Guide To Mechanical Pencils
M echanical pencils fill the shelves of schools and offices. They’re inexpensive, commercially manufactured products sold by the dozen. They’re often designed to be as eye-catching as sugarless gum—and as disposable. It’s not surprising that many artists have never given them a serious thought, but high-quality mechanical pencils can now be found in abundance in art stores. It’s all too easy to dismiss their potential—and to overlook their impact on drawing.
3 Reasons To Use Mechanical Pencils
Mechanical pencils offer artists many benefits, such as:
- They are easy to control.
- The fine points are often so thin they don’t ever need to be sharpened.
- Lines are consistently thin, dark and sharp (compared to traditional pencil marks, which will vary in width and value with even the slightest change of pressure).
History of Mechanical Pencils
The origins of mechanical pencils are linked to the discovery of graphite. It was a dark and stormy night, as the story goes, in Cumberland, England, in 1564. A heavy storm toppled a huge old oak tree, roots and all. The event changed history.
The next morning, curious peasants came to investigate. In the depths of the enormous pit where the roots of the tree had been, they found something dark and rock hard. To their amazement, they discovered that chunks of it could be used to make marks, among other applications. It soon became apparent that the newly discovered “blacklead” (also called “wad” or “plumbago”) was better for writing and drawing than anything else available. Its marks were less fleeting than those of charcoal or chalk. They did not fade like ink. And unlike metalpoint lines, they were erasable—rubbing with breadcrumbs made blacklead marks disappear as if by magic.
In the 18th century porte-crayons, extenders with metal claws designed to grasp chalk or graphite sticks, became fashionable writing and drawing implements. Countless variations followed in their wake, which evolved into the diverse family of mechanical pencils available today. Some designs were crude, others ingenious. Examples of all sorts of mechanical pencils can be found in antique stores, not to mention old desk drawers.
In the late 18th century Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755–1805) began combining powdered graphite and clay to produce pencil leads with varying levels of hardness. In modern times, plastic polymers have been added to the mix, allowing the manufacture of extremely thin leads in sizes ranging from 0.2 to 0.9 millimeters. With these thin, sturdy sticks of graphite, contemporary mechanical pencils were born.
Choosing and Using Mechanical Pencils
T oday mechanical pencils are available in a plethora of designs, sizes and even colors. Whatever the model, mechanical pencils are distinguished from other pencils in that their cores are not bonded to their outer casings, allowing the cores to be manually or mechanically manipulated, extended, retracted, removed and replaced.
Some mechanical pencils expel or retract leads through a thin tip. Others grip leads with a metal claw, and still others utilize side clickers that push leads forward at convenient lengths. Many have hollow bodies for storing extra leads. Some have attached erasers. Simpler, less expensive designs come in fixed sizes, while more complex pencils are adaptable to different leads with systems to indicate the different sizes and graphite grades. Metal pencil “extenders” that can securely hold large leads more than 0.5mm thick—which require special sharpeners—may not fit within a more limited definition of “mechanical pencils,” but many artists use these larger leads in conjunction with smaller ones for large work.
A mechanical pencil is easy to control, and its lines are consistently thin, dark and sharp, whereas a traditional pencil’s marks will vary in width and value with the slightest change of pressure. This uniform line quality has a unique beauty and can help to maintain the integrity of the picture plane. And although mechanical pencils are often thought of as an essentially linear medium, they need not be. In my Study for Man’s Best Friend the thin, light lines of a 0.3mm lead helped me develop the underlying unity of the composition. For the finished drawing I patiently built up large, dark areas of tone with 0.7 and 0.9mm leads, which allowed me to complete the drawing without muddying areas by smudging.
I t can be difficult to ascertain what artists have used mechanical pencils, because so often the medium is simply listed as “graphite.” But from the variety and quality of mechanical pencils available today and from the examples seen here, it’s apparent that serious artists are giving serious consideration to mechanical pencils, with remarkable results.