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Which Art Materials Series: Pencils...

The choice of which pencils, paints, paper and a whole host of other tools and materials may seem somewhat tedious as subject matter goes - but to we creative types it's a vital part of doing what we do. In this series of Blogs I along with other artists and artisans will be talking to you about the tools and materials that we use and perhaps some of the techniques we use to create our artwork.

But first to a Pencil Museum in Keswick...

The Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick

The annual family holidays of my youth spent in the Lake District have provided a veritable cornucopia of memories and anecdotes which for the 'Family Smith' and our friends drip with humour, adventure, embarrassment and wonder in equal measure. And as with all such stories, they are told and re-told; embellished; added-to and moulded a little until they morph into something quite different from the initial happening.

But that is what our stories are all about isn’t it? Not to get too deep here, but Niall Williams, that lyrical, poetic and quite wonderful story teller, in his brilliant book The History of The Rain, describes this need in us to tell stories:

‘We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living’.

Heavy stuff – but true all the same.

And 'to pass the time ' a little, one such Lake District holiday story provides the beginnings of my love for sketching. It starts out in typically un-promising Lake District fashion with hideous weather; grey skies, heavy rain, sodden clothes. The type of weather that calls for a cosy armchair, a mug of hot chocolate and either a good book or a few squiffy holiday films. But not for family Smith! Though any prospect of heading up into the mountains was ruled out - we would still be heading stoically outside into the great outdoors! (Which reminds me, I must tell you the story of our walk up Cat Bells in the storm of 88…some other time maybe). So, instead of a mountain walk, my dear dear parents insisted on a trip to Keswick’s Pencil Museum. Now, for a lad of 7 mad keen on football and the great outdoors and only a little interested in doodling sketches of nothing in-particular in his sketchbook – you can imagine that this plan wasn’t met with the bubbling enthusiasm our parents may have hoped for.

So (and I’m embellishing here for my parents sake, because as children we were never like this, but I suspect my mother and father may remember it like this…so for their benefit) with much whinging and sulking, paddies and stamping of feet – we scorched the footpaths of Keswick with our childish rage and tantrums and arrived at the Pencil Museum.

We stood there in the rain (I'm embellishing again). The look of the place added to our sense of chagrin, for this was nothing like the exciting Museum’s of adventure and discovery we had visited before; The Hancock in Newcastle or the British Museum in London with it’s vast porticoed entrance. This was little more than a dour looking elongated shed.

But my child; ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’…for behind the doors of this mundane looking shed, I found that the meagre pencil, a thing of wood and lead, did in-fact open the door to another world. It was the tool which could create on paper the images that were whirring around in our developing minds.

Not only that, there were all sorts of different grades and shades. ‘H’ and ‘B’ stopped being merely two of 26 alphabetical letters, and became the difference between the natural rich black of our Border Collie’s fur and the patches of grey-white created by skimming, changing light.

And there, (or at least if you believe this story), in that dreary Pencil Museum in Keswick a little lad’s imagination was sparked into life. The seed was sown and my passion for art took flight.

As an aside, it was an absolute delight to return to the Pencil Museum recently with my twin Neices and to witness their excitement at discovering this place of my youth. The Museum has had somewhat of a face-lift, in-fact it's just brilliant and for those who love their Derwent pencils, rubbers, sharpeners etc it's a bit of a wonderland. In short, I can heartily recommend a visit.

So, let’s finish 'passing the time' and move on to the meat of this blog; The question of which pencil should you choose to use?

And note that the focus of this Blog is black, white & greyscale drawing and sketching – I will cover colour watercolour pencils in another blog.

My beloved Conte a Paris Pierre Noire pencil

Is it a Derwent, Faber Castell, Wolff or Conte a Paris? A Boldmere, Staedtler or Koh-I-Noor? Well, I’m afraid my answer may inspire a reaction similar to that initial reaction of the Smith children when faced with the prospect of visiting the Pencil Museum all those years ago.

…and the answer is, that it is a choice which you must make for yourself, through testing, trial and discovery. But just as with that drab shed in Keswick – once you open the doors, and begin to discover – that’s when the fun and creativity really starts.

I’m not going to be dogmatic. I’m not going to insist that you use one pencil over another or exhort you to steer clear of any particular brands. What I will do is give you my thoughts and 3 bits of advice based on what works for me for my particular style of art.

I work heavily in charcoals, carbon, graphite and chalk – and that style requires a particular set of tools. So perhaps that is my first piece of advice:

1 - You must choose the right tools for the job at hand.

If you want a light, delicate sketch, then it’s no good choosing a dark charcoal pencil. If you need deep and dark tones the ‘H’ lead range isn’t likely to do it for you. So choose the pencil for the task…and that leads on to the second piece of advice:

2 - Arm yourself with a range of tools.

For me, this is where the real joy comes – because in this process, there is such a remarkable variety, such a range of choice – and in this variety there is almost limitless discovery. My third piece of advice here is:

3 - Take your time.

Test out as many and as varied a range of pencils as you possibly can. Treat yourself to a new pencil every week as the pennies allow. (Typically, a single standard branded pencil will set you back £1.50 – that’s a 200g Dairy Milk chocolate bar to you and me – so, in-fact – a pencil-a-week is The Healthy Choice). By doing this, as with all things in life, we will finally arrive at the ‘fix’ that works for us…and then, after a while…a new fix will pop up and change everything.

So; my favourites:

Conte a Paris – Pierre Noir - range - 2H – 3B

  • Pro’s - This range has a filtered paste pigment – which makes it really silky and smooth. It blends beautifully and spreads well too creating great gradation of tone. You can also add other media on top such as chalk to add depth to the black.

  • The Conte range is chunky, thick and weighty compared to standard pencil sizes and I prefer the feel in the hand that this provides.

  • Con’s - sometimes struggle to find really fine accurate detail – as the nib is a little brittle when you are firm and on cold-press paper it doesn’t always cope with the surface undulations – but on hot-press – it’s smoothe as smoothe can be.

  • Application – I’ll use the Pierre Noire’s alongside my range of chalk, charcoal, watercolour and graphite pencils on most of my drawings – but particularly on ‘black & whites’ and my RAW pencils.

The 'Black & Whites' range

A selection of the Black & White Raw range of drawings by Matt Smith

Derwent Charcoals – range - ‘light, medium and dark’ grey-blacks plus a range of coloured charcoals.

  • Pro's - I’ve been using these pencils since ‘day dot’ and I tend to use them as my ‘go-to’ charcoal pencil to provide the initial layers to build up depth as they are fairly easy to spread and blend.

  • The charcoal leads are pretty sturdy and can withstand fairly firm application and are also easy to sharpen and not as crumbly as some charcoal pencils.

  • The light - to - dark range also helps in easily selecting which pencil to use to provide the particular tone required.

  • Because the charcoal is so dusty and loose on first application, I will also use it much in the same way one would use paint by adding a heavy application of charcoal to a scrap piece of paper and then applying to the drawing using a blender.

  • Con’s - Unlike the Conte a Paris, these pencils are pure charcoal and so can be a little gritty – and if used with the wrong paper can rough and cut up the paper and spread inconsistently.

  • I also find it tricky to add fine detail – for instance around the eyes – using the Derwents and so I’ll tend to use the sturdier Carbon pencils for this.

  • You can add other media on top of the Derwents but it can be a little hit and miss.

  • Application – My ‘go-to’ for layering up to provide anything from soft, light greys to pretty dark blacks.

Wolff’s Carbon Pencils – range – H – 6B

  • The Wolff range is fairly new to me but is a great addition to the armoury.

  • Pro’s – the solid and reasonably robust leads can be sharpened to a pin-prick and are great for adding detail to a pretty good depth of black – particularly at 6B.

  • The range allows for some really good soft initial line drawing and then the gradual tracing over to add darkness.

  • Con’s – Not as easily blendable or spreadable as others and also not easy to add on top of other media, or, to add other media on top of it once applied.

  • Application – I tend to use the Wolff’s to add the fine detail in key areas such at the eye’s where a steady hand and thin lines are necessary.

Koh-I-Noor – Gioconda 5.6mm graphite leads – 2B – 6B

  • These are a range of graphite leads including some colour options made for clutch pencils. I like the size and feel of the Koh-I-Noor clutch pencil for which these leads were made.

  • Pro’s – at 5.6mm these are juicy, fat leads and if you like getting a little messy, you could actually use them without the need for a clutch pencil. I like that. It’s like you're using a lump of pure graphite. It’s tactile and brings out a little of the juvenile and nascent feelings which still linger just beneath the surface. Getting messy is fun – just remember to wash your hands before you rest them on the magnolia walls or cream sofa.

  • Lovely smooth finish and easy to smudge and blend.

  • Con's – Given the thickness of the lead, I do find it a little tricky to sharpen and keep the tip sharp to a point.

  • The range doesn’t go up to a 9B or softer than a 2B so you can’t go to the extremes of the tonal spectrum.

  • Application - Any graphite sketch at all!

The Koh-I-Noor Clutch Pencil and 5.6mm graphite lead.

So, there you go – my thoughts and machinations on sketching and charcoal pencils.

I hope you have found this useful. Remember it is a completely individual thing – and the real fun is in the trying! It’s a lovely thought to think of all of the discoveries and adventures lying ahead of all those folk who are just discovering art, drawing and sketching for the first time.

Finally, and as always, I’d be really interested to hear your views and experiences with the pencils mentioned above and find out about your own personal favourites and those you would recommend to me and others.

Next up in this series I’ll be chatting to you about the different papers that I use from Fabriano to Canson to cold and/or hot pressed and beyond.

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