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 office/studio. Sorting through it recently in the hunt for an A5-sized sketchbook – shades of an alcoholic ransacking the house desperate to find a forgotten and unfinished bottle of whisky — I realise how much I had restricted myself in the materials I used.
A pile of redundant stuff mounts up: aquarelle pencils, rabbitskin glue, hard pastels, soft pastels, oil pastels, oil paints so rich with pigment that a couple of tubes would serve perfectly well as dumbbells, student-quality acrylics that look as if they came free in a packet of cornflakes, watercolour masking fluid so old the lid has fused tightly and permanently shut, box upon box of charcoal from every known manufacturer in the western world... And there, lurking at the back, a blast from the past, a reminder of happy, innocent days from years ago, a bunch of stubby pencils bound together by a now corroded elastic band.
There was a time when I went hardly 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 been taken over by the marker pen, which has its advantages, but none of the beauty and naturalness of a pencil. For a start, you can't look at a marker pen and see how close it is to running out. With a pencil, what you see is what you get: a one-inch stub leaves you in no doubt that 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 sharp knife, to feel that sharpest point ping and break as it first hits the page, leaving a little splash of graphite dust across the paper; to have at one's fingertips that infinite range of weights of lines and tones that software packages can 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, 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 appeared about 450 years ago, that is something to boast about.
So why are pencils relegated to the darkened corners of the studio cupboard? It's a question I'm still asking myself. At the moment, at least, I'm looking for a line that is thicker, and blacker, less likely to smudge and less pencil-like. But there's one in my jacket pocket again now, and a precious relationship has been rekindled.