What is graphite in art – are they actually lead pencils?

what is graphite in art

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Most people know graphite as the ‘lead’ in pencils, but few know that graphite is a versatile and interesting medium for artists. In this blog post, we answer the question “What is graphite in art?” by taking a look at what graphite is, where it comes from and some of the different ways it can be used by artists. We’ll also explore how to use graphite in your own artwork. So, whether you’re an experienced artist or just starting out, read on to learn more about this interesting medium!

What is graphite in art?

Graphite is a naturally-occurring form of carbon. It can range from soft and flakey to hard and rigid, which makes it ideal for use in pencils or as stand-alone graphite sticks.

There are many benefits to using graphite in art. For example, it is easy to control and create fine lines with graphite. Graphite can also create a range of different shades and tones, from light grey to black. This means that you can create detailed drawings and paintings with graphite. Additionally, graphite is inexpensive and widely available, making it a great option for artists on a budget.

So, now that we know what graphite is, let’s look at where graphite comes from and how graphite ended up being used in art.

Where does the graphite come from and how did it end up in art?

Graphite is a naturally occurring element that is found in deposits around the world. It has been used for centuries, with some of the earliest known examples of graphite art dating back to the 16th century.

graphite block
A block of graphite in its natural pre-processed form.

Used the same way as chalk, charcoal, or crayons, graphite was used mostly as a way to create underdrawings for paintings rather than used as a stand-alone artwork.

However, it was not until the 18th century that graphite became widely used in art and as a medium in itself. This was due to a number of factors, including the development of new pencils and paper that were better suited to graphite drawings.

Additionally, the popularity of drawing as a hobby increased during this time, which led to more people using graphite in their artwork.

Nowadays, graphite is one of the most popular mediums for artists of all levels, from beginner to professional.

Aren’t graphite pencils just lead pencils?

Why do most people still call graphite pencils, “lead” pencils? Well, that’s because graphite used to be called “black lead.” In the 1500s, a large deposit of graphite was found in England and people started using it to make pencils. However, they didn’t know what graphite was made of and so they called it “lead” because it looked like the lead used in plumbing.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that scientists realized that graphite was actually made of carbon.

So, while “lead” pencils are technically not made of lead, the name has stuck around and is still used today.

Can you get graphite in other forms?

Yes, you can get graphite in other forms such as powder, blocks, and even flakes. You can also find it in different grades, which refers to the pencil’s hardness. The softer the lead, the darker and more intense the mark will be. The harder the lead then the lighter the lines will be.

Softer leads are great for sketching and blending, while harder leads are better for precise lines and detailed work.

You can use graphite in several ways depending on the form you have and what effect you’re going for. Here are some of the most common ways to use graphite in art:

  • Pencils: Graphite pencils are probably the most common and well-known way to use graphite. They come in a range of prices and quality, from the very cheap dollar-store pencils to high-end artist’s pencils. Graphite pencils also come in various guises from those encased in wood where you need to sharpen them to mechanical pencils with are great for fine line work.
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  • Graphite sticks: Graphite sticks are solid pieces of graphite that can be used for a variety of purposes. They’re great for covering large areas quickly, and you can also use them for detailed work by sharpening them to a fine point.
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  • Powdered graphite: Powdered graphite can be used to create very intense lines or shadows.
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  • Flake graphite: While not recommended for use in art, flake graphite is made up of very thin flakes of graphite, I have been told it can be used to create a shimmering, metallic effect but I have never tried it. Therefore I can not really recommend or provide my personal experience with flake graphite.

What range of hardness to softness do graphite pencils come in?

Graphite pencils are graded on a scale from 9H (hardest) to 9B (softest). The range in hardness gives artists a lot of control over the lightness or darkness of their line. The harder the pencil, the lighter the line it will produce on paper. The softer the pencil, the darker the line.

Some common hardness ratings for graphite pencils are:

9H – very hard, produces a very light line

8H – hard, produces a light line

7H – mid-hard, produces a medium-light line

6H – slightly hard, produces a medium line

5H – medium, produces a dark line

2H – a slightly less hard lead, produces a slightly lighter line than HB

HB – its the sit on the fence hardness that most people use, giving a hard tip and dark enough to see on most papers

4B – soft, produces a very dark line

3B – very soft, produces an extremely dark line

9B – gives a very dark and very soft line

Here is an image showing the range of my own graphite pencils from 9B to 9H. I use a mix of Faber-Castell and Staedtler for no other reason than they were gifted to me and they still work great after many years.

IMG 0338 1
My graphite pencil range from 9H to 9B (What is Graphite in art? Are they actually lead pencils?)

Are colored pencils graphite as well?

No. Colored pencils contain a pigment that is wrapped in a binder, whereas graphite pencils only contain the graphite itself. However, many people incorrectly use the term “graphite” to refer to other types of pencils used for drawing.

Now that you know a little more about graphite, you’re probably wondering how it’s used in art. Read on to find out!

How is graphite used in art and what are the benefits

Graphite is most commonly used in pencil form, as it is an easy and versatile medium to work with. It can be used for both detailed and general drawings, making it a great choice for artists of all levels of experience. Graphite can also be used in other ways, such as in powdered or flake form, or as a pencil lead replacement.

Some of the benefits of using graphite in art include:

  • It is easy to control and maneuver
  • It produces fine or broad lines, depending on the pressure used
  • It can be smudged to create different effects
  • It is affordable and readily available

Why are some graphite pencils more expensive than others?

When shopping for graphite pencils, you may notice a wide range of prices. So, what makes some graphite pencils more expensive than others?

Here are a few factors that can affect the price of a graphite pencil:

  • The type of wood used for the barrel – higher quality woods like cedar or basswood may be more expensive
  • The lead grade – higher grades of graphite (HB or 2B) may be more expensive depending on the brand
  • The type of graphite – some brands use graphite mixed with clay, which may be more expensive than pure graphite pencils. Mixed graphites are used to make softer ‘leads’.
  • The length of the graphite lead – pencils with longer leads (up to 36 inches) may be more expensive
  • The brand – well-known brands like Caran D’Ache, Faber-Castell, or Staedtler may charge a premium price as they are known for better quality control leading to less breakage when sharpening and having a consistent result across the range.

Graphite pencils come in different shapes, brands and packaging but are basically the same. If someone had given me the Caran D’Ache set below as a gift I would have lost my mind as an artist. It’s a beautiful set that would be perfect as a milestone gift for any artist who specializes in drawing with graphite pencils.

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The next two brands are fantastic work horses that always get the job done and always reliable. I have received these as gifts many times and i’m always happy to see them

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So, when choosing a graphite pencil, it is important to consider your budget and what you need from the pencil in terms of quality and performance.

How do you erase graphite?

What is the best way to store graphite?

  • Graphite can be erased with a kneaded eraser, gum eraser, or fabric eraser. I prefer to use a kneaded eraser as it is more controllable, it can get into the grooves and gaps in the paper or canvas and gives a cleaner result.
  • Harder erasers can actually damage the surface you are drawing in, ripping away at the paper.

Kneaded erasers actually last quite a long time so you do not need to purchase many.

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What is graphite in art – wrap up!

I hope this post has answered your question, “What is graphite in art?” and given you a little insight into how to use it in your own artwork. If you have any questions or want more information on using graphite, please feel free to contact me and share this post with your artist friends. Thanks for reading!


Graphite block image courtesy of “Graphite schist” by James St. John is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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