Tools of the trade: graphite pencils and funfacts

Tools of the trade: graphite pencils and funfacts: Once in a while I get asked what kind of tools I use for my drawings. The short answer is “pencils”. The long answer is… the best ones.

I have tried and failed with a large variety of brands.

Pencil funfacts:

  • They have not – contrary to popular belief –  contained lead (though Pliny mentioned lead for drawing guiding lines on papyrus).
  • However, some of the coats used for painting the outside of the pencils sometimes contained lead
  • The hardness of a pencil is described by increasing numbers +H. This means an increasingly lighter stroke. The hardness is obtained by increasing the amount of clay. The B stands for blackness, and contains an increasing amount of graphite. By happy coincidence, in my language, the letter B is the first letter in the word “soft” (bløt).
  • Graphite is a mineral, a rare formation of carbon.
  • The English mines were kept secret, like a military base, and production kept low, so as to keep the international price of graphite high.
  • In the 17-18teenth century, graphite was worth hundreds and thousands of pounds.
  • Graphite was so valued, that the miners were strip-searched when leaving the mine.
  • American pencils are traditionally painted yellow. This comes – in short – from the fact that a seam of graphite of excellent quality was discovered on the Siberian/Chinese border, and therefore got the name “Chinese pencils”. Copying the yellow of imperial robes symbolised the romance of the Orient, and simultaneously hinted that they came from the superior ore.
  • Though different brands use the same hardness-blackness scale, this does not mean that they are equally hard/black. Therefore, artists will have their favourite brands.

Generally, the brand means less the blacker the pencil is. In the higher end of H, from 2H and up, the quality really shows. I have for a while used Lyra Art Design, and pretty much ditched the harder ones; they “clog”. They leave tiny-tiny specks on the paper, and when you draw over that again, it accumulates more colour. Therefore you end up with tiny dots. I am probably the only one who notice this in my drawings, but it is annoying.

Koh-i-noor is just awful on all accounts. The colour, the density, the feel.

Bruynzeel and Spectrum makes very decent charcoal and their coloured cousins, I just do not use them that often. However, they look great on packing paper.

It is a long time since I have used Derwent, but remember them as a generally a little fiddly, and they do not sharpen nicely.

So I am going back to the source, the brand I used years ago, that has not ever let me down; Staedtler Mars Lumograph. I do not know why I strayed, but hurray, the quality has not gone down.

Erasers? I do not use them much, but I have always stuck with Pilot or Staedtler, I do not touch anything else. I rather not use erasers at all, if I have to use something else than those. Lately, though, I have discovered the brilliant kneadable rubber, and that blu-tac is basically the same thing.

(Oh, and Staedtler, should you happen to read this, feel free to send me a big box of goodies!)

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