Art Term Tuesday: Pencil

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

A customary pen user with a collection to rival any stationery hoarder, I recently found myself on the hunt for a pencil to fill in a printed work calendar. I needed a pencil for one important, yet profoundly simple, reason: the ability to erase.

What sets the pencil apart from any other writing instrument (erasable pens included because we all know they don’t actually erase) is the ability to make a mark and then remove it. No need to strike through or completely start over as with a pen. There is no risk of spilling or smudging ink, or having your cat walk across your painstakingly handwritten manuscript and leave behind paw prints. The history of the pencil, much like the paintbrush, is one taken for granted. When did we not have access to this mark-making tool and are all pencils made equal?

A sketchy pencil drawing on paper shows a woman with her head leaning on her closed right fist. She looks off to the side of the viewer, her face and hair completely finished. As we move down from her neck, the sketch is incomplete, with just the outlines of her dress discernible. There is no background.
Gwen Mary John, English, 1876-1939. Poppet. Graphite pencil on paper, date unknown. Gift of Larry Eberbach, 1984.13. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Created by Romans, the predecessor to our pencil was their stylus, a thin, lead stick used for scratching onto papyrus or into wax tablets by scribes. Following the Roman stylus, early pencils were fine brushes made of camel hair until a large deposit of graphite was found beneath a tree in England, probably around the mid-1500s. As science was still in its infancy, the British thought they had stumbled across a lead quarry, which is why the misconception that pencils are filled with lead persists today. These pieces of graphite made a darker mark on paper than the lead in a Roman stylus. So, they cut it into sticks and encased it in paper or string until the 1600s when wood replaced those less sturdy materials. England held a monopoly on pencil production, carefully controlling the quarries when graphite’s use to line the molds for cannonballs was discovered. An Italian couple, Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti, are recognized for producing the blueprint to our modern, wood encased pencil when they carved two wooden halves, inserted the graphite stick down the middle, and then glued the halves back together. The United States imported pencils from Europe until after the American Revolution, and American Transcendentalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s family made pencils that were used by Ralph Waldo Emerson!

The pencil we know and love today, however, was ultimately formulated by the French. In 1793, in response to the escalation between England and France leading up to the Napoleonic Wars, England imposed an embargo on France and the import of English pencils into France ceased. Nicolas-Jacques Conté was tasked with finding a solution. Eventually, he ground up graphite and clay, mixed it with water, and hardened it into a triangular mold. After firing it in the kiln, voilà! A pencil! Conté, for his encasement, cut a groove out of a whole wooden stick, instead of two halves, and glued the mixture into the groove. He then added another piece of wood on top. What is important about Conté’s mixture is that it allowed for the manipulation of the clay: the more clay, the harder the pencil and lighter the mark; the less clay, the softer the lead and the darker the mark.

A photo of pencils of varying color for artistic use.
Here, we have an array of pencils to show the differences between their mark-making abilities. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Artists continue to take advantage of Conté’s patented compound today, because controlling the hardness (H), blackness (B), and fineness (F) of the mark-making is integral to their artistic practice. Essentially no more than a stick of graphite encased in wood, the pencil has maintained its dominance as an artistic tool. Even those whose practice is painting or sculpture often start with a preliminary pencil sketch. Thanks to innovative technologies like x-ray fluorescence, it is now possible to scan paintings to see the layers underneath, including beginning sketches! Beyond fine art, carpenters, engineers, stenographers, and beauticians (eyeliner) all use pencils as well. Just as with paintbrushes, however, not all pencils are made the same. The most common type, of course, is the graphite pencil that provides the smoothest strokes. There are also solid graphite pencils that lack a casing (known as woodless), which allow them to cover larger spaces and produce multiple effects, favored by artists. Liquid graphite pencils write like pens and watercolor pencils create painterly effects when used with water. For blending, an artist may turn to a charcoal pencil, which provides a darker, fuller black but smudges or a carbon pencil which results in a similar full black but produces less dust and smudging than its charcoal counterpart. When in an art museum, therefore, and you see a label that states the artist medium as graphite or pencil on paper, it’s not necessarily your coveted #2, hexagonal pencil.

A child kneels in a forest in the middle of a "fairy ring", or ring of mushrooms. Their orange hair, hidden partially beneath a cap, falls across their shoulder as they move one hand downward to touch a large mushroom cap. The work is dark, with the multiple mushrooms providing the most color.
An example of watercolor and graphite together. William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. Fairy Ring. Gouache, watercolor, and graphite on paperboard, date unknown. Museum Purchase, 2002.07. Photo courtesy of FWMOA.

Graded and classified, pencils vary from manufacturer to manufacturer aside from the standard writing pencil which is HB (Hard, Black). Generally, the more letters, the successively softer (BBB is softer than BB) or harder (HH is less hard than HHHH) a pencil is. This helps an artist create the desired color, texture, tone, and shade to their work. The majority of pencils in the United States are painted yellow and have affixed erasers, as of 1858, while most other countries keep their erasers separate. While pens dispense a liquid or gel ink (the most prized possessions in any 90s classroom was the coveted glittery gel pen) pencils create marks by leaving a trail of graphite that adheres to the surface, usually paper. Resistant to moisture, ultraviolet radiation, and natural aging, pencils have truly withstood the test of time as an art material. While acrylic paint came to dominate the art scene after its inception, the pencil was wielded by Roman scribes, Vincent van Gogh (who only used the Faber line), and contemporary artists today, including those whose work is shown in this blog. What can you create with a pencil?

A woman stands in front a motel door, an American flag flying in the breeze off of the composition. She stands in jeans and a white t-shirt, looking directly at the viewer with her arms at her side. The growing patch of weeds at her feet and clapboard structure behind her gives a sense of neglect to the overall work.
Contemporary artist Joel Daniel Phillips uses charcoal and graphite to make his realistic portraits. Joel Daniel Phillips, American, b. 1989. Josephine: Rest Haven Motel. Charcoal and graphite on paper, 2017. Museum Purchase, 2018.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

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