The Secret Life of the Pencil – a celebration of the ultimate creative tool

The pencil’s role in the creative process is honoured in a new photobook containing favourites owned by a range of artists, designers, architects and writers

Do you have a favourite, go-to pencil? If so, is it a traditional wood and graphite number, or a mechanical device? If it’s the former, do you hone its point with a sharpener or a knife? Look at the other end: are teeth marks visible? Or does a teeny-tiny rubber occupy that space?

Despite its ubiquity – 14bn of them are made annually – and the fact that most are constructed from just two materials, the humble pencil is far from a standardised communication tool. And as new book The Secret Life of the Pencil suggests, each one can also reveal a lot about its owner.

Top of post: The point and rubber end of one of artist Mickalene Thomas’ pencils. Above: One belonging to cartoonist Posy Simmonds. Photography by Mike Tinney

Subtitled ‘Great Creatives and their Pencils’, designer Alex Hammond and photographer Mike Tinney’s book contains many examples that are industry-specific – from the red and white ‘grease’ pencils used by photographers to the coloured variants used by courtroom artists.

Yet there are plenty of common-or-garden graphite examples, too – Berols, Rexels, Staedtlers, Faber-Castells – and they are just as varied.

Sir Peter Blake, artist. Photography by Mike Tinney
Peter Saville, designer. Photography by Mike Tinney

Some, however, mirror their owners more than others. Peter Saville’s pencil of choice (above) is an elegant construction in opposites – his Italian white-bodied NAVA contains a black wood, the lead tip barely distinguishable at the end.

Architect John Pawson also displays his minimalist tastes – his elegant example (below) is in a natural wood colour, a series of concentric circles running along the length the only embellishment.

John Pawson, architect. Photography by Mike Tinney
Keiichi Tanaami, artist. Photography by Mike Tinney

One of the main points of difference in the classic wooden pencil is whether its point is shaved off roundly and smoothly with a sharpener, or sports the carved, often slightly manic look of one maintained with a particularly sharp knife.

It’s perhaps unsurprising to discover that many of the artists featured in Hammond and Tinney’s book favour the more sculptural knife method. Writers, on the other hand (Dave Eggers’ bizarre-looking implement excepted – see below), seem to favour the sharpener.

Dave Eggers, writer. Photography by Mike Tinney
James Dyson, designer. Photography by Mike Tinney

The authors say the idea for the project came about when they were reflecting on the pace of technological change in their respective industries – industrial design (Hammond) and photography (Tinney) – and how the speeding up of process might perhaps be to the detriment of creativity.

So they decided to celebrate the oft-overlooked tool that so many creative people still rely on day-to-day.

Tom Dixon, designer. Photography by Mike Tinney
William Boyd, writer. Photography by Mike Tinney

In his opening essay to the book, writer William Boyd points to the invention of the pencil in 16th-century Cumbria, England where an underground supply of “pure solid graphite” was first discovered. He writes of the pleasures of using a pencil and favours the mechanical Faber-Castell (shown in the spread above), though he has since endured unnecessary worries over the “potential erasure” of his work.

In a sense, this gallery of over 70 images of pencils is more like a survey of favourite tools, each one just right for the job in hand and loved for the simple function it performs.

The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and their Pencils by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney is published by Laurence King; £12.99. See laurenceking.com

Cover of The Secret Life of the Pencil (Laurence King)

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