Pencil Drawings
History, Types, Artists Who Sketched With Lead Pencils.

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Other Graphic Art Forms
- Charcoal drawing
- Conte Crayon
- Pen and Ink drawings
- Chalk Drawings


Two Women (1952) Drawing in Pencil
and Pastels, by Willem de Kooning.

Pencil Drawings

The common pencil (the word derives from the latin 'peniculus' meaning brush), used by draughtsmen around the world, is the most immediate and sensitive of the drawing media, being as capable of producing a quick sketch or a finely worked drawing. Pencil marks vary according to the hardness of the graphite lead in the shaft. The harder the lead (and the sharper the tip) the finer the line. Pencils are a dry medium, in contrast to pens which apply liquids.

Famous Artists Who Produced Pencil Drawings

The hard points, with their durable, clear thin strokes were especially suited to the purposes of Neoclassical and Romantic draftsmen of the eighteenth century. Among the masters of pencil sketching was Jean-Auguste Ingres (1780-1867), whose works include the Portrait of Mme Guillaume Guillon Lethiere (lead pencil drawing, now in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University); John Constable, the English landscape painter who used pencil and a sepia wash in his Trees and a Stretch of Water on the Stour (Victoria and Albert Museum, London); Pablo Picasso, whose works include Still Life with Glass, Apple, playing Card and Package of Tobacco, (now in the Winston Art Collection, Michigan). Two especially fine works of art in pencil at the Tate Gallery in London include: Alice Meynell by John Singer Sargent, and William Strang's Thomas Hardy. Other modern examples of the use of pencil, can be seen in the National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland at the University of Limerick. See for example the regular pencil portraits by Irish artists Patrick Scott, Sarah Purser, Walter Osborne, and Patrick Leonard; the coloured pencil portrait by Jim Allen; the pencil and watercolour portraits by Jack B. Yeats, and Stephen McKenna.

See: Types of Art.

For an guide to the aesthetic and
classification issues concerning
fine/applied arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.
For an artform heavily dependent
on graphic draughtsmanship,
see: Illustration: Book/Magazine.

Preparatory Sketches With Pencil

The major drawback of artworks in pure pencil is their relative impermanence, and monochrome character. As a result, most draftsmen commonly execute works in more permanent media (or with a fixative), and add pigment through the use of watercolours or gouache or pastels. However the easy erasability of pencil lines makes the medium exceptionally convenient for preparatory sketches, which is why the majority of modern painters, using oils, watercolours or acrylics, execute their initial designs in pencil.

How Lead Pencils are Made Today

Pencil lead is a form of carbon, called graphite: derived from the Greek word 'graphein' meaning, to write. During pencil manufacture, natural graphite is reduced to a powder, blended with clay, then formed into a paste. This graphite paste is then compressed and extruded into long thin rods, which are then baked. The finished lead is then infused with wax to facilitate smooth drawing and encased in cedarwood shafts.

Types of Lead Pencil

Pencils are available in traditional form, enclosed in a wooden shaft, or as graphite sticks. These sticks are made from high-grade compressed graphite, formed into thick chunky sticks. The draftsman can vary the marks made by using the point, the flattened edge of the point or the length of the stick. The graphite stick is the preferred medium of many artists, for its variable density of tone.

History of the Lead Pencil

In Greek art, draftsmen and painters used a metal stylus (often made of lead) to draw on papyrus. During the era of Renaissance art, the stylus was used in conjunction with a variety of different metallic alloys to create exquisite Renaissance drawings in Italy and Germany. Apprentice artists actually used an empty stylus to practice drawing by making easily removable indentations on tablets. These fine stylus-type instruments may be considered the forerunners of today's graphite pencil.

The first mention of a writing implement with a graphite core inserted into a wooden holder was made by the Swiss-German scientist and naturalist Conrad Gesner in 1565, but the modern lead-pencil only emerged much later after an unusually pure lode of graphite was discovered at Borrowdale in the English Lake District. Despite success by both German and American pencil makers, it is the Frenchman Nicolas-Jacques Conde who is credited with inventing the modern pencil in the 18th century, when a method was found of combining graphite with clay. Current leaders in pencil making and production include the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil and art supplies company, Faber-Castell, Sanford. See also: Graphic Art.


Today, the majority of pencils are graded or classified according to the European system using a spectrum from 'H' (hardness) to 'B' (blackness). The regular writing pencil is graded HB, while the hardest is 9H and the softest is 9B. In simple terms, the differing grades are achieved by varying the ratio of graphite to clay, during manufacture. The more clay used, the harder the pencil.

Other Types of Pencil

There are several other types of fine art pencils for artists and draftsmen. They include: coloured pencils, made not from graphite but from a mixture of clay, pigment and wax; charcoal pencils, made from compressed charcoal; crayon pencils, made from pigment, graphite, gum and grease; as well as watercolour pencils and a range of modern implements like col-erase and other markers.

• For facts about painting movements, styles and Old Masters, see: History of Art.
• For details of drawing/sketching, see: Homepage.

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