Making Graphite Oil Paint

— The Alchemical Journey Series —

by Damian Osborne

 

 

Continuing with my handmade paint series, The Alchemical Journey, I decided to experiment with graphite oil paint. Graphite black oil paint is quite easy to make, and it is quite different from the bone black I made in the previous episode.

Check out the video above. I ended up doing two quick grisaille or greyscale paintings with just graphite black and titanium white oil paint.  And I used quite a dicey way to get at the graphite inside some pencils.

 

What is graphite actually?

No, the graphite used in pencils is not lead. This misnomer comes from the archaic use of the names black lead or plumbago (Latin: plumbum) for graphite because it was confused with lead-containing ore such as galena.

Graphite is an allotrope of pure carbon. An allotrope is a different form or structure of the same element. Another allotrope of carbon is diamond.

Graphite and diamond are both forms of carbon but they have very different characteristics. Graphene is another allotrope of carbon and is a honeycomb lattice structure only one atom thick. It is the strongest and the most electrically conductive material known to man.

 

Graphite
Graphite.

 

Graphite is slightly greasy because it contains weaker bonds than other carbon allotropes, which cleave apart or slide across easily, giving graphite its slippery feel and its low hardness. Diamonds on the other hand are extremely hard. 

Since its discovery in the 1500s in the Lake District of England, graphite has had many uses: from casting cannonballs, to use as stove polish, lubricants, brake pads, batteries, electrodes, electric motor brushes, carbon-fiber materials such as fishing rods, golf clubs, sports car bodies, bicycle frames, and as crucibles for metal smelting. 

This slippery texture of graphite means that it can sometimes cause adhesion problems. As a dry medium, artists usually use a spray fixative (in the old days milk was used!) or frame the work behind glass. 

In oil paint, I found graphite can still dirty your fingers a little if you touch the dry paint. Mixing with white or other pigments on your palette seems to overcome this issue. In fact, it makes beautiful mixes and is more subtle than other blacks. 

It’s a lovely pigment, producing fantastic cool greys, but it would probably be better to avoid using graphite in the under-layers of a painting. Reserve for alla prima painting or mixing with other pigments, for glazes, or for the upper layers of your painting. 

 

Can you mix graphite and oil paint?

Reading the many art forums online, and listening to many artists, it seems like mixing graphite and oil painting is a cardinal sin. Much like the absurd rule some artists make about using black pigment generally. (The rule that the Impressionists shunned black paint, so we should mix our own blacks from other colours.)

I hate dumb rules and sterile formulas. Especially when they discourage one’s personal choices. Art is after all, about freedom of expression and creativity, and that freedom should extend to the materials the artist chooses to use too.

So I’m not interested in talking to people who think charcoal is better than pencil, or oil painting is better than watercolour. It’s a stupid argument. (I’m not a fan of acrylic paintings, but that’s just me.) It’s how one uses the materials that makes all the difference. You can create a masterpiece with a ball-point pen from your old high school.

Some artists claim that a graphite pencil underdrawing will bleed through successive layers of oil paint and eventually ruin the painting on top. Even I jumped on this wagon and tried to warn my students. 

But I don’t think this is entirely true. It depends on a few factors.

Then artists go on about using spray fixatives, Liquin or shellac, or using acrylic underpaintings, or shunning graphite entirely, which just makes me facepalm and shake my head. 

Of course, some artists show evidence of pencil marks bleeding through the final layers of the painting. Other artists, like myself, have never had this issue. 

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Hell, I don’t even use fixative to seal my graphite or charcoal underdrawings.

I prefer to stay away from adding extra layers of unknown substances (fixative, Liquin, acrylic underpainting) which may cause adhesion problems. And Old Master paintings that are 400 years old have done fairly well without any spray fixative for sealing the underdrawing stages. 

 

In short, you shouldn’t have a problem if:

• Your graphite underdrawing is fairly light and not overworked.

• You wipe off the excess, loose graphite with a dry brush or cloth if you did lay it on too thick.

• You don’t paint too thinly so that the graphite still shows through. Sometimes, you can even use thin paint to your advantage. When doing your imprimatura, your graphite drawing will still be visible and not lost. 

• You use decent quality paint that has enough pigment strength to cover the graphite. Or maybe you don’t want to hide the graphite anyway. 

• You go over the lines with a fine brush and ink or a bit of linseed oil and an earth or dark pigment (if you wish to keep the lines).

• You go over the lines with a fine brush and water or linseed oil if you want to blur the lines more or wipe them out with a rag. You can soften the lines with water, or linseed oil and create more of a ‘wash’. 

• You don’t use a grid pattern, because you know that’s super lame. Unless of course, you want to scale up your original cartoon. But drawing freehand usually just makes a much better, looser drawing anyway. Grid patterns will look really ugly if they are visible through the surface layer of the painting. 

 

Oil paint tends to become more transparent over time, and this can sometimes reveal the pentimenti that art historians are so fascinated with.

So if you have heavy graphite marks under thin, translucent layers of oil paint, they may become more obvious in the future. But this doesn’t mean the graphite is actually somehow swimming to the top of the paint layer. 

Another thing to be aware of is that a heavy graphite drawing may not provide the best adhesion for your oil paint. But I wouldn’t worry if it’s just a light line-drawing.

If you’ve done an intense 9B graphite drawing and worked it up to the point where the graphite has taken on its characteristic sheen from overworking, and your painting ground has very little tooth, then you might have issues. 

Generally though, I prefer to do an underdrawing with vine or willow charcoal. (That’s if I bother to do an underdrawing.) I like the way charcoal blends with the oil paint to create smoky lines. 

Or you can just paint directly without an underdrawing. Or use graphite as a pigment in your oil paint. As this video shows, yes you can mix graphite and oil paint!

 

When was graphite first used as an art medium?

Graphite has been used for drawing since the mid-1600s, although it only really became popular in the 19th Century.

Shepherds accidentally discovered graphite in Borrowdale in the Lake District of Cumberland, England in the 1500s and called it ‘Black Lead’. They used it to mark their sheep.

 

Thomas Hastings, In Borrowdale, 1836
Thomas Hastings, In Borrowdale, 1836, Graphite and pen and brown ink on paper.

 

Today, the finest natural graphite still comes from the Lake District and is the site of the famous Derwent pencils factory.

Drawing with graphite made things easier for artists since they didn’t have to carry around bottles of ink. And the marks were erasable! But artists used graphite more for preliminary sketches, which were then used in artworks completed in other media.

Pure graphite drawings were rare. Ink, chalk, and charcoal were more popular.

Friedrich Staedtler from Nuremberg, Germany became the first person to mass-produce pencils in 1622.

Because the English guarded their Borrowdale graphite so contemptuously from their enemies, the French, in 1795, Nicolas-Jacques Conté came up with the idea of using finely-ground, low-quality graphite mixed with clay and fired at high temperatures. This allowed for the production of different shades or grades of graphite pencils for drawing.

Artists that made pencil drawing popular in the 19th Century were Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas.

 

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Self-Portrait, 1822, graphite on paper
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Self-Portrait, 1822, graphite on paper.

 

How does graphite black oil paint compare with other black pigments?

Graphite black is:

• Great for cool colour mixes, especially in a limited palette. Generally cooler than other blacks such as carbon black, bone black, and Mars black.

• It is has a strong tinting strength, though not as over-powering as other blacks.

• Great for washes and oil sketches. Due to its soft film properties and slightly greasy, slippery texture, use only in the upper layers of the painting or for preliminary studies. Mixing with other pigments such as lead white overcomes its weak film properties.

• Slow-drying like other black pigments.

• Slightly gritty texture, like bone black. Depending on how finely the pigment is ground. Carbon and lamp blacks are generally finer.

• Quite opaque with a slight metallic sheen. Although, seems to work well in glazes if thinned with linseed oil and used sparingly.

• Very oil absorbent, like most other black pigments. 

 

How do you make graphite black oil paint?

In order to make graphite black oil paint, you’ll need graphite powder, linseed oil, a glass muller, a glass or granite slab to mull the paint on, a dropper, and two palette knives for mixing. You may also want a tablespoon, paper towel, and dust mask if you’re worried about the dust.

Also, you’ll need an empty paint tube for storing the paint in. 

You can buy pure graphite powder online or from art stores. But I found it cheaper just to use old pencils and to sand the lead down with sandpaper. This is probably not the best way, as you don’t end up with pure graphite (use 6B – 9B at least). So rather just get pure graphite and avoid getting clay and micro-bits of sandpaper in your mix. 

Place one or two tablespoons of graphite powder in the centre of your glass or granite slab and make an indentation with the back of the tablespoon to form a well.

Take a small dropper and drop about 5 -15 ml of hand-refined linseed oil in the well of pigment. Then mix the oil and pigment together on the slab with your palette knife. It will probably need more oil, so scrape it all together and add another 5 ml of oil to the pigment.

It’s better to have too little oil than too much. You can always add more oil as you go. So work slowly and mix the pigment and oil together on the slab until you get the right consistency. Like thick toothpaste.

 

Mixing graphite black oil paint with palette knife, Damian Osborne
Mixing graphite black oil paint with a palette knife.

 

Move the pigment to near the edge of your working slab to open up the area where you’ll be mulling the pigment. 

Now take your glass muller and mull one palette knife scoop of pigment at a time. 

Work in a figure of 8 motion and get the paint down to less than a millimetre in thickness on the glass slab, scrape together again, and repeat the process until you’re satisfied with the consistency of the paint. Check out the video if you’re lost.

Now move this paint to the side and take another scoop of unmulled paint and repeat the process. 

 

Mulling graphite black oil paint with glass muller, Damian Osborne
Mulling graphite black oil paint with a glass muller.

 

Once you’ve mulled all the paint, mix the entire batch together and mull it all together again, checking its consistency and making sure it has enough oil or fluidity to suit your needs. 

Some artists like ‘short’ paste-like paint. Others prefer ‘loose’ or more ‘stringy’ paint with a bit more oil. So it’s really a personal preference. 

Once you’re happy with the paint, take an empty aluminium tube and a long, thin palette knife and scoop up a dollop of paint. Make sure the cap is on!

Now fill the paint tube with paint using your palette knife. Tap it down on the lid side against the tabletop or working surface so that the paint goes to the bottom.

 

Closing tube of graphite oil paint with palette knife, Damian Osborne
Closing a tube of graphite oil paint with a palette knife.

 

Fill it up this way until the tube is about two thirds full. Make sure there’s no air in the tube by repeatedly tapping the tube on the tabletop to compress the paint within the tube.

Now clean off the excess paint with a paper towel and make a fold at the open end of the paint tube just where the paint ends. In other words, squeeze the open side of the tube closed. Use the edge of your palette knife or a steel ruler to make a neat fold 2-3 mm from the edge of the tube. 

Press it down firmly. Then make another fold 2-3 mm wide again. Press down firmly. Wipe away the excess paint. You now have a new tube of paint!

 

Here are two quick grisaille oil sketch paintings I did with graphite black and titanium white:

 

Dark Rider, oil on panel, Damian Osborne, 14 x 23 cm, 2021, 800px-2
Dark Rider, oil on panel, Damian Osborne, 14 x 23 cm, 2021.

 

Horus and the Half-Moon, oil on panel, Damian Osborne, 20 x 20 cm, 2021, 800px, falcon and moon
Horus and the Half-Moon, oil on panel, Damian Osborne, 20 x 20 cm, 2021.

 

Did any of the Old Masters use graphite oil paint?

Unlike using graphite as a drawing medium, using graphite oil paint was never particularly popular. I couldn’t find many examples of Old Masters, or contemporary artists for that matter, who use graphite oil paint.  

I did however come across Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), a German-American painter, who used graphite as a ground in his majestic landscape paintings. Bierstadt was a member of the famous ‘Hudson River School’, a group of artists who tried to express the dramatic and romanticized beauty of the American landscape. 

Bierstadt was obsessed with the longevity of his work and believed that a graphite ground would provide added protection for his large canvases. He coated both the front and back of the canvas, before priming the front with lead white.

At the time, graphite was used for protecting metal, wood, plaster, paper, and for waterproofing canvas. It was known for its elasticity, durability, and anti-weathering properties.  Graphite paint is still used today as a hardware product.

Unfortunately, Bierstadt’s obsession and his experiments with his materials did not always end well. The graphite caused adhesion issues due to its flake-like crystalline structure. Oil paint does not form a particularly strong bond with such a layer.

Many of the paintings that had a graphite ground started wrinkling in the upper layers of paint. Bierstadt abandoned the practice of using graphite as a ground later on. 

For an interesting article, see Bierstadt’s late paintings: methods, materials, and madness

 

Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo, Graphite oil paint was used as a ground in this painting before priming with lead white.
Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo. Graphite oil paint was used as a ground in this painting before priming with lead white.

 

 

Thanks for reading and please send me any questions or comments. Hope you enjoy the video. 

 

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