary sketches for paintings or sculpture, at a time when drawing was not considered an art form for its own sake. The drawing tool was a soft silver or copper wire, and the image revealed itself only as the material oxidized, causing the reddish hue.
According to John D. Barrow, “the modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.”
Pencils come in various degrees of hardness, and are chosen for their intended use. The range goes from 9H to 12B. H stands for hardness; B indicates blackness. The most commonly used pencil is the #2, found in classrooms around the world. The graphite is soft enough to flow smoothly from the pencil when forming letters or numbers; it can be erased without difficulty, with the proper tool. It is hard enough so it will not brush off, or easily smear across the page.
Harder pencils are chosen for technical drawing: architectural rendering, and medical and scientific illustrations. Left-handers sometimes choose harder leads, as they are less likely to smear.
Softer pencils are often selected for artist’s drawing, for their ability to convey many different tones without getting shiny, or embossing the page. The line a soft pencil makes can change from thin to thick quickly, based on a change in pressure. This can help to convey energy, or weight, or movement in a drawing.
Art History can cite drawings that go back 30,000 years, to the earliest images found in caves. Sketching has always been utilized for preliminary studies. It’s only within the last one hundred years that drawing has been widely recognized as an art form by itself. As it’s gained in popularity, the materials used to create drawing have expanded, too, to include various chalks, crayons, markers and charcoal. Of them all, the graphite pencil is still the most favored.