In talking about pencil drawing and other "direct" media (as opposed to pen and ink drawing and other "indirect" media) we can make a further distinction: between "hard points" (pencil, metalpoint) and "soft points" (chalk, charcoal, pastel).
Hard points produce thin, even lines, and in early drawing, hard points meant metal points; medieval monks were already replacing styluses and wax tablets with big, highly ornamented double-ended “pencils” to draw. Massive things with the barrel or handle heavily carved, the metal tips were soldered on to work as drawing media. Lead was the big favorite, because was relatively soft and worked well on smooth surfaces; the problem with lead, though, was it didn’t make a strong, long-lasting line – it erased a little too easily. Those wishing to preserve lead drawings had to use ink to trace over the impressed lines the stylus left.
This led to the exploration of other metals points in the search for more durable drawings – copper, tin and alloys of lead and tin, even gold – until finally the age of silverpoint came.
Silverpoint needs to have a special ground prepared for it to make sure the line doesn’t fade or erase over time. Ideal for detailed studies, delicate silverpoint first draws as a soft grey, that oxidizes to brown over time. You need a careful, steady hand accustomed to crosshatching to best exploit silverpoint, but it makes such a beautiful drawing there are still enthusiasts today who employ it – the only metal point still somewhat in use.
In the late sixteenth century pencil drawing started to come into being. Graphite began to be fitted into holders in both England and Spain and quickly became popular for writing – you can go here if you want to find out more about the actual composition of graphite pencils. Scratchy with fragments of stone, these early pencils were first used in pencil drawing only for preliminary sketches before the artist realized the final drawing in a nobler medium.
It was around 1790, however that Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented “lead” pencils (“crayons Conté”) that were in fact graphite pencils with the right mixtures of clay and graphite to make varying ranges of hardness and nice, strong, long-lasting lines. This permanently established graphite pencils as serious or even the principal drawing medium out there and pencil drawing came into its own; indeed, by the nineteenth century major artists such as Ingres were using it as their primary drawing tool.
The Pre-Raphaelites, Nazarenes and Romantics loved hard graphite pencils for their look and feel so similar to silverpoint. From the early nineteenth century to today they are popular for producing hard, clear outlines in pencil drawing. Artists with a preference for a more “painterly” look to their drawings, however, prefer the softer pencils – guys like Delacroix. In more recent times, I remember an artist who loved using carpenter pencils for pencil drawings: the narrow side for drawing contours, and the flat side for filling in the shadows.
You can do a lot with graphite pencils: make lots of crosshatchings like Cézanne, blurring contours like Rodin, or even blurring by rubbing out with an eraser like Giocometti. In the nineteenth century manufacturers started putting dyes in with the clay/graphite mix to make colored pencils, and Picasso especially liked using a multicolored pencil he could twist in his hand to switch colors as he liked.
Charcoal is cheap, easy to use and even easy to make for drawing, its employ going back even to Greek Antiquity – perhaps even cave drawing!
Ideal for preliminary drawings, artists have always loved it because it’s so easy to correct. It makes nice sharp distinct fine lines and lovely rich thick lines. Also in the realm of preparatory work, charcoal was long “pounced” through pinpricks on a “cartoons” or drawing designs for paintings. Many a pen or brush drawing, as well as chalk, pastel and even watercolor drawings, have traces of charcoal at their start.
But charcoal couldn’t become a fully drawing medium in its own right until a way was found to stabilize it – to get the soft, dusty lines to stay put on the page. By the late sixteenth century artists started figuring out how to do just that – to “fix” their charcoal drawings – by spraying the fixative agent over them. Today “fixatives” are a standard artist supply; although I mention, in a pinch, you can even somewhat successfully use hairspray (I decided that day I preferred a drawing smelling like Rain Net over it being completely smudged!).
Charcoal really came into its own in the nineteenth century, when artists like Degas and Matisse, who loved rich, painterly lines, favored this soft point.
Charcoal gets deeper and richer for being soaked in linseed oil, a technique in fashion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by artists like Tintoretto; all the Rubens school loved it as well, and it was only with the advance of pastel that it got crowded out of the field.
Another extremely important medium is chalk – grittier natural chalk, or its smoother, softer cousin artificial chalk, is available in three colors: black (in French, pierre noire), white (crayon blanc) or red (sanguine). Chalk drawings are gorgeous for their lovely, sweeping lines, and have been a favorite with artists since the 1500s: Leonardo is credited with inventing artificial chalk, and major Renassance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo and their disciples in Italy or Dürer or Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the North, followed by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck made chalk drawing very important. Think twentieth century! Think Seurat!
Artists give a special place to red chalk, or sanguine. It brings color to chalk drawing, and blurs to make the most beautiful modeling. It became most widely popular in France in the eighteenth century, as artists like Watteau developed combining it with one other color (à deux crayons) or two other colors (à trois crayons).
Last, in fifteenth-century France pastels were invented by combining mineral and plant dyes with white clay and binding agents to make a soft stick of rich color; There are those who argue that pastels are not even “drawing” media, encouraged by the historical fact that seventeenth century pastel artists were called “pastel painters”. Be that as it may, pastels were originally used as a complement to drawing, and finally fully developed into more of a true drawing material in the late nineteenth century, in the work of artists like Degas.