Art Technique-Graphite as a Medium

The skill of drawing, of writing, of making marks on a surface for storytelling, is one of the most obvious human skills. Beyond that ability, one may look to individuals who possess a stronger version of that skill, to create drawings which inspire and awe others. Sketching is the basis of many other discoveries, as it is a way to not only commemorate what is seen, but to imagine what can be created.

Historical Development of Graphite

In early times, slate or chalk were used for writing. However, slate leads were inefficient, leaving only a faint mark while requiring intense pressure to do so. The term “graphite” comes from the Greek word graphein, which means to write. Carbon drawings have survived for thousands of years on cave walls and other antiquities. Graphite pencil was discovered in the 1500’s, when a deposit of graphite, a soft, black rock, was discovered around Borrowdale, in Cumbria, England. Originally used for marking sheep, and later, a niche industry developed. Eventually, the graphite was encased in wooden layers for use in carpentry. Eraser added by Hymen Lipman who patented the idea in 1858.

Frenchman Nicholas Jacques Conte is credited for creating the variety of hardness in pencils when mixing graphite with clay and firing the mix in rod shapes in a kiln, a process which begun primarily to protect the limited supply of Borrowdale graphite. In the mid-1800’s, American Joseph Dixon opened a pencil factory, and by 1873, had mastered the mass production of pencils.

Overview of Graphite and Sketching

Historically, artists kept sketches for their own use (referred to at times as esquisses), as inspiration and ideas for larger works, and only a preparation for the “final” work of art. A weakness of the graphite pencil is its monochromatic character and its tendency for smudging, leading artists to consider it a tool in the process of artistic creation. Graphite can be mixed with pigments to create a large variety of colors, and is now available in different particle sizes and shapes, allowing the artist to create different levels of darkness, textures and perspectives, increasing the diverse uses of the medium.

Early Graphite Use in Art

The hard, sharp strokes of the graphite pencil were suited to Neoclassical and Romantic artists. There was a growth in its use in the 1800’s and 1900’s, as artists, both professional and amateur, flocked to the countryside, notebook in hand, to participate in the naturalism movement. They painted landscape, flowers, and anything hinting of nature. Truly, some of the most revered artists in history began with the pencil. It is an unforgiving medium, and artists must master it well if it will be their final form; therefore, many use it as a jumping-off for others, like both watercolor & acrylic painting

The Masters’ Use of Graphite

Leonardo da Vinci could be considered the first “famous” graphite artist, and his study of anatomy could be considered a predisposition to his skills as an artist, as the use of the sketch in anatomical drawings like Vitruvian Man, helped its popularity. His belief in the connection of the symbiotic nature of the human body with that of the universe is represented in the realistic proportions found in his works.

Michelangelo was a master of several mediums, and his images of humans in various activities showcase the human body like no other artist before him. It has been said that his interest and skill in sculpture aided his ability to draw the human body in such detail, bringing the movement to life. Like other early artists using the medium, most of the sketches he created were never intended for public viewing and were later found on scraps of paper which were used for other purposes.


Van Gogh, who led the development of abstract art, exemplified the abilities of the graphite pencil, with dashes, dots, and lines of all types. His control of the tool is impressive, and much of his work very personal, with many of his sketches being precursors for paintings he intended to complete. An interesting fact about this exquisite artist is that he never sold a piece of artwork during his lifetime, but his works bring millions today!

Other Current Notable Graphite Artists

Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist who used sketching to depict suffering and loss, reliving her experience of common people surviving war. Her work Woman with Dead Child proves how pencil displays not only the human form, but expresses emotion so strongly.

Paul Cadden is a Scottish artist, whose work in hyperrealism has been called “intensifying the normal” of everyday life. His depictions of typical experiences draw viewers in, showing details that are overlooked but can be found everywhere when one looks at minute details, and takes them to a more intense reality.

Award-winning California artist Adonna Khare focuses on large scale pencil drawings utilizing animals, combining reality and imagination in whimsical storytelling style. She has been featured in both private and group exhibitions and has works in several museums in the US. Her work Elephants is filled with exquisite detail, showcasing animals in a variety of human-like poses and interactions.

The Future of Graphite Art

Today’s artists use drawing in nearly all other styles of art, and it is now considered an autonomous work of art in itself. Many artists use the pencil sketch to improve their perception, strengthening their abilities to recreate the work in other forms, like a rough draft. However, instead of the drawing being considered only a start to an art project, sketches have value on their own, and some artists sell these pieces to finance additional works. Even for those who create digital art, many of their works begin with the simple pencil line.

If you want to discover Graphite works, Sybaris offers a wide variety of pieces from artists and cultures from around the world, in a variety of media and genres. To help you curate your private collection, our exclusive Sybaris Art Club can provide you with a variety of selections like nowhere else in the world.