Drawing materials

Graphite

Teatro Olimpico

Marc'antonio Palladio (c.1585)
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collection


The first graphite pit operated from 1540 – 1560 in Cumberland (now Cumbria), England, where it had been discovered.

It became popular in drawing towards the end of the 16th century. A crystalline form of carbon with a metallic appearance, it would have been used as a stick or a fragment rather than in the pencil form that we know today.

Palladio only used graphite, lead or chalk for the preliminary stage of a drawing, known as under drawing. This can be seen in his drawing of sheet XIII/5 Teatro Olimpico of 1580. He would have used iron gall ink over the initial lines of chalk or graphite. Palladio never used graphite or lead for the final image.

Graphite has often been confused with lead. Like lead, graphite leaves a grey or black line, but it can be covered by ink. Lead point and charcoal, however, change with the use of liquid. Before the discovery of graphite, draughtsmen would have used lead to plot points or plan a composition on paper. Palladio used lead for his under drawing in his later drawings rather than natural chalk.  

Only a small number of later drawings by Palladio in the RIBA Drawings Collection suggest the possible use of graphite. In Palladio's time graphite was as expensive as gold, so this is, perhaps, unsurprising. It became popular with architectural draughtsmen and its use increased in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Like chalk, graphite and lead can smudge or rub across the surface of paper or against another drawing and this presents the conservator with a number of challenges.

Drawings made with either graphite, lead or chalk need to be stored carefully in deep mounts using silicon coated papers to prevent the graphite lifting and damaging other drawings.