Dry Drawing Materials

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Dry drawing materials are either carbon-based or chalk-based. Although the use of both types dates back to prehistoric times, carbon-based drawing material, and particularly charcoal, is credited with being older because it was common to every fireplace, whereas deposits of pure chalk are quite rare.

A dry drawing material can be easily applied to any surface as long as the surface has some tooth to bite and hold its powdery consistency. It can also be easily blended or erased. Blending can be done by rubbing or by wetting the drawing with either water or turpentine. At one time, a technique was developed of dipping the dry drawing material first in a drying oil, such as linseed oil, to create a darker line and improve adhesion. However, this tends to form a yellow stain around the edges of the applied drawing material and to acidify and rot the paper. The primary disadvantage of dry drawing materials is the difficulty of storing and protecting the final drawing. The use of a fixative will help, but it will not completely protect the surface. Protective coatings and picture framing in combination provide the only long-term protection.

Carbon-based Drawing Materials

There are two forms in which carbon is commonly found in nature: crystalline and amorphous. The crystalline form has two further divisions. One type of crystal involves six carbon atoms, which combine to form a ring. Carbon rings of this type tend to arrange themselves in sheets, which slide easily over one another. They are so slippery that this crystalline, form is often used as a lubricant. When the first natural deposits of carbon were uncovered they were mistaken for lead and named plumbago, or black lead. After many years of use as a drawing material, it was discovered that the substance was not lead and the name was changed to graphite, from the Greek word graphein, which means “to write.”

In the second form of crystalline carbon, the carbon atoms link together to form a rigid structure. This structure results in a highly transparent and very hard crystal, which cannot be used as a drawing material. This type of crystal is a diamond.

There are four kinds of amorphous carbon- charcoal, lampblack, coal, and coke. Charcoal is. an impure form of carbon and is obtained through the incomplete combustion of plant matter, wood, or bone. Lampblack is obtained by collecting the soot from the burning of oil. Coal and coke are mined and are not workable as artists’ materials. Carbon black is a term used to describe any intense black made from amorphous carbon that has been divided into fine particles. Soot has some of the most finely divided particles known. The smallness of these particles is what gives Such subtlety to the ink paintings of the Orient. The particle size can be varied during production to create various effects. Another interesting fact is that charcoal can be turned into graphite at 5400°F.


Charcoal is the carbon-rich residue of incompletely burned wood, bone, or vegetable matter. Artists’ charcoal is made by heating wood in a chamber or kiln without air. This process produces a piece of charcoal that makes a uniform black line.

Vine Charcoal

Vine Charcoal is produced by burning sticks or twigs of wood in a kiln without air. Some manufacturers shape them to produce sticks of a more uniform appearance. Willow is the wood of choice, because of its even consistency and fineness of particles; however, linden is more commonly used. Vine charcoal is available in soft, medium, and hard consistencies.

Vine charcoal is easily removed by dusting and by erasure. This makes it ideal for preliminary sketches for oil painting where changes are frequently made before the final outline is completed. Before painting begins, however, the charcoal sketch must be fixed to the canvas or the paint will pull the charcoal off the surface and mix with it. It is best to use a retouch varnish to fix the sketch.

Compressed Charcoal

Compressed Charcoal is available in round and square sticks. The charcoal powder is mixed with a gum binder and compressed into sticks. The amount of binder that is used regulates the degree of hardness, which gives a wider selection and greater consistency of quality from stick to stick. Several degrees of hardness-HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, and sometimes 6B-are available. Sticks of compressed charcoal do not break or erase as easily as vine charcoal. Vine charcoal has an irregular shape that does not allow the edge to be used for broad strokes, but compressed charcoal sticks are ideal for this.

Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal Pencils are made from compressed charcoal. The charcoal is protected with wood, or a paper wrapping, which is the only real advantage of the pencils. The covering helps to keep your hands and your working environment clean while drawing: it also reduces breakage and permits by sharpening to produce a point. In the paper-wrapped version, the charcoal is exposed by peeling rather than by sharpening. The pencils are available in the same general range of degrees of hardness found in compressed charcoal sticks, and are classified as extra soft (96B), soft (4B), medium (2B), and hard (HB). They are best used for making smaller, more tightly rendered drawings, which require greater control, or for adding detail.

Carbon Pencils

Carbon Pencils are made from lampblack, which is purer than charcoal and is therefore more consistent in quality. This consistency is maintained throughout the available range of degrees of hardness, which is generally identical to that of compressed charcoal.


Graphite was used as a marking tool by the Aztecs long before Columbus went on his Caribbean cruise. Europe did not discover graphite until 1400, when it was found in Bavaria and promptly mistaken for lead. The substance was not called graphite until 1789. The purest deposits of graphite ever found were discovered in Cumberland, England, in 1564 and were in continuous production until 1833.

The advantage of graphite over charcoal is that it is less dusty and naturally adheres better to a ground. It can easily be fashioned into a variety of writing and drawing instruments, which can be used to express great detail and subtlety. Graphite is also more easily fixed to a ground and in general has a more durable surface.

Graphite Sticks

Graphite Sticks are relatively new. Originally, graphite was sold in pieces for marking stone. Later it was shaped into sticks, which resembled today’s artists’ graphite sticks. Today’s sticks, however, are not pure graphite, but mixtures of powdered graphite and clay, which has been fired at about 1900. The amount of clay present determines the degree of hardness; the more clay, the harder the stick. A narrow range-2B, 4B, 6B-comprises the available degrees.

The Pentalic Corporation has imported a graphite stick that has a heavy resin coating. It is called the Woodless Pencil and is ‘a-inch round, as opposed to the rectangular graphite stick. The Woodless Pencil is available in HB, as well as 2B, 4B, and 6B, and can be sharpened easily in an ordinary pencil sharpener. Of course, the edges cannot be used for broad strokes, as can the edge of the uncoated rectangular stick.

Graphite Pencils

Graphite Pencils are the most common writing and drawing tools today. In Latin pencillus means “little tail” and describes a small brush used in medieval times for drawing with ink. The term “pencil quill” is still used sometimes to describe a type of small pointed brush used for signmaking and graphic arts work. In some cultures, the word “pencil” is still used to refer to a small brush. It would seem that the graphite pencil derived its name from the fact that it has a wooden handle, like a brush, and a small tip that can be fashioned into a point.

The first graphite pencils were blocks of graphite that were shaped into sticks and wrapped with string. Since graphite was at first mistaken for lead, they were called lead pencils. Soon after the discovery of the graphite deposits in England, it became clear that the amount of available graphite was limited and conservation measures rapidly followed. Several attempts to extend powdered graphite with gums, resins, and glues, which were pressed into blocks of grooved wood, had only limited success.

The invention of the modem pencil has been credited to Nicolas-Jacques Conte, a French scientist under the commission of Napoleon. In 1795, he developed a manufacturing process of roasting a mixture of clay, purified graphite, and water in a kiln, and then encasing the substance in wood. Soon after, Joseph Hardmuth found that the greater the amount of clay used in the mixture, the harder the pencil point. This led to the development of the various degrees of hardness of pencils. The modem process for making pencils involves producing a paste, like that of Nicolas-Jacques Conte, and partially drying it through filtration. It is then extruded into long strands and fired at 1900°F. The strands, which are still slightly porous, are then filled with natural waxes for the purpose of lubrication and to help the graphite adhere to the ground. They are either packaged for use in a lead holder or inserted into a wood casing.

Today, graphite pencils are made in different degrees of hardness by regulating the amount of clay added. The greater the quantity of clay, the harder the lead and the lighter the overall drawn line will appear. It is common to have several different degrees of pencils to vary the detail and the light and dark areas of a drawing. The more “Hs,” the harder the lead. The more “Bs,” the softer the lead. HB and F are intermediate grades between the two types. B through 10H are commonly used in drafting. 8B through F are preferred for artwork. Writing pencils have their own hardness scale, which roughly coincides at certain points with the drafting scale.


8B . . . 4B-3B-2B-B-HB-F-H-2H-3H-4H-5H . . . 10H

             <<<softer<<< >>>harder>>>



*degree within parentheses is the rough equivalent to the drafting scale

The primary differences between school-grade pencils and professional-grade pencils are the larger range of degrees and the uniformity in the manufacturing and performance of the professional-grade pencils.

There are several unique graphite pencils such as the Blackwing, which has an oversized eraser; the Negro Pencil, available in three thicknesses of leads; and the Eagle #314 Draughting Pencil. All of these are soft drawing pencils that are similar to a 6B art pencil. Most have slightly thicker leads than the average drafting pencil, yet are less expensive. Flat sketching pencils have a rectangular shaped lead enclosed in a similarly shaped wood covering, which is sharpened with a razor or a knife. They come in a limited range of degrees-2B, 4B, and 6B. All of these graphite pencils are used primarily for broader, more expressive drawing or for quick sketching.

Drafting Leads and Metal Lead Holders

Drafting Leads and Metal Lead Holders were developed before the wood graphite pencil. The lead, which is the same as that used to make graphite pencils, is held in place with a three- to four-part vise. A button at the top of the lead holder, which acts like a clutch, is pressed to open the vise and release the lead. Caution must be exercised to prevent the lead from falling out of the holder. A test of the quality of a lead holder is to see if the lead slips in the clutch when it is locked in place. The primary advantage of a lead holder is that the implement does not get shorter as you sharpen the lead, and a sharper, more tapered point can be produced with the aid of a lead pointer than can be had with a pencil and pencil sharpener.

Drafting lead is available in the same degrees of hardness as pencils. There are also limited selections of colored lead available, as well as leads designed specifically for the surface of drafting film. The “E” series of drafting-film leads produces well-defined lines and less graphite dust on the drafting film.

Mechanical Pencils

Mechanical Pencils were first introduced in 1822 by S. Mordan and J. I. Hawkins. The first spring-loaded mechanical pencil was patented in 1877 and a twist-feed mechanism was developed in 1895. The primary differences between mechanical pencils and lead holders is that the mechanical-pencil lead is advanced in increments and will not accidentally drop out, and the lead does not have to be sharpened. Since a vise is not used to hold the lead, it is free to rotate as a line is drawn so that a consistent line width is produced. Consequently, the lead is available in four widths-0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, and 0.9mm. The 0.9mm was introduced in 1938 and led the way for the rest. Today, mechanical pencils are designed to be self-feeding and several leads can be loaded through the top at one time. The technology has advanced so that there are mechanical pencils that automatically advance the lead as it is worn down, eliminating even the need to stop and make adjustments. These are expensive, however, and are not widely available.

The major disadvantage of mechanical pencils that use very thin leads is that the leads break easily. The softer the lead, the more easily it breaks. Some manufacturers impregnate their leads with a polymer to make them less breakable. But only a narrow range of degrees-from 4H to 2B-is available.

Chalk-based Drawing Materials

Natural chalk is composed of tiny, prehistoric, salt-water organisms with a high calcium content, which formed a sediment that turned rocklike. Its appearance ranges from white to gray and, occasionally, red, or sanguine, when it is naturally impregnated with ferric oxide (rust). Chalk-based drawing materials have been in use almost as long as carbon-based materials. Although chalk itself is abundant, the number of deposits of rock chalk is not, and it is this scarcity that prevented its widespread use. Until the fifteenth century, red and white chalks were used primarily for quick sketching. When an effective method was devised to pulverize chalk, wash out the sand, and combine the chalk powder with pigments in a usable form, chalk-based drawing materials were taken more seriously.

In the sixteenth century, the Italians developed the pastel. It had a narrow range of colors consisting of some earth colors, white, and black. It was not until the introduction of a broad range of synthetic mineral pigments in the nineteenth century that the color range broadened to the hundreds of colors and shades that we are familiar with today. Pastello, which means “little paste” in Italian, was shortened by the French to “pastel.” Today, pastel is the common name for chalk-based drawing materials; the chalk is mixed with pigment and a binder to a paste and then shaped and dried into sticks. Modern pastels may contain chalk, or such chalklike materials as kaolin (white clay) or lithopone (half barium sulfate and half zinc sulfide) as the white filler. The filler is mixed with a pigment and a binder such as gum tragacanth or methyl cellulose. (The binder for oil pastels is primarily wax and is discussed later under that heading.)


Pastels can be used either as a drawing or a painting material, depending on the technique used. It is therefore common to find works called pastel paintings, as well as pastel drawings. Pastels lend themselves to blending with the fingers or with stomps. They may also give a more painterly appearance when wetted with a mist of water (however, this technique cannot be used on glue-sized canvas) or with turpentine. A more or less painterly appearance can be effected by the type of ground used (paper or canvas), its surface finish (laid or irregular), and color. The main advantage of pastels is that the appearance does not change with age, as do oil paintings, which yellow in time. The main disadvantage is that the surface is easily damaged and is difficult to protect. The use of fixatives and final protective sprays will provide limited protection, but these tend to darken the overall appearance of pastels.

It is important to take note of the health hazards that are involved in using pastels. Although most manufacturers have stopped using some of the most hazardous pigments, such as lead and lead compounds, professional artists’ pastels should not be considered safe. Precautions should be taken to prevent inhalation and accidental ingestion of dusts.

Soft Pastels

Soft Pastels are soft because they are low in chalk or chalk substitute and are primarily pigment with very little binder. Chalk has a cementing quality that is used to best advantage in the manufacture of hard pastels. Most manufacturers of artists’ soft pastels use a substitute for white chalk, such as kaolin, lithopone, or titanium dioxide, as the base. This facilitates easy blending and results in stronger colors.

Every manufacturer of pastels begins with a set of colors that it considers to be pure and then creates additional colors, or tints, by adding a specific percentage of white (kaolin, lithopone, or titanium dioxide) or black (carbon). Manufacturers each have their own recipes for creating the colors and tints they offer, as well as their own symbols for indicating which are the basic colors and their tints. Talens Company, for example, the manufacturer of Rembrandt Pastels, adds decimal points to its color reference numbers to signify the percentage of white or black. Of its one hundred and sixty-three colors, thirty-eight are pure colors, indicated by a three-digit number followed by a decimal point and the number 5. The number 205.5, for example, indicates the pure color lemon yellow. Thirty-six of the colors are mixed with a percentage of black and they are indicated by a three-digit number followed by a decimal point and the number 3. (For example, 205.3 is lemon yellow mixed with black.) The remaining eighty-nine colors are pure colors mixed with white, indicated in the same way by following the color number and decimal with either a 7, 8, or 9. The higher the number, the more white. (For example, 205.9 is the palest tint of lemon yellow.)

Soft pastels cannot be blended on the palette, like paint, to create additional colors or tints. Virtuosity of color in pastel drawings is restricted by the available colors and the ability to blend then on the working surface. Since pastels are an opaque medium, they are difficult to blend and it is hard to get intermediate shades. Therefore, if you think you will need a particular color or tint, it is best to acquire it before proceeding. I recommend that you purchase the largest set of pastels that you can find and afford, and continue to build your color range whenever practical. The greater your choices of pastels, the greater your freedom. To accommodate this freedom, some manufacturers make up to six hundred colors.

Chalk Pastels

Chalk Pastels are harder than soft pastels because of the higher percentage of chalk. They are also less expensive because they contain less pigment. Not all of the commonly available chalk pastels are of artists’ quality, they give no assurance of lightfastness; they are therefore not recommended. The color range is often quite limited, ranging from thirty-six to forty-eight colors.

Hard Pastels

Hard Pastels are harder than soft pastels and the average chalk pastel. At this time, however, there is only one effectively marketed hard pastel-Nupastel made by Eberhardt Faber Company. Although Nupastel is technically a chalk pastel, it is far denser than the average chalk pastel. Its primary advantage is that it is better for drawing thin lines and for holding details. Hard pastels can be sharpened to some degree, while soft pastels cannot. They are also less dusty and adhere better to the working surface, but this characteristic makes them harder to blend. Nupastel offers an acceptable range of seventy-two colors. This pastel is commonly used as artists’ pastel, although the company’s literature makes no claims of lightfastness.

Pastel Pencils

Pastel Pencils are chalk pastels with a wood covering. They are also known as colored charcoal pencils because their consistency resembles that of charcoal pencils. The advantages of the pencil form of pastel is that it can be sharpened for more detailed drawing and it is less messy to work with. Pastel pencils were originally developed for the graphic artist and illustrator. As with chalk pastels, claims to lightfastness are rarely found. The available range is between fortyeight and seventy-two colors, depending on the manufacturer.

Conte Crayons

Conte Crayons are named after their developer, Nicolas-Jacques Conte, who invented the modern pencil. They were originally a mixture of graphite and clay formed into hard drawing sticks. The process Conte used was similar to that used for his pencils. Today, Conte crayons are made with an alumina chalk (aluminum oxide) base. Because they are readily available in differing degrees of hardness, a range of effects can be consistently produced with these crayons. The white crayons are pure alumina chalk; the blacks and grays are carbon and alumina chalk. The reddish-browns, or sanguines, are ferric oxide (rust) and alumina chalk. Several shades of sanguine are widely available and the black and white are available in different degrees of hardness.

Come crayons have the consistency of graphite sticks and the appearance of hard pastels.