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The mineral graphite is a crystalline form of the element carbon, which occurs naturally in various types of rocks. Composed of disk-like particles that readily slide over one another, graphite easily produces marks on paper or vellum that often appear shiny when viewed in obliquely-angled or raking light. This surface quality helps to distinguish graphite drawings from works in black chalk. Graphite was used for drawing in Central Europe during the sixteenth century, but its use became more widespread in the late eighteenth century.

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