Ubiquitous in every art school and artist’s tool box, the humble graphite drawing pencil has an interesting history. In the 16th century graphite came into use as a marking medium in England where large deposits were discovered and first put to use by farmers to mark sheep. The slippery properties of the mysterious dark substance also made it an ideal lubricant for releasing cannonballs from their molds. Hardware stores today still sell powdered graphite as a dry lubricant for locks and other machinery. Because of its crumbly, friable texture, the first graphite “pencils” were made by encasing the soft material in sheep skin. Germany developed the graphite stick in the 1600s. Originally graphite was thought to be some form of lead, which it is not, but the reference to pencil “lead” lives on. The modern wooden pencil dates to the 19th century when graphite began to be mixed with clay as a binder, a discovery that some attribute to Henry David Thoreau whose father was a pencil manufacturer. The hardness or softness of the composite graphite-clay mixture could be moderated by baking which led to the development of the familiar grading system we use today for drawing pencils. The tonal range of graphite makes it a uniquely beautiful drawing medium, distinguishable from chalks and charcoals by its characteristically silvery color. The variety of its effects can be seen in this selection of drawings from different artists and periods.
Tag Archives: Edward Hopper
“…whenever one approaches a subject with the respect for another, and not as a mere construct of the mind, it begins to take on this mysterious energy of vortex, which swings one, and flings one all over the place. The frenzy of the artist, notorious in ancient as well as modern times, is the outward evidence of his determination to touch at least the fringe of this whirlwind as it escapes. Only time will tell what sense he has brought back, but he has no doubt of the awe and power he has approached.” – Peter (Miles) Richmond, 1922-2008
A 5th century Chinese treatise on brush & ink drawing offers this cryptic advice: “By the movement of the brush, establish the bones.” What are “the bones” in a drawing? Without bones the body would be a limp sack of skin like the one Michelangelo depicted in his painting of the Last Judgment. Without wood or steel framing, a house would be a shapeless pile of bricks. Bones give structure and form to the visible world. In tonal drawing, the “bones” is the broad tonal patterning that links the various parts into a cohesive whole. The draughtsman seizes on this as a means to create a unified composition.
The Chinese notion of bones relates to the concepts of Notan in Japanese art, and also to the idea of Macchia in 19th-century Italian painting, all of which are based on rendering light and dark in terms of simplified tonal patterns. Because the human eye is so sensitive to tonal nuance, learning to simplify values takes practice. Looking at master drawings is a shortcut to developing this ability.
Attributed to Caravaggio, the drawing above adopts a curious strategy. Instead of allowing unlimited tonal gradations, as do the drawings in an earlier post, Caravaggio translates the visible spectrum into three distinct flat tones, or “steps,”and uses this simplified palette as a means to discover the hierarchy of his subject through the placing and massing of the lightest lights, the darkest darks, and everything in-between. The interweaving tone patterns move independently of the lightly sketched outlines of the figures or objects. Certain edges disappear. Parts of forms tilt into and out of the light. Despite the elimination of gradation and detail, the drawing remains surprisingly luminous and evocative, encouraging the viewer to finish it.
For artists whose livelihood depended on the integrity of their compositions, value studies such as these were a means for discovering, simplifying, organizing, and expressing the essential massing of light and dark in their subjects. To appreciate such brevity and abstraction it’s important to understand that this drawing, and the others that follow, are really about structural contrasts and relationships, not things. Using a limited number of tones is a way to sift out the clutter of small details and fractional half-tones to get to the poetry of the big abstract tonal structure – the real bones of the subject.