We had an argument at the studio yesterday. It preceded the opening of our exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, where we had some class demonstration drawings and lecture diagrams on display. We were printing exhibition labels for the artwork, and the argument was about what to call a white pencil.
I’ve been working on gray paper for most of my drawings lately, which requires the lighter values to be “heightened” with white… But what kind of “white”? My tool of choice to date has been General’s Charcoal White – a dense and chalky substance, available in pencils or sticks, that does the job nicely. But what is it, exactly, and what should it be called on our exhibition labels? “Graphite and what on gray paper”?
When I asked how I should refer to their product on our exhibition labels, the representative replied curtly. “Just call it white charcoal.”
I’m afraid this is where we descend into pedantry. Artists typically refer to this product as “white charcoal”. To an extent, this makes sense – it’s powdery like charcoal, and it’s made to be used along with charcoal. There’s just one problem: it’s not charcoal. It’s not even close to being charcoal. In fact, the practice of referring to the stuff as “white charcoal” has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and I cringe every time I hear it. It’s just sloppy speech and I refuse to use the term – particularly on exhibition labels. Hence the argument.
But if it’s not charcoal, then what is it? General’s offers no help at all. I called the company for clarification and all they said is that the composition of their products is “proprietary” and can’t be shared. When I asked how I should refer to their product on our exhibition labels, the representative replied curtly. “Just call it white charcoal.”
What complicates matters here is that “white charcoal” does legitimately exist. It’s a Japanese variety also known as “Binchōtan”, and while it isn’t as dark as conventional charcoal, it isn’t exactly white, either. At best, it’s a light gray – like the color of ashes.
In any case, “Binchōtan” is not widely used for drawing, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what General’s Charcoal White is made from – which isn’t the color of ashes at all, but rather gleams like the driven snow.
Some artists refer to this and similar white pencils generically as “pastel pencils” and that might be a better fit – except that I frequently use a soft white pastel on drawings to achieve values lighter than what the General’s Charcoal White pencils can deliver. Referring to the pencil, then, as any kind of pastel would be wordy and confusing: “Graphite and pastel pencil and pastel on gray paper” Huh?
So what do I call it? For sheer lack of a better option, I’ve taken to calling it a “chalk pencil”. It’s unclear if it actually contains any chalk, either, but it’s the best I can come up with. It definitely seems chalky, and it’s better than calling it charcoal, but really I’m at a loss.
If anyone out there has a better idea, I’m all ears. But until then, “chalk pencil” it is – which is what we put on the labels.