Graphite: what is it? It isn’t lower back pain

Like activated almonds served on a bed of brown rice, my blog topics arise organically. 

Occasionally there’s a rhyme and reason to what I write about, other times, I divulge absurdities that are best left for a therapist. 

Today I bring you both rhyme and reason. 

Somebody recently told me they needed to look up the word graphite to understand what some of my artwork is made of. I wasn’t offended. But it did occur to me, I use the word graphite on the assumption everyone knows what it is. How ignorant of me. 

As I use my blog to bridge the gap between highfaluting art people like myself, and completely sane, normal people that make up the majority of society, I thought I would expand on the notion and discuss one of my primary mediums - graphite. 

What is graphite – a brief history lesson (I promise)

You’ll actually be familiar with graphite from school. In short, it is what is referred to as “grey lead” or “lead pencil”.


Graphite is a form of carbon. In everyday language we use the term “lead”, even though pencils haven’t contained lead since the 1500s when the fun police worked out it was toxic. 

Historically, it looked similar to lead, so became known as “plumbago” derived from the Latin word for lead. 

Plumbago, not to be confused with pain in the lower back known as lumbago: 

Gerald: “Maud, I’m having trouble with my lumbago.”

Maude: “Have you tried erasing it and starting again?”

Gerald: “No you silly little art person. I said lumbago not plumbago.”

That feeling when your back goes

Due to its ability to mark paper, in the late 1700s it began being referred to as “graphite”, from the Ancient Greek word “graphein”, meaning to write or draw. 

I think we can all agree “graphite” is far less confusing than “plumbago”.

There are different grades

You’ve likely used a graded pencil at some point. Maybe you used them in school and wondered who “HB” was and why his initials were on all the pencils.

The mystical truth is, the numbers and letters indicate hardness of the pencil. 

H = Hard 

B = Black

HB = Hard Black

F = Fine/Firm

This scale shows grades from hardest & lightest to softest & darkest

Variations are achieved by altering the ratio of graphite (carbon) to clay during production. Higher carbon, results in the softer, darker pencils.

Different grades allow for different effects when drawing. 

Just as you can’t make the internet work faster by smashing the keyboard with your fist, you cannot always achieve a darker shade of graphite just by pressing harder. You need to a selection of grades to achieve both light and dark values. 

(1) Normal shading using a 3H (2) pressing really hard with a 3H. You can see pressing harder doesn’t really make it darker (3) normal shading using a darker 2B

2B or not 2B: deciding which pencil to use

So how do you determine which grade of pencil to use? 

Every artist will have their own preference when selecting pencils. A lot depends on the end result you are looking for. For example, architects, cartoonists, fashion designers, and cavemen, will all have different preferences. 

I generally use something like a 3H for light outlines and shading extremely pale areas, a 2B for general mid tone shading, and anywhere from 4B to 8B for darker areas. 

Sometimes I live on the edge and work with a 9B, however, with its high amount of carbon, it is extremely fragile and won’t hold a sharp point for long. To avoid a passive aggressive rage, I opt for a black coloured pencil for very fine details. 

When my pencil snaps…

Graphite - so shiny!

Aside from being one step away from becoming a diamond, it’s interesting to note graphite is commonly used in industry as a dry lubricant to loosen locks, air compressors, pianos and all manner of sticky machinery. Due to its ability to reduce friction, you can also run into difficulty when trying to layer it onto paper. 

Press too hard or buff the graphite on top of itself too many times, and you can end up with what’s called “graphite shine”. It’s like buffing a Chrysler LeBaron with car polish. It gets shinier…and uglier. 

Middle: shine that comes from repeatedly pressing hard with a 3H pencil

Some artists are very bothered by shine and will do anything to avoid it. Personally, with so many other niggles in life set to test my patience, I don’t let graphite shine become an enemy. 

I try my best to avoid it as I hate struggling to add layers, and also, shiny artwork interferes with getting decent photos of my final work. 

Ways to overcome shine:

·      Use paper with enough ‘tooth’ or texture to hold more graphite layers

·      Don’t press too hard

·      Use a harder grade lead (less carbon) where possible

·      If you need really dark pigment, use a black colour pencil which has no shine. 

·      Try using newer styles of graphite which contains ‘carbon black’ pigment. 

·      Use tools like paintbrushes or cotton swabs/Q-tips (clean of course) to brush the graphite into the paper rather than smooshing the pencil back and forth over itself like a crazed lunatic.

Benefits of graphite

Graphite, how I love thee. Let me count the ways!

It’s an awesome way to get striking black and white realistic work. It’s easy to blend and erase, and I can complete a large piece in a shorter amount of time.

Graphite is also one of the best and cheapest mediums to use when first learning to draw. You don’t need a full set of pencils, maybe 4 at most. My favourites are 3H, F, HB, 2B, 4B, 8B. If you are starting out just make sure you have some good quality paper, none of that computer paper faff! You’ll thank me later. 

For Australians who never received their “pen licence” at school, it’s also a great way to continue to commit those writing violations! If you fit into that category, feel free to print the below for your records.

Buying graphite

I recommend high quality professional supplies if you plan on selling your work. Professional supplies are always a pleasure to use – no scratchy hard lumps, break-resistant, sharpen and erase well. 

The most common form of graphite is the pencil. However, you can get other forms like:

·      Water soluble graphite

·      Powder graphite

·      Kneadable putty graphite

For reference, I mostly use Faber-Castell 9000, Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Derwent Watersoluble Graphite.


What have we learned today?

·      Graphite is carbon 

·      Graphite pencils are the same as “grey lead” or “lead pencil”, but they don’t contain lead

·      Graphite pencils have grades. H = hard. B = black. HB = ___(insert your answer)___.

·      Using different grades achieves different shading results

·      Pressing too hard causes graphite shine

·      Graphite is good for professionals and beginners

·     Gerald needs to see a doctor about that lumbago.

Want to see graphite in action? Check out this time-lapse video!

If you haven’t done so already, feel free subscribe to my mailing list so you can receive more of these life altering blog posts on a regular basis! 

If you need help with your lumbago you’ve come to the wrong part of the internet. But if you have an art related question, feel free to email me by clicking here.

x Candy

  • DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. If you use the links to purchase products, I will receive a teeny tiny commission. Enough to pay for a chocolate chip but no cookie, for example. Feel free to use them or not!
Copyright © All rights reserved. Privacy Policy
Using Format