In Praise of the Lowly Pencil

My foray into the art world began with a pencil. I think that’s how most of us begin, isn’t it? Pencils are ubiquitous things. No matter who you are and where you are right now, there’s probably a pencil or two nearby. Am I right?

Until today, I’d never really given much thought to the incredible power behind a pencil, not only in the hands of artists and draftsmen, but as an implement for writing, teaching, gathering information, building, playing, and countless other things. From a game of tic-tac-toe to the creation of magnificent engineering marvels such as bridges and skyscrapers, the lowly pencil plays a key role.

Of course, as artists, we equate pencils primarily with drawing. It was with some trepidation that I picked up a pencil one morning in June 2015, took a deep breath, and began making marks on a sheet of printer paper. I was going to learn to draw, I’d decided. Although I doubted such a thing was possible, it was simple enough to get started. Pick up a pencil, grab a piece of paper, and I was ready to go. No huge investment required for supplies. Other than a little “how to draw” book from Amazon that I bought for ninety-nine cents, I had everything I needed close at hand.

Surprisingly, I did learn to draw. I learned basic pencil skills, and I discovered that drawing was fun. It can be relaxing and soothing, almost like the practice of meditation. Drawing skills are useful to have when I want to explain a visual concept to someone. Drawing gives me an opportunity to play with our grandchildren — making monsters, creating mythical animals, or drawing simple scenes to paint.

I am still learning to draw. For me, it’s an on-going process. Despite all I’ve learned, I still feel rather inadequate when I’m around other artists. I still struggle a bit with sketching out scenes on canvas before I begin painting. I still have a lot of drawing techniques to learn. And so, I’m always in search of resources for drawing.

GuptillYesterday I stumbled across a jewel. I wasn’t actually searching for information on drawing. Instead, I was looking for information about an oil painting book by Arthur Leighton Guptill.

I don’t know much about Mr. Guptill. He was a designer and an architect, I believe, and in partnership with a friend, he founded, edited and managed American Artist magazine. He also established Watson-Guptill Publications which produced many instructional books on art.

Included among those books is Sketching and Rendering in Pencil, which I found online in PDF format. I downloaded it and eagerly began to read. I was hooked on his words. He truly opened my eyes to the incredible wonder of the common, everyday pencil.

Here are the opening paragraphs of this marvelous little treatise on sketching with pencil:

UNDOUBTEDLY the ready availability and low cost of the pencil and materials needed for use in conjunction with it are partly responsible for its popularity among artists, while the ease with which it can be carried from place to place and prepared and kept in condition for work are in its favor, also.

But aside from these intrinsic merits of the pencil itself, it has other advantages of a different sort, for instance its common employment for writing and similar purposes has given us all a certain familiarity with it, so that the beginner, having become accustomed from earliest childhood to these everyday uses to which it is put, finds it a natural and simple matter to learn to hold and manipulate it properly when drawing, which is, of course, highly important as it leaves him free to give his attention to other difficulties less easily avoided.

Guptill goes on to explain the merits of the pencil, its ability to create extremely fine lines when needed, or to make bold, almost brush-like strokes if required. He speaks eloquently of its capabilities for shading and toning, as well as the ease and speed with which we can draw with a pencil.

He also points out that while pencils can be used to create everything from the roughest outline sketch to the finest finished drawing, it serves, too, as a foundation for many other media. Pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, charcoals, pastels, and oil painting, too, often start with one or more pencil sketches.

As I read, I became more and more awed by the simple pencils I have scattered on my desk. Such power they possess!

Of course, artists generally use slightly more sophisticated pencils, known specifically as drawing pencils or artist-quality pencils. I shared my delight here when I purchased a beautiful set of Tombow drawing pencils. There are many excellent choices for the artist to choose from.

Rather than list various manufacturers here, I browsed a bit and came across this excellent article from My Modern Met:

Best Drawing Pencils for Professionals and Beginners Who Love to Sketch

My Modern Met

So, here’s wishing you many hours of pencil-drawing pleasure. I hope you’ve found this information helpful and that, like me, you’ve perhaps gained a new awareness of and appreciation for the ordinary pencil — which really is extra-ordinary when you think about it!





    1. I’m really enjoying the one I’m reading now. I’ve also found a used copy of his oil painting book, so it’s on its way. I will definitely check out the pen and ink book. Thank you so much for the suggestion.


      1. Indeed. There are artists who look down on them, but I’ve found it’s usually because they haven’t played with them much. They’re so versatile! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One of the art clubs I belong to is currently holding a regional show open to artists in a 100-mile radius from our town. We have 8 categories for entries, including a Drawing category. When I left Monday afternoon, we had 1 entry in Drawing and 1 more entry scheduled to arrive for that category. I don’t know if any more entries ever came in. It was really sad to look at the panel marked for Drawing and see only one very small drawing there. Maybe next year I’ll enter something in that category! The club members were even talking about doing drawings just to fill up the space, but if we only have 1 or 2 entries, the judge won’t be handing out any ribbons — which is really unfair to the one or possibly two artists who entered drawings.

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      3. That is sad. Around here, I’ve never seen a contest like that beyond the fair… and that’s impossible to get info on how to enter things. Besides, it’s a ‘who you know’ thing here as to who wins. Sad, but true.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I think the “who you know” aspect is part of judging no matter where you are. That’s one reason why I’m glad to be a member of three different art clubs. I am getting to know other artists. Have you checked around for any art groups in your area? Even if you don’t join, you might be able to get on their mailing lists to learn about different events coming up. One of the clubs I belong to meets at the library — which might be a good place to check. Another meets in a room at the municipal building, so checking with your town hall or community center might also give you a few leads. Or, if all else fails, you might start your own art group. 🙂

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      5. The only groups I’ve found cater to pre-teen – teen age. I’d have to go up to another state, or about 5oo miles south to find an adult group. Sad because I was so into joining the Kentucky Art Guild when I moved here 15 years ago…. sadly, they’re based out of Berea and that is a very long way from Florence.

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      6. I would definitely start checking around to see if there’s any interest in forming a group. You might not be the only one who’s “too far away” for a club. I think it sounds like an awesome opportunity. I know that how our local groups got started… one individual looking to join a club and not finding anything. Go for it!

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