Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Elephant No. 73: Graphite Powder

I was going to do something else today, but I couldn't find everything I needed, so instead I decided to try something a bit off the wall: graphite powder.

Graphite is a form of carbon, historically known as "blacklead" or "plumbago". It was given its current name in 1789 by Abraham Werner, derived from the Greek grapho, "to write".

Graphite was used in the Mediterranean basin as early as the fourth millennium B.C. to create a form of paint used on pottery. Sometime during the sixteenth century A.D., a vast deposit of graphite was discovered at Borrowdale in Cumbria, England, which local people used to mark their sheep. This particular graphite was also pure and soft, and was used to line the moulds for cannonballs.

Graphite specimen.

Natural is graphite used in steelmaking, brake linings, lubricants, electronics, weaponry and, of course, pencils. It is also an excellent electrical conductor, and has been used in applications such as arc lamp electrodes, and even early carbon microphones.

Graphite is the most stable form of carbon, and ranks as the highest grade of coal, just above anthracite. It occurs in metamorphic and igneous rocks, as well as in meteorites, and is usually found together with quartz, calcite, mica and tourmaline. In 2008, worldwide production of natural graphite was more than 1,110 kilotonnes, with China and India the largest producers.

Graphite powder is highly valued for its lubricating properties, although it also has a tendency to pit stainless steel, and to promote corrosion in some metals. As a result, the U.S. Air Force has banned graphite in aluminum aircraft, and discourages its use in weapons containing aluminum.

I bought this bottle of graphite powder for a mere three dollars at a local hardware store. I bought it to lubricate a lock, but it most emphatically didn't work, leaving me with a full bottle of graphite powder. It struck me that, since graphite in some form or other is the primary ingredient in pencil lead, I should surely be able to draw something with this powder.

Not having any idea how much I'd need, or even how to use it, I poured a small amount of the powder onto a cut-down piece of bristol board.

I figured the next stage was to rub it in somehow, so I elected to use my fingers. I started by making a vague elephant head. It's a rather strange process, because the dark lines of powder obviously don't remain. This means that you don't have much idea what you'll get until after you remove the powder. Too bad, because I kind of liked the powder lines.

I blew the loose powder off this version, poured on a bit more, and rubbed it in some more. You have to rub fairly hard to make any kind of impression, and it will never be as dark as pressing hard with a pencil. I have no idea why.

I kept blowing off the powder, adding more, rubbing it in, and generally making a mess, until I was fairly happy with the way it looked. I also took what was left on my fingers and swirled it around in the areas surrounding the elephant, so that the drawing (if that's what you'd call it) would be more cohesive. As you can see, the graphite, when photographed from a certain angle, has quite a sheen.

I'm pretty happy with the final result. It has a sort of moody elephant-lost-in-a-London-fog quality that I really like. It also reminds me a bit of my attempt at fumage. Obviously I'll have to spray it with fixative to keep it like this (and I expect that some of the powder may do weird things under the force of the spray), but I think I may try this again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The Elephant pub on Fenchurch Street in London occupies a site that has had a pub on it since 1666—interestingly, however, it is probably not be located on the same site as a previous Elephant pub on that street.

Originally called the Elephant and Castle—although located nowhere near the Elephant and Castle roundabout—the first Elephant pub once featured paintings rumoured to have been created by William Hogarth. At the time, it was said, Hogarth lived at the pub and, falling behind on his rent, painted local scenes and caricatures on the pub walls as payment.

When the original Elephant pub was about to be torn down in 1826, people flocked to see the "Hogarth paintings" before they disappeared into the rubble. An art dealer stepped in and bought the paintings, successfully removing them from the walls. He displayed them at his gallery in Pall Mall, although he was never quite able to convince experts that the paintings actually came from Hogarth's brush.

The sign outside today's Elephant pub, on
Fenchurch Street in London's City district.

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