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Graphite

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Crystalline allotropic form of carbon, used primarily as a drawing material, in the form of a Pencil. It is a friable substance, composed of flat, flaky grains, which are transferred to the surface of the support (usually paper) as the artist draws and impart a delicate sheen to the strokes. Synthetic graphite, which has been produced commercially since 1897, is obtained from carborundum.

Graphite was first excavated in Bavaria in the early 13th century, but its potential as an artists’ medium remained unexploited until the discovery in the mid-16th century of pure graphite at Borrowdale in Cumbria, England. The Borrowdale mine was in full operation by the 1580s, when native graphite was taken from the mine, sawn into sheets and then into slender square rods forming the ‘lead’ and then encased in wood to form the pencil. Graphite seems to have been used first for underdrawing in the 16th century, supplanting the leadpoint stylus from which the term ‘lead’ pencil probably derived. Graphite does not seem to have been commonly used for drawing until well into the 17th century, and even though it was gaining popularity, black chalk and charcoal were still favoured for either preliminary sketches or finished drawings up to the 18th century. Graphite became widespread only in the 18th century, with the increasing difficulty of obtaining good-quality natural chalks and the simultaneous production of a fine range of graphite pencils. The medium still remains very popular today.

Shirley Millidge
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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