All modern writing instruments can be traced to an ancient Roman writing instrument called a stylus. Scribes used a thin metal rod to leave a light, but readable mark on papyrus. Papyrus was made from beaten reed pulp. The early styluses were made of lead, silver, brass, and sometimes gold. Many artists of the renaissance wore an elaborately fashioned stylus (often in the form of a crucifix) which doubled as writing instrument.

Since the predominantly used material and the softest metal was lead, we still call pencil cores “leads” even though they actually are made of non-toxic graphite. Graphite came into widespread use following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Appreciated for leaving a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft and brittle that it required a holder. Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks. The wood-cased pencil was born! In 1795, French chemist Nicholas Jacques Conté received a patent for the modern process for making pencil leads by mixing powdered graphite and clay, forming sticks, and hardening them in a furnace.

Artists didn’t always use graphite though. In fact, throughout modern art history, most preferred to use chalks. Not the kind easily bought today, but natural occurring chalks. However, these have been mined to extinction. ONE GRAM of natural black chalk is $300!!! So, the black “chalk” pencils made now (Still by the Conte’ company) are inferior in every way, and as can be seen in the drawing below, produce inferior results. So for now, I’m done with black “chalks”.

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