Home Magazine The Common Graphite Pencil in Art

The humble pencil is a fundamental tool for artists. It is just a simple wooden case with a graphite core – but how can we transform natural graphite into the cylindrical graphite pencil we all know so well? And how do contemporary artists use the graphite tool today?

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What is pencil art?

We are all familiar with the technique of pencil drawing. We have all seen people with a small sketch pad, in busier times, do portrait drawing in tourist areas. We have all used the typical graphite pencil with the eraser at the end.

Tracing, marking, sketching, portraying – in the end capturing life through simple lines and shades is what lays at the core of a traditional artistic practice. But how do artists actually come to recreate and transform on paper? 

From simple preliminary sketch lines to more complex artworks, by learning to draw artists learn to balance and control the pressure placed on the paper, regulating the lines and marks. By getting to know the tools and variety of pencils out there, they can choose the softness/ hardness which fits their hand, and desired effects.

Indeed, many different tools are used for this purpose, but pencils have long been a central tool. Today a multitude of products are available today. Pencils come in various forms, including coloured pencils or even charcoal pencils. They can be soft, hard or fine, come in traditional graphite or infinite colours. 

This immense range of pencils gives artists the possibility to choose according to the focus of their artistic practice and the results they want to achieve. But why draw? And can it really be the main tool in a masterpiece?


Paul Cadden, New York Sketch, n.d., Courtesy of the artist ©Paul Cadden.


Human Nature: The Innate Urge to Draw

Even though we are surrounded by screens, technology and increasingly rely on software to write and draw – the urge to leave a mark has been with humankind since the prehistoric times. What is it about capturing our surroundings that is so important, crucial and attractive?

For ages drawings have been important, essential tools for enquiry, questioning and observing. It is a tool, the archaic version of the modern phones in which we can jot things down, capturing a view, light and composition, but even to remember all those things which surprise, intrigue and fascinate us.

Investigation and enquiry – are these not, in the end, those characteristics which we see as being unique to humankind?

Artists use paints, prints – but even basic tools. Since the pencil was first created, it has become a crucial tool, for preliminary sketch drawings but even for complete artworks.


Shira Toren, Crossing Theories (from the series: ‘Graphite Reflection’), 2012-2016, Courtesy of the artist.


A close look at the tools…

Just a boring pencil – is it not one of the first tools we learn how to handle? But it is not a simple one. 

In general, the pencil is an instrument made of a wooden case, hexagonal, cylindrical or triangular, which encloses a graphite core. It works by abrasion. When drawing or writing, the point is consumed when scratched against the paper, card or any other support.

Graphite is a mineral, the name comes from the Greek verb ‘graphein’ which means ‘to write’. It is also called plumbago or black lead, and its colour can range from dark grey to black. It is opaque and soft. It consists of carbon and is mined in China, India, Brazil, North Korea and Canada. However, this important mineral can also be synthesised. 

Typically, softer pencils are used for shades, while harder points are good for tracing outlines. The range in which these tools can be found, classified in the HB scale, make it easy too chose a specific type, not only according to the desired effect or purpose, but also to the artists hand.


Richard Neal, Graphite Piece, 2009, Courtesy of Artsy ©2021 Artsy


The type of pencil most commonly used is called HB, a medium in the HB scale. Usually ranging from the hardest of the 10H (H stands for ‘hard’) to 10B (B stands for ‘black’), the graphite can keep a strong point leaving a faint colour and hard mark on the paper or have a soft point which leaves a dark colour with less pressure. Further, F, ‘fine’ pencils can be sharpened to obtain an extremely fine point, also considered a mid-range point.

Of course, the extremes are nearly paper cutting points or create charcoal-like smudges, but the range allows for a great deal of flexibility. 

Another common type of pencil is the charcoal pencil. Instead of having a graphite core, this one is made out of charcoal – usually burnt wood. The principle is the same as that of the common graphite pencil. In fact, the wooden cylinder makes it easier to handle this black core, as it can be messy to use.

Furthermore, pencils can be found in a range of different shades and tones. Coloured pencils have a wax- or oil-based core – containing pigments, additives and binding agents. Also watercolour pencils are made in a similar way, but with a water-soluble binder.

Pencils vary notable in quality, usability, durability and, of course, price. But whatever colour or material the core is made of, generally the basic techniques used are the same.


Arinze Stanley, Innocence 1, 2016, Courtesy of the artist ©ARINZE STANLEY.


Drawing with pencils: Techniques

Even the simple pencil can be used in various different ways. In fact, distinct techniques can result in very diverse effects and textures. 

Vertical, horizontal or inclined hatching are probably the most basic techniques which involve tracing more or less light lines in different directions – vertically, horizontally or at an angle, respectively. 

Cross-hatching and feathering gives a quite uniform texture. Radial hatching and expressive hatching give a varied and more complex texture. Contour Lines, loops, dots, dotted line, zig-zag lines, interwoven textures, basketweave patterns, wavy lines, scribbling can provide a more stylised effect through a pattern, flattening or decorating – but even by giving volume and rhythm to a work.


Armin Mersmann, Fractured Patterns, n.d., Courtesy of the artist.


Introduction of the Pencil: Preliminary Sketches and Studies

The word ‘pencil’ comes from the Latin term ‘penicillus’ – little tail. Originally, the term was used to refer to a brush. Another ancestor is the ‘stylus’, a thin metal stick used in Roman times to engrave on wax tablets.

Metal points were used until the 16th century. The metal would work in a similar way to the modern pencil. The softness of these metals made them ideal for drawings and sketches. Lead points were the earliest examples introduced. However, the soft point required re-shaping often. Tin and lead were combined to make it harder. 

Between the late Gothic and Early Renaissance era, the silverpoint emerged as a drawing technique, because artists could use it to create fine lines, Silverpoint drawing required a rough, coated surface to grip, but it had the advantage of not blunting as quickly as the lead alternative. 

Although initially confused for lead, in the 1500s, the discovery of a deposit of graphite in Seathwaite in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria (in England) drastically changed drawing. This deposit was extremely pure, and it was possible to cut sticks. 


Vicente Hemphill, Untitled, 2015, Courtesy of Artsy ©2021 Artsy.


Soon, the possibilities of using graphite for writing and drawing were discovered, with England maintaining the monopoly over this tool. Initially, the graphite stick had to be wrapped in string and sheepskin, but around 1560 came the Italian introduction of wood-encased graphite. 

In 1662, the first powder-based graphite stick was made in Nuremberg, in Germany. It combined graphite, sulphur and antimony. Just over a century later, in 1795 powdered graphite was mixed with clay, in various amounts to vary the hardness/ softness of the core.

Although, many artists became familiar with the advantages of graphite, it was never seen as a medium for High Art. It was just used for preliminary sketches, which would then be covered by other mediums – oil paints, for instance. Even for sketches other techniques like chalks, charcoal, pen and ink were preferred by artists. Nevertheless, gradually things changed as the pencil – the now common wooden case with a core of graphite and clay – was introduced.

In later years, many other small improvements were made to make it easier to produce and to hold. Even though there were minor adjustments to the shape or wood used, it is amazing that this little tool has remained in use since then. In fact, the quick and fast introduction of pencils represented a radical shift for everyone.

In the 19th century, the pencil spread and because it can be used on a variety of surfaces, creating precise lines and a range of chiaroscuro effects, it was employed more widely by artists for studies and sketches. 

Since the introduction of the modern graphite pencil, this tool has been used by practically every artist. With realists, expressionists and modern artists the tool has become a favourite for sketching, studies but also finished artworks nowadays.


Shira Toren, Graphite Subtraction #2, 2012, Courtesy of Artsy ©2021 Artsy.


What Masterpieces push the Common Pencil to the Limit?

Contemporary artists do not only employ pencils for sketches or studies. Many artists create pencil drawings which are true works of art in their own right. 

The artworks are not in any way worth less than a painting. They are a studious and knowledgeable application of the common graphite pencil, using the material and tool to their advantage. Artists can achieve meticulous and breath-taking results, with hyper-realist, photographic or experimental, free or sketch-like styles. 

British artist Lewis Chamberlain is one of the masters of pencils. Born in East Yorkshire in 1966, Lewis Chamberlain lives and works in East Sussex, England. His works have been shown in New York and London, including the National Portrait Gallery.

His pencil drawings have something surreal in them, yet they are truthful and realistic. Nothing in them is shocking, but they stir the viewer. The immense detail is mesmerising, soothing but unsettling at the same time. 

Working in oil paint as well as pencil, Lewis’ work is meticulous, but he does not simply recreate a photograph. Especially in his drawings, there is a difference – an undefinable touch which is not always visible in the real world. The atmosphere of his works filters our reality, which otherwise we would miss in the crispness of a photograph. 


Lewis Chamberlain, Seated Girl with Houseplant, n.d., Courtesy of the artist.


However, his works present us with a reality. They depict familiar objects - like childhood toys in the corner of a once well-known room. This intrigues us. We fall into these scenes dominated by a sense of unease – the uncanny – which permeates objects and environments we recognise as part of our everyday. 

In Lewis Chamberlain’s words: ‘Art should always attempt to challenge, to provoke, to ask questions and to offer something new. And it must communicate something to the viewer that in some way, however small, changes the way they see the world’. And he achieves this, particularly in his drawings.

Another person who works in pencil is Scottish artist Paul Cadden, born in 1982. Exhibiting in New York, London, Glasgow, Andorra and Atlanta, his inspiration is to ‘intensify the normal’.

Based on stills, films, or photographs, his work is extremely detailed and has a graphic cut. The observant eye with which this artist looks at city scenes, busy streets and angular scenes is marked by a strong social and political angle. 

Paul Cadden’s drawings are an emotional commentary. It is more than an imitation of an urban scene. It gives the illusion of reality but the point of view has been chosen to make us focus on the light and angle of the scene.


Lewis Chamberlain, Lady with Houseplants, n.d., Courtesy of the artist.


These two artists grasp onto the detail, in a hyper-realist way – making full use of the detail and clarity the graphite pencil can give. Other artists use the tool more freely, even employing graphite in powder form.

In fact, American artist David Schutter works with graphite, in the form of a pencil but he makes use of the sketch-like, fast and impulsive effect of this tool. Having exhibited in Berlin, Edinburgh, Rome, Chicago, New York, Grenoble, London, Haarlem, Glasgow and Madrid, David Schutter’s works often combines pencil with paste and crayon. 

His practice is a study of the medium itself. It is an observation and representation of the distance and problems of capturing and presenting events after they have happened.

Giving shape to the problems of painting or drawing, in his works the figures are volatile, just like memories we cannot cling to any longer. It is an impression, distortion of an event, composition or subject the artist has seen.

Also American-Israeli artist Shira Toren, who was born in Tel-Aviv and moved to America, works with graphite in a very different way. Her work, shown in New York, Chicago, Colorado, The Netherlands and Israel, makes use of graphite powder. She often combines it with other materials such as ink. 


David Schutter, After AIC W x 7D, 2008, Courtesy of Artsy ©2021 Artsy.


She presents us with a magnifying glass, her work, which scientifically observes and recreates. Her artworks convey an experimental feeling, as if it was the result of an image on a microscope or as if she has captured a natural reaction in the transforming natural world. 

For her it ‘creates a vocabulary for this world not quite as we know it’. It is a close, inquisitive look onto nature; it represents the natural elements which surrounds us. The result is extremely organic.

These four artists use graphite is different ways. Like other artists, they are all analytical but by looking at how they use this particular tool - whether in the form of graphite powder or pencils, alone or with other mediums - we can highlight the uniqueness of each artistic practice. To a certain extent the precision the simplicity of this tool highlights their differences. The precision and clearness which is achievable though studious drawings or faster sketches are incredibly distinct and we see the artist more than with any other medium. 

The masters of pencils focus on their views, transforming what they see. Their sensibility is fine and acute.

The Role of Graphite in Art Today

Studies, sketches or finished work? There is not only one way to use pencils or graphite. Indeed, the nearly 400-year-old pencil is an amazing medium: accessible, versatile and practical. 

Artists can create intriguing organic effects with graphite powder. In pencil drawing, lines, express, create textures, mark, give depth, produce surreal atmospheres and realistic effects, capturing volatile emotions or minute details.

Is the modern graphite pencil really a humble tool?


David Schutter, ICG, 2016, Courtesy of Artsy ©2021 Artsy.


Cover image: Lewis Chamberlain, The Trap, n.d., Courtesy of the artist.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello  

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