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Getting to the Core of Graphite
The graphite pencil is ubiquitous, a staple everywhere from the classroom, studio, and office, to the beginner’s toolbox and the professional’s collection.
Its marks form words on a page, classical drawings, the foundations for paintings, and so much more. Graphite is the faithful companion of every creative individual.
WHAT’S IN A GRADE?
Lead in Pencils: A Misnomer
Though the core of a pencil is commonly referred to as a “lead”, it contains no elemental lead. In the 16th century, a newly discovered substance was mistaken for lead due to its similarity in colour and mark-making capacity. This was graphite, a crystalline form of carbon, which gets its name from the ancient Greek word ‘graphein’, meaning ‘to write’. Confusion arises as graphite was once named “plumbago”, which is derived from the Latin word “plumbum” meaning “lead.”
The modern standard drawing pencil contains a core of graphite and clay, a mixture perfected by Nicolas-Jacques Conté in the late 1700s. The grade of a pencil is the ratio of graphite to clay, resulting in how hard or soft the lead is.
Pencil grades are measured by the HB or the Numerical scale, with the latter mostly used in the US. The ratio of clay binding to graphite powder is what determines the hardness of your pencil: the more clay binding, the harder the core.
H (hard) grade pencils contain more clay binding, resulting in a light, fine line that doesn’t smudge very easily and is great for light sketching or precise drafting. B (black) grade pencils contain more graphite, creating bold lines that smudge well, ideal for expressive drawing and shading.
The most popular graphite tool is a pencil, which offers a protective wooden sheath around the graphite core (the “lead”). This casing serves the function of protecting the graphite from breakage, and also keeps your hands from being covered in graphite residue.
The shape of the pencil can offer different advantages. Hexagonal-shaped pencils offer optimal grip, whereas round pencils provide flexibility to turn the pencil and find the most suitable part of the tip. Sketching pencils, also known as studio pencils, are traditionally used by carpenters for their improved control over line-width. Mechanical pencils are available in a variety of grades, and allow you to create precise lines. There are also Water-Soluble pencils are available, which open up a variety of wet media techniques.
OTHER FORMS OF GRAPHITE
While the pencil is a staple, you can find graphite in a variety of alternative forms. Kneadable Graphite is a modelling clay-like option that you can shape into a never-ending combination of forms to create stunning marks. Graphite Powder can be applied with a brush, allowing for delicate and controlled shading. Graphite Sticks provide a wider surface than pencils, and Graphite Tins allow you to use the graphite like a paint. These are all available in water-soluble varieties, expanding the tones and marks possible, and offering a painterly approach to your drawings.
Considering the multitude of options available for applying graphite to paper, there is a wide variety of techniques that you can utilize to create interesting textures, shades, and more. Techniques include cross hatching, shading, detailing, and erasing, to work with the negative space.
Search through our Visiting Artist Demonstrations & Workshops pages for graphite here.