Sunday, April 14, 2013


“The highest condition of art is artlessness.” - Henry David Thoreau

Proving once again that it's never too late to learn something new about an overlooked assumption - one that has literally been carried around for decades - I discovered an interesting nugget about the humble pencil. In retrospect I'm a little abashed at the failure on my part to simply follow up on a blank spot in technical trivia about perhaps the most basic implement in drawing (save only an equal, hand-in-glove symbiosis with a blank sheet of paper).

At the onset of every Beginning level studio class we cover the fundamentals on materials + techniques, and as part of the opening show & tell I dredge through my toolbox to demonstrate what's on the shopping list. Par for the course is the standard set of drawing pencils, which are offered in a bewildering array of different grades. Usually I just assign two samples from either extreme end of the scale (ex: a 5B + 5H) + a couple middle grounds (B + F) so as to familiarize students with a basic range of possibilities in value. Variations in pressure suffice for the purposes of Beginning assignments and exercises, above and beyond that (say, Intermediate & Advanced levels) there is a whole host of additional gradients - and differing brands - to experiment with and explore.

“Men have become the tools of their tools.” - Henry David Thoreau

So I'd long known that "H" stood for "hardness" (of the graphite) but had always joked that "B" stood for "Blech." Turns out it's for "black" - well, duh. The ubiquitous, neautral "#2" yellow pencil more often than not suffices for simple sketching in my own work, and approximately corresponds with the "HB" caliber. But further investigation led to the question what does the numerical designation (as opposed to the letter system) mean, and where did these grading systems originally come from? 

The lettering system of ranking the comparative hardness of lead stems from the European roots of contemporary pencil design. But the complimentary numerical system is attributed to what is often described as The Conté Process. This in turn was adopted and modified in the United States by none other than the father of Henry David Thoreau:

John Thoreau's son, Henry David, was raised in the business. He studied at Harvard through the mid-1830's, but he also kept a hand in the business. Pencil leads were made by filling a groove in a piece of wood with a mixture of ground graphite and some kind of binder. Henry David Thoreau worked on the problem of making a better pencil out of inferior graphite.
He solved the problem by using clay as the binder. With clay he created a superior, smear-free pencil whose hardness was controllable. He made the Thoreau company into America's leading pencil maker. 
- "Thoreau’s Pencils" John H. Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 339
Well now, how cool is that? One of my personal transcendental inspirations had a hand in shaping one of the three primal instruments which I've spend the majority of my life gripping (the other two being a pen and a mouse). I used to think in order to channel this naturalist/philosopher one would need at least a walking stick, but it seems that most days there's already one - albeit on a much smaller scale - already in hand.
Thoreau was actually an “excellent pencil maker” who made significant technological innovations, including figuring out a way to inject lead directly into the hollowed-out pencil. (…) He also invented a machine that made an unusually fine ground of graphite. 
- “Thoreau’s Pencil” Jennifer Schuessler/New YorkTimes 
It's the little things like these random and obscure connections that give a touch of flavor to the creative coffee percolating inside... now to take another stroll into those deep, dark mental woods - with pencil in pocket.

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” - Henry David Thoreau


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