With my efforts to get a collection of art ready for the opening of my shop in October and with preparing pieces for submission to the county fair and the Clackamas Arts Alliance Artist Exhibit Program (AEP), I’ve been spending hours upon hours (upon HOURS) of my days with my colored pencils. I love working with them, but there is a certain tedium to the medium that I just needed a break from.

So, once my application for the AEP was whizzing through the web-osphere, I decided it was time to get out my plain old graphite pencils and work on a project I’ve been itching to do (itching which has nothing to do with our recent flea invasion).

A Bit About Graphite

Okay, I know pencils may not seem like the most fascinating historical topic I could delve into, but I recently learned a tidbit or two about the history of the graphite pencil and (nerd alert) I found it pretty interesting.

Graphite was first discovered in England way back in 1564. With its shiny grey color, folks thought it was lead, hence the term “lead” when we talk about the graphite portion of a pencil (even colored pencils whose interior is made of wax or oil plus pigment is called a lead).

It took over 200 years after the discovery for a Swedish chemist, Karl Wilhelm Scheele, to realize the stuff everyone had been writing with wasn’t lead, but was actually crystalized carbon. It took another ten years (we’re up to 1789 now) for a German geologist to change the mineral’s name to “graphite” (with “graph” referring to the substance’s use as a writing medium).

Regardless of what it was called, folks realized it was great for jotting things down. However, they didn’t like getting their hands dirty, so they wrapped their writing sticks in sheepskin. Eventually, the Italians figured to how to get the “lead” into a wooden casing. The English improved upon the Italian idea turning the pencil into the form we’re most familiar with today.

The Joy of Graphite

I love working with graphite pencils. There’s just something so simple and so immediate about them that is hard to resist. And, they’re cheap. Sure, I’ve got a couple nice artist-grade pencil sets, but I rarely use them except when I need a soft pencil to achieve a super dark area (such as the background in the piece below).

Mostly I just use whatever free pencil someone has picked up at a promotional event or one of the cheap back-to-school sale pencils and I’m perfectly happy. I am picky in one regard, I can’t stand pencils that have a waxy feel when I use them. Graphite should have a certain “feel” to it as I drag it across my paper. I can only describe the feeling as scratchy (as opposed to the weirdly smooth feel of a waxy pencil).

The only other tools I need with graphite are a decent eraser (the white vinyl kind, not the pink thingie at the end of the pencil which is too rough on the paper), a pencil sharpener, and my fingers for smudging (I will occasionally use a tortillon to blend small areas my fingers are too big for). Portable and simple, what could be better?

Dying Gaul in Graphite

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter have watched the progress of my latest project. It’s the Dying Gaul statue in the Capitoline Museum Rome, which is quite possibly my favorite statue (Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is a close second). I’ve had my photo of the statue printed out for ages with all manner of good intentions of drawing it. Well, over the past week I finally plucked up my courage to do it.

Dying Gaul, statue, Rome
The original photo that gave me plenty of eye strain.

There’s no secret to doing something like this. I set up a grid that was one and half times bigger than the picture and worked a few squares at a time. First drawing out the basic shape of what was in the squares and then shading in.

Dying Gaul, drawing, graphite
Slowly, but surely….

First drawing out the basic shape of what was in the squares and then shading in.

I had planned on doing a mottled/marbled kind of background, but then decided to go for a dark background to really make the statue pop from the page.

I had planned on doing a mottled/marbled kind of background, but then decided to go for a dark background to really make the statue pop from the page.
And done!

If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of pencils, you may want to plan a vacation to the Cumberland Pencil Museum…or just peruse their website.

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TAMMIE PAINTER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE TRIALS OF HERCULES, The first book in her fantasy series, The Osteria Chronicles, in which she brings Greek Myths to life. The Maze (book Three in the series) will be released November 2017.


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