Monday 6 November 2023

A brief history of the humble Pencil - by Garry Parsons

When I'm talking to children about my work as an illustrator I tell them about my pencil.

Virtually everything I do starts with a drawing, so the pencil is a very valuable tool for me indeed.

From the initial scribbles of an idea, to thumbnail sketches for a picture book or a cover rough for a fiction title, these drawings set the scene for the projects I'm working on and help me expand my ideas quickly. 
What's more, pencil marks can be erased, so if you don't like what you've done, you can simply rub it out!

 Pencil rough for a picture book spread - Garry Parsons

I also enjoy telling children that my pencil is in love (urgh, disgusting, yuk they cry!). 
The one true love of my pencil is not me, unfortunately, it's the rubber. 

But why I ask them?

The answer I usually receive is that the rubber erases the mistakes I've made with the pencil. 
A good answer if you're using a pencil for maths or a language lesson, but for sketching and drawing the rubber is essential. I never think of the rubber as a piece of equipment to eradicate mistakes, instead the rubber is there to help the pencil achieve its goal, to get it right! 
The rubber is a tool to mould and shape the drawing and therefore a key part in the process of visualising something true.

Scene from The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Bruce Ingman - Walker Books

So these drawings are erased and redrawn, often over and over again until something slowly appears that feels 'right' in its development and detail. This is something I'm sure most artists would agree with.

If it's a picture book I'm working on, the drawings are taken through various stages until they sit harmoniously with the text and are approved for final artwork from the author and publishing team, and if I'm using paint, as I often do for picture books, the drawings are then obliterated by colour and lost forever.

So this post is a little homage to the hard working pencil and a brief history of how it all began.

Decorated cave paintings from Serra da Capybara, Brazil.

Humans have always made tools to make marks on things. The earliest inscriptions and drawings made by humans date back to 3200 BC, but the birth of the pencil only happened around 400 years ago. 

Up until then, the drawing technique used by medieval scribes, craftsmen and artists such as DaVinci was Silverpoint, one of several types of metalpoint. Silverpoint was a process of dragging a metal rod across a prepared surface such as gesso. For drawing, the essential metals used were lead, tin and silver for their relative softness. Compared to a pencil however, silverpoint is a time consuming and limiting way to draw, requiring considerable skill. Albrecht Durer's father was a craftsman and taught him to draw in metalpoint.

Self portrait at the age of 13 - Albrect Dürer dated 1484

The pencil story begins in the 16th century when graphite deposits were discovered in Seathwaite, Borrowdale in Cumbria, England, apparently revealed to the local people following a heavy storm. 
The messy black substance they found was at first thought to be lead, commonly used by the Romans to write with on vellum and animal skin but was in fact graphite of a very high and desirable quality. What the people of Borrowdale realised was that this messy substance could be used to make dark marks on paper.


Thin sticks could be extracted from the raw graphite and were sold wrapped in string or sheep skin to stop the users hands from becoming filthy. Around this time the word 'pencil' comes into use from the latin penicillum meaning 'little tail' and the graphite pencil from Cumbria becomes widely used across Europe to write and make marks with. Cumbria's unique graphite mines enabled England to enjoy a monopoly on the production of pencils, but these were crude instruments to draw with and still a long way from the pencil that we know today.

In the 1790's, during the Napoleonic War, an embargo imposed by England, limited supplies to France which included the export of pencils and graphite. Running out of suitable materials to write and draw with, Nicholas-Jaques Conté was given the task of solving this problem. Conté was a scientist and inventor and had already had some success in making hot air balloons (where he accidentally lost an eye). 

Nicholas-Jaques Conté

Using a graphite powder and clay mixture, Conté moulded the substance into sticks and fired them in a kiln.
Conté crucially noticed that by varying the ratios of the graphite and clay mixture he was able to alter the hardness of the pencil that he produced. 
Encasing the stick in wood made yielding it a much more practical and precise drawing tool, with the added benefit of the user being able to choose what hardness of lead best suited their needs. 

The oldest pencil in the world, found in a timbered house in 1630 (image; Faber-Castel

The new 'modern' pencil, encased in wood became highly popular in Europe and other manufacturers began making pencils based on Conté's ideas such as AW Faber in Germany.

In the United States, Henry David Thoreau was producing graphite pencils mixed spermaceti, a wax like substance from the Sperm whale commonly used to in the manufacture of candles at this time. Round pencils were soon replaced by the more practical hexagonal shaped wooden covering to stop them rolling off the table.

Pushing the pencil design further, literally, the first patent for a refillable pencil with a spring mechanism to propel the lead was made by Sampson Mordan and John Issac Hawkins in Britain in 1822. 

Morgan went into business manufacturing pencils and other silver objects until the factory was bombed during World War II. 

Mordan's patent for the mechanical pencil

In japan, Tokuji Hayakawa improved the mechanical pencil and introduced the 'Ever Ready Sharp Pencil' in 1915, giving rise to the Japanese electronics company, Sharp Corporation.

So Hooray for the humble pencil!

For a wonderfully funny read aloud favourite to accompany this post  I recommend 'The Pencil' by Allan Ahlbeg and illustrated by Bruce Ingman.

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of many popular children's books and a devoted pencil user. 



Adelaide Dupont said...

That was really cool about Durer and learning to draw through metalpoint!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Well, that was a really interesting read. Thank you, Garry!

Natascha Biebow said...

Love it, thanks, Garry! But paper?? Not till much later I think...

Lynne Garner said...

Lovely post. I love my propelling pencil. It is in constant use for making notes (it's drawn a lot of spider diagrams in it's time), working up story ideas and sometimes even the odd doodle. So, yes hooray for the pencil!