Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Making a point

Over the years I have collected a wide and rather curious range of artists materials that are stored in an old cupboard in the corner of the studio. Sorting through it recently in the hunt for an A5-sized sketchbook – shades of an alcoholic rifling through the house desperate to find a forgotten and unfinished bottle of scotch – I realise just how much I have restricted myself in the materials I use.

A pile of redundant materials mounts up: aquarelle pencils, rabbit skin glue, hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels, oil paints so rich in pigment that a couple of tubes would serve perfectly well as dumbbells, student quality acrylics that look as if they came free with a packet of corn flakes, watercolour masking fluid so old the lid has fused tightly and permanently shut, box upon box of charcoal from, seemingly, every known manufacturer in the western world… And there, lurking at the back, is a blast from the past, a reminder of happy, innocent days from years ago: a bunch of pencils bound together by a now corroded elastic band.

How the memories flood back. There was a time when I hardly went anywhere without a 2B pencil or two in my jacket pocket, along with its inevitable companions, the Swiss army knife and the little black sketchbook. Its place in my pocket has gradually been taken over by the marker pen, which has its advantages, but none of the beauty and naturalness of the pencil. For a start, you cannot look at a marker pen and see how close it is to running out. A one-inch stub of pencil leaves you in no doubt you need to get a new one. And pencils are cheaper, too.

The pencil is still, however, a thing of beauty to me: to bring one to a fine point with a good, sharp knife, to feel that very sharpest point ping and break as it first hits the page, leaving a little splash of graphite dust across the page; to have at one’s fingertips that infinite range of weights of lines and tones that graphic software packages can still only dream of. A pencil is small and light, and available in every high street. It looks and feels organic, the high fibre option. I would even venture to say that, if pushed, a well-sharpened H pencil could be used to perform an emergency tracheotomy. And they work just about anywhere; NASA still uses them on the International Space Station.

In an age obsessed with upgrading and improvement, the pencil is a towering monument to getting something right almost first time. We are now on no more than Pencil 3.0, and considering that it first shipped about 450 years ago that is something to shout about. Of course, there are more recently introduced mechanical pencils and all kinds of coloured and aquarelle pencils that no doubt deserve similar adoration, but the core product, the humble and wonderful graphite pencil, remains gloriously similar to those that appeared in the 16th century. The great lumps of graphite first found on a Cumbrian fell may no longer used in their manufacture (the local shepherds found them useful for marking their sheep), but Nicolas-Jacques Conté’s big innovation in 1795 was to mix graphite powder with clay in varying quantities so that a range of hardness and softness became available. Otherwise, they haven’t changed so much.

There was correspondence in a paper recently about some of the more boring museums that can be found in the UK. The Museum of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead and the British Lawnmower Museum in Sheffield were mentioned. Then someone suggested the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick. Boring? Pencils? I have visited this museum, and suggest you do too. Where else could you find a 26-foot pencil, the world’s longest? It is the pencil lover’s dream.

And so why have I relegated my pencils to the darkened corners of the studio cupboard? It’s a question I am still asking myself. At the moment at least, I am looking for a line that is thicker, blacker, less likely to smudge, and less pencil-like. But they are back in my jacket pocket now, and a relationship has been rekindled.