A Graphite History

Graphite is a widely used art material and is something we are all likely familiar with. It is an opaque, non-metallic carbon polymorph, that is a silvery black colour and is often identified with a metallic like sheen.

Graphite was first discovered in Cumbria in North England at the beginning of the 16th Century. Initially it was thought to be coal, but despite its similar appearance, it was discovered that it would not burn in the same way that coal did. During this time though, an alternative use for it was identified, as it was found to be an excellent for marking sheepskins, so it became very popular among the shepherding/farming community.

Graphite was officially first documented as used in a pencil form in 1565. Initially, pencils consisted of rough pieces of graphite wrapped in sheepskin and it was in this form that graphite became a popular material in the art world.

It was in Italy that the first production of a more recognisable pencil form started, as they began to embed graphite in wood. England then adopted this idea and started making pencils in a small cottage industry in Keswick, England.  

In the early days of pencil making, pencils were all meticulously hand-crafted by cutting Cumberland Graphite into slabs and carving a square groove into a piece of wood. Graphite was then inserted into the groove and a thin slat of wood was then slotted over the top of the graphite, encasing the graphite in wood. The wood was then shaped with a hand-plane.

In 1795, Conte, a French artist, discovered that when mixed with clay, graphite could produce pencils with varying hardness. Thus, in the mid-1830s pencil making factories turned to the use of powdered graphite mixed with powered clay to produce a wide range of graphite pencils.

Today, we see all forms of graphite used in art, not only in pencil form but also in exposed blocks, paints and powders. And the material is being expanded upon even still, as this beloved material is in continuous high demand among the art community.

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