Charcoal – Reasons Why

Every artist that draws or paint should have a set of charcoal or chalk and draw with them on a regular basis even if it is not your primary medium.  Why do you ask?  You say you had one drawing class that made you do all your drawings in them and you hated it.  You say you can’t get the hang of it and it is messy and it just falls off the page anyway.

Here is an argument on why you should love to draw with charcoal (not charcoal pencil either, get the stick kind) and ways to use the medium effectively to boot.

Charcoal is a great medium to get something down on paper quickly, boldly and relatively cheaply.  The energy that can be intense and there is no reason to get to fussy with it, get dirty with it as it were.  The most important part of this media is to get your whole body into it, move your entire arm, crank some music and dance with it and don’t be skimpy with the paper either, get a big pad of news print or a roll of brown packaging paper and attack it.  Turn the stick on its side and use the entire flat side, turning it so it ribbons out bold lines that morph into areas of dark shadows.  Go in and erase over it and then hit if back with more charcoal to create interesting tonal areas.  Create dark areas and draw with your eraser or kneaded eraser.  Smudge with your fingers, towels or smudge stick.  If you are using heavier paper (90# or higher) add water and make a wash out of it.

tool kit…

First lets understand a little bit about the types of charcoal artist typically use.  Vine charcoal is a commonly used form and comes in a variety of grades like pencils, form soft to hard.  It needs a toothy paper to grab and hold onto.  I like to use it as an under-drawing to get my composition organized and study the way light and dark will play over the surface or the drawing.  It wipes off easy so there is no big commitment when laying down shapes and lines.  It also gives a light and soft feel so using it in more subtle drawings.  To keep it from falling off the page add a coat of workable fixative that will give it permanence.

The other extreme in the charcoal range is compressed charcoal, it is made from loose or ground charcoal then mixed with a binder and compressed together, hence the name.  It is soft and luscious how it falls off the stick and leaves a velvety black mark.  It is hard to erase but well worth the effort since it can create nice tones and will leave nice energetic marks.  Smudging it works well and also can create wonderful tonal areas.  By adding a little water with a brush, you can create a nice wash, just be aware that when it becomes a wash it is really impossible to erase, plus use a paper that can handle wet media.

The last one I will talk about is clay charcoal, it is charcoal mixed with a little clay and then compressed into sticks.  It is harder than the other two types discussed here and a bit more crumbly.  With that said it is my favorite and is a great finisher.  It doesn’t get as dark and has great tonal values and adds nice weight to the line and marks you use.  I really like it for detail and highlighting areas that need to be sharper but still has character.

I tend to use all three in my drawings, even the quick ones.  To add more highlights or and some mystery to your drawing add some white conté , some other soft pastel color, a wash or even paint such as gesso.

More on these techniques later.