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Graphite as seen through the microscope. The field of view is 1/4" in diameter.


The versatility of graphite makes it suitable for spontaneous sketches or highly finished work. A pencil or stick of graphite used on the flat side produces broad strokes and shaded areas; sharpened to a point it yields crisp lines. A dark gray metallic sheen can be observed by looking at a drawing from the side as light glances off the graphite surface. This effect is visible in the photomicrograph of graphite at the left.


Graphite pencils took the place of lead and silver metalpoints for rendering fine linear drawings, hence the familiar terms “pencil lead” or “lead pencil” (even though pencils contain no lead whatsoever). After its discovery in sixteenth-century England, natural graphite was so highly prized that by law it could be mined only six weeks a year, and was transported to London by armed guards. In the late eighteenth century, French inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conté patented a substitute for natural graphite. His formulation consisted of powdered graphite mixed with clay into a paste, then shaped into rods and fired like ceramic ware.

The proportions of clay and graphite can be varied to produce grades of hardness, categorized as H, F, B to indicate Hard, Firm and Black. Graphite is also available in stick and powder form, as shown at the top of the above illustration.


Examples from the Collection


Bowler Hat and Garment
Bowler Hat and Garment, 1885-1900
Paul Cézanne, French
Graphite on wove paper
Sheet: 5 × 8 1/2 inches (12.7 × 21.6 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg, 1987
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The pressure of Paul Cézanne's hand as he drew with a pointed graphite pencil has indented the soft surface of the sketchbook page. The stitching holes, glue spots and ragged right edge are remnants of the former binding. This sheet is from one of two Cézanne sketchbooks in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They reflect the artist's choice of modest, unadorned pocket sized albums, purchased and used mostly in Paris during the last two decades of the 19th century. Most of the eighteen known Cézanne sketchbooks have been taken apart or are incomplete, some of them were broken up early on by the artist's family for individual sale of the more finished drawings or watercolors. The Philadelphia sketchbooks, which include eighty-one individual sheets and both sets of clothbound covers, were dismantled long before they entered the Museum's Collection.


Study for "Mother and Child"
Study for "Mother and Child", 1924
Fernand Léger, French
Graphite pencil on wove paper
Sheet: 12 1/16 x 15 7/16 inches (30.6 x 39.2 cm)
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952
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Graphite is well suited to the exacting style of the French Cubist, Fernand Léger. The ruled horizontal and vertical lines intersecting at right angles, careful arcs and repeated forms in Study for "Mother and Child", speak of the artist's early training as an architectural draughtsman. In this drawing, Léger varied not only the manner of application and amount of pressure that he exerted on the pencil, but also used pencils in different hardness grades to modulate the light and dark elements. The broader areas of shading in this composition reveal the texture of the paper, including the impressed watermark of the paper manufacturer, Canson & Montgolfier <> Vidalon Les-Anonnay, that is visible along the left edge.



Untitled (Ocean)
Untitled (Ocean), 1969
Vija Celmins, American (born Latvia)
Graphite on wove paper prepared with white acrylic paint
Sheet: 14 x 18 3/4 inches (35.6 x 47.6 cm)
Purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and with matching funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud, Marilyn Steinbright, the J. J. Medveckis Foundation, David Gwinn, and Harvey S. Shipley Miller, 1991
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In this highly finished drawing Vija Celmins used graphite pencils on paper she had primed with a thin white acrylic ground. The even strokes and dense tonal gradations produce a sheen that is visible in raking light. The primed paper surface is smooth and white like the surface of a modern photograph. This is one of a series of drawings Celmins made from snapshots of the Pacific Ocean that are, in effect, translations of the photographic images. The artist is quoted, "It seemed very natural to me to have that graphite touch the paper and be like a point of reality where it touched. No smudging, no making marks, no grading, no manipulating to make sure that it spread out. Every little mark I made was a mark that fit the image and fit with the surface and fit with the space."

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