Some things become so interwoven in our day-to-day routine that we run the risk of taking their special properties for granted. The subject of this installment of Tools of the Trade is just such an item -- such an integral part of so many people's lives that we don't even think about it, or what the art world might be like without it.
In 1564 a tree was blown down during a storm in the Cumbrian Lake District of Northern England, uncovering the world's first pure deposit of a strange new substance. The new material soon came to be called "plumbago" (after the Latin word for lead) and rapidly gained in popularity among artists for its amazing mark-making properties.
By 1600 plumbago had become of strategic importance and was controlled by the British crown. (It had been discovered that canon balls cast in graphite molds were more spherical and therefor had more range. And this, in turn afforded Britain's navy a tactical advantage over her enemies.) This did not prevent plumbago (now cut into square rods of about 3 inches in length and wrapped in twine) from making its way into the hands of printmakers in Holland, where it was initially used to prepare images for portrait engravings. However, so delicate and detailed were the new drawings that they were soon being sold as finished portraits -- "Plumbagos" -- and were highly sought after. There popularity would continue for the remainder of the century and just owning one of the new "pencils" soon became a mark of affluence and prestige.
A second source of plumbago was discovered near Nürnburg, Germany. While it was far less pure than the restricted British deposits, it was plentiful and a lucrative international trade -- until a British and German blockade of France was initiated in1792 following the beginning of the French Revolution. Desperate to find an alternate, home-grown source for "pencils" the government of the new French republic called upon the inventive skills of Nicolas-Jacques Conté -- artist, adventurer, inventor, army officer, and artistic advisor to Napoleon. Within days Conté had discovered that by baking a mixture of refined graphite powder and kaolin clay he could produce outstanding "graphite" sticks, that by varying the amount of clay he could control the hardness or softness of the sticks, and that these sticks could be placed in either a metal "port-crayon" or a hollowed out wood sheath. And thus the modern pencil -- the Queen of all artists' materials -- was born.
Within three decades the astonishing mark-making capabilities and expressive range of this new medium had revolutionized the art world -- to the point where no artist would thinking of doing without this now "essential" tool and patrons were as likely to commission a pencil portrait as one produced in oil paints.