Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tools of the Trade #2 - Plumbago, Napoleon and a No. 2 Pencil

"Necessity, who is the mother of invention."      -- Plato, The Republic

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.

Portrait of an Unknown Man, 1659, V&A Museum

Portrait of Lady Anne Churchill, 1700, V&A Museum

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.

Nicolas-Jacques Conté

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.

Family Portrait, c. 1819, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A pencil helped announce my son's arrival to the world.

A pencil combined with watercolor to capture the glow of my daughter's smile.

And pencils have always been on hand to capture those fleeting moments,

be they asleep...

... or awake.

In the hands of a skilled artist/explorer like Thomas Moran the graphite pencil has been able to capture magnificent vistas through expressive line and word.

Or it has been partnered with light/dark washes or the merest hint of color to convey landscape on a monumental scale. 

Green River, Wyoming Territory, 1879, Thomas Moran

The pencil has also been a prime tool for the naturalist, ideal for recording observations and measurements of flora, fauna, geological formations and meteorological conditions under conditions that would make ink weep and paints run.

Species Notes, Fort Worth Botanical Gardens

Species Notes, National Arboretum, Washington, DC

Nature Journal Entry

Cicada, graphite and w/c on paper scrap

Grasshopper, graphite and w/c on paper scrap 

Great Blue Heron, graphite on gessoed panel

So, the next time you see a lowly pencil lying forlorn and abandoned on the ground pick it up and invite it to join you. It will certainly prove helpful on your next adventure. (And, who knows, it may tell you of its own!)

Some folks even collect "new old" pencils -- old pencils that were never sold and are still in their original boxes (in this case, early 20th century.)


OK, to be honest, "great" is probably a bit of hyperbole. But I thought it might be interesting to introduce a little giveaway (everyone likes "free stuff", right? and free art supplies doubly so) as a "Thank you!" to everyone who has visited my blog and left such generous comments.

This is how it will work. I will announce the "grand prize giveaway" item with each new posting of Tools of the Trade. (I'll try, whenever possible, to make it relevant to the theme or subject of the post.)
Posting a comment to the Tools of the Trade article automatically enters you in the drawing. (No purchase necessary! ;-D) The "contest" will run for one week, or until the the next Drawn to Life article is posted. The name of one winner will then be drawn (art pun) at random and the Grand Prize will be shipped off via snail mail as soon as my studio schedule permits.

So, without any further ado....

The Great Art Giveaway (Episode 1)!

This week's giveaway prizes (OK, they're pencils right? and I have plenty to spare) are: 

one free box (12 pencils, never used) of General Pencil Company No. 595 (Soft) Carbon Sketch pencils. (If you want something blacker than graphite and smoother than charcoal, these are your puppies!) 

one free box (12 pencils, never used) of Sanford Ebony pencils. (This pencil was originally developed by Eberhard Faber GmbH, using an oversized lead that is soaked in palm oil before being locked in its wood sheath. It produces what is possibly the smoothest, darkest tones possible with a graphite pencil.) (Note: The pencil beneath the box is from another box. This box is unopened.)

two Sanguine Conté Crayons (unused, in their original bubble pack) manufactured by Conté a Paris, the company that still bears the name of the inventor of the modern pencil. 

Thanks again for dropping by. I look forward to reading all of the comments. And I hope you'll join me again for the next posting in a week or so. (In the meantime, if you're enjoying the new blog please share it with a friend. The more the merrier!)

Au revoir jusqu'à la fois prochaine !


  1. This is a great post, Earnest. I love learning the history of things we take for granted. Your post raises a question though. When that tree fell in 1564, was there anyone there? Did it make a sound? ;-) Perhaps not, but it definitely left its mark.

  2. Thank you for that fascinating history!

  3. Great information, I never knew that! Thanks!

  4. Wow! What a wonderful post with fabulous information!

  5. Where would we me without the pencil. My Dad sent home some neat drawings in his letters he sent Mom and I when he was in WWII. I have always loved pencil sketches. Thank you for the pencil info. Jean

  6. ...And then there's the anecdotal story about NASA spending thousands of dollars to develop a zero gravity ballpoint pen for the space program, while the Soviet Union opted for an Old School alternative -- the pencil. (Probably not a true story, but certainly a cute one. ;-D)

  7. Thanks for the nice bit of art material history. It is always a pleasure to try out a new pencil. Unfortunately I don't like the way a lot of them smudge in my sketchbooks, so i usually use a pen for sketching. I do use some coloured pencils, they don't smudge much. I recently tried one of the carbon sketch pencils, very messy in my hands!

    1. Hi Chris. If your pencil drawings are smudging in your sketchbooks the first thing that comes to mind is that you're using spiral-bound sketchbooks. Yes? If so, your pages are loose enough to rub one another any time the sketchbook is moved or disturbed. Three possible solutions: either switch to a sewn sketchbook (the pages are then no longer free to rub about), place wax paper/interleaving between the pages, and avoid drawing on facing pages (which induces a drawing-to-drawing rub.)

      When working in your sketchbook rest your hands on a clean sheet of paper placed over your drawing. This helps to avoid graphite/carbon/charcoal pick-up on the heel of your drawing hand and keeps your hand clean.

      If your drawing requires a spray fixative get a mouth atomizer from your local art store, place the lower tube in a small glass of fat-free skim milk, and one or more fine mists to the drawing (letting the drawing dry thoroughly between applications.) Note: don't use whole milk for this. The milk fat may leave a greasy stain on your paper.

      Hope that helps!

    2. Thanks for the great info and tips Earnest. I definitely see more smudging in my spiral bound books, but I can smudge graphite anywhere!. I need to be more careful, your suggestions will help. I have used milk as a fixative as you describe - I find another benefit of the milk is that it reduces the sheen graphite can have if put on too thickly. Vincent van Gogh used to pour milk over his drawings, according to this letter to his brother.

    3. My pleasure Chris. I'm glad the studio tips are helpful.

      Yes, Vincent was my source for the milk trick too. Unfortunately, he only had whole milk to work with and I noticed that some of his drawings are stained with milk fat. That's why I began specifying skim milk (Since it is the milk casein and not the fat that provides the adhesive/fixative.)

  8. Fascinating. Pencils are so ubiquitous that it now seems odd to think of them as a status item, or pencil portraits as a commission.

  9. Fantastic post, Earnest. I'd never seen the connection between "plumbago portraits" (that I have never actually seen in person) and pencils.'re right, pencils are ubiquitous but, sadly, most modern pencils, which now come from China are of horrible quality. I just read a post the other day that one of the problems in schools today are that the pencils are constantly breaking so often it's actually getting in the way of the teaching. This is what happens when price is the only determinant, which seems the case in our modern society. And while pencils are ubiquitous, good pencil drawings are far less so :-)

    1. If you're having difficulty finding quality alternatives to the cheaper pencils made in China (and it should be noted that not all pencils made in China will be inferior quality), here are a few suggestions: Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth (Czech Republic); Derwent (still making pencils in the historic Lake District, UK), the General Pencil Company ("Handcrafted with Pride in our Factory in Jersey City, New Jersey USA" since 1889), Eberhard Faber GmbH (Germany, among the finest quality pencils in the world), Faber-Castell (originated in Germany, where it still has factories, HQ in Ohio), Conté à Paris (yep, THAT Conté), and Prismacolor (USA-made Ebony, Design, and Turquoise lines). This isn't an exhaustive list. But, hopefully, it will be helpful.

    2. I never thought of that as an educational problem, but I can see how that could be. That is also fascinating!

  10. The sketches of your children are precious, Earnest, and I really enjoyed the information. Thank you.

  11. wow, really fantastic drawings, very inspiring, thank you for sharing them....I must go and do more drawing instead of looking at other peoples!

    1. Thanks Nina. And if I inspire you to go do more drawings, particularly in you area of the country (we have family on the Cornish coast) I feel I've done my job. :-D Cheers!

  12. I love Ebony pencils. I was just thinking that I should go pick up some new ones!