The Beauty of Simple Tools



I love pencils.  If you’re reading this, odds are you do too.  And one of the great joys that many pencil enthusiasts share is an admiration for the unassuming elegance of our tool of choice.  Whether it’s candid workstation shots from a fellow scribbler on Instagram or the best pencil romance shots a cell phone can create in an online stationery group such as the Erasable Podcast Community on Facebook, looking at pencils–actually seeing them in action–plays a big role in our hobby.  Because of this appreciation of pencil aesthetics, I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Alex Hammond & Mike Tinney’s The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and their Pencils, a compendium of some of the most enjoyable pencil photography I’ve seen published in one place.

How can a 16th century writing utensil still captivate us all these lifetimes after its invention?  The book is an attempt to offer answers to that question by documenting the magic of (mostly) wood and (mostly) graphite in words and pictures.  The book has three main sections: an introduction by William Boyd, a collection of pencil photographs, and a 30-page portion at the end containing brief interviews with over 20 creatives who favor pencils.

The introduction by Boyd, an author whose first ten novels were drafted longhand in pencil, sets the tone for the book.  I found myself nodding in agreement when in a candid moment he reflected on his own tendency to purchase new pencils for which he has no immediate need.  His conclusion: his pursuit of better pencils is part of his pursuit of a better self: “…it is because only with a pencil can you really establish what your true handwriting is like….Your sense of yourself, as reflected in your handwriting–which is unique, after all–is best defined by a pencil.  Your pencil–in a very real way–is you.”  These lines resonated with me, even as they put me in the mindset to examine the photographs that follow not just as beautiful images of simple tools but as an act of biographical documentation as well.

And the photos are spectacular, figuratively and literally.  From the knife sharpened pencils of creators such as David Bailey and Julia Quenzler to the simple yellow pencil ensconced in a beautiful brass extender belonging Thomas Heatherwick, the photos are striking, even as they convey something about the person who uses them.  And don’t all tools tell tales about us as a culture?  About what we value, about how we approach our work, about the care we put into creation?  For me, the answer rings a clear yes, and that’s what these photos capture: pencils yes, but also biography, also values.

(Note: Rather than poorly recreating the photos contained in the book here, I suggest you pop over to LeadFast’s post about the book, which contains some great images.)

The book closes with a collection of interviews with creators whose creative processes prominently feature pencils. Unexpectedly, I found myself drawn in by these short narrative vignettes.   Even when I didn’t know the author or artist being interviewed, reading their thoughts on their own work with pencils, some of which is featured alongside their interviews, was a treat.

Sound like your kind of scene?  The Secret Life of the Pencil is worth a look and is available from C.W. Pencil Enterprise for $15.00.




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