Working with Charcoal

Charcoal has been favored for generations by amateurs, professionals, and any artist in between. It can create a darkness that cannot otherwise by obtained by pencils, and it can add stark contrast to lighter paint colors.

Charcoal is safe to use for a variety of artwork as it's typically made of graphite, a type of carbon that has been crystallized. It may be held together with wax binder or another type of gum. In the past, grapevine sticks were the favored material used to make charcoal. Known as vine charcoal, artists would take grapevine pieces and then bake them until they darkened. These carbon-like drawing instruments could also be made of wood like willow dowels if grapevine wasn't available.

Artists can still use vine charcoal today and may favor it. Compared to regular charcoal, it's better for lighter line sketches or other drawings or artwork. It also goes quite well with paint. If the artist happens to make a mistake, which will almost always happen at some point, they can simply rub away the vine charcoal without any marks or residue being left behind. Similarly, blowing the drawing can also remove charcoal.

If the artist is shopping for charcoal and prefers other kinds, they may also find compressed charcoal. This type is made using a binding agent, which then adheres to charcoal materials that have been refined into a powder. The sticks that are sold in stores or online tend to be more durable and less likely to break compared to vine charcoal or other types. If the artist doesn't want to draw with thick sticks, they can even find compressed charcoal shaped into pencils, which makes drawing convenient and more natural.

Compressed charcoal has various benefits. Besides being made into pencils, the artist can find this type of charcoal in other sizes and forms, which makes its uses limitless. If using compressed charcoal as a pencil, it will typically include rolled paper or rolled wood around the base to prevent the accidental transfer of charcoal from the artist's hand to the paper. This also averts unwanted smudging. Simply use a pencil sharpener to get the point as dull or pointy as desired. The artist should know though that when using compressed charcoal that it draws harsher and stronger than vine charcoal and thus cannot be rubbed or blown. It can be removed, but it will require more effort and could leave lasting marks.

If the artist needs charcoal that isn't quite as heavy-duty, it's best to go for willow charcoal. Typically comprised of clay and graphite, the graphite must be wet and then can be baked. Different grades of charcoal exist as well, making it easier for the artist when shopping. Extra soft has more clay, soft has a moderate amount of clay, medium has less clay, and hard has the least amount of clay. Most sticks are three inches each, but some are available in longer six-inch sticks. Thicknesses vary, but can be up to 1/2 an inch or 12 millimeters. Vine charcoal tends to boast a length of 150 millimeters.

Charcoal can be used when creating art in a variety of ways. The artist may opt to create line pieces just using charcoal. It's also ideal when making outlines for a watercolor or other painting. For thicker, heavier, and darker lines, use the end of the charcoal, and for thinner, lighter lines, use the pointed part. Even the side of the charcoal can create interesting effects, so don't neglect this. For artists just working with charcoal for the first time, try combining it with a putty rubber or kneaded eraser for a fun look, blend it in with a clean paintbrush, or use a stump for smudges and crosshatches.

Of course, charcoal looks best on certain types of paper. It's generally best to use heavy tooth paper, which won't wear down if smudged or erased. Charcoal particles will best be expressed on this paper. When shopping for heavy tooth paper, the artist can pick which kind will work best for their creative needs. Lighter paper though probably won't have as much of a textural contrast when using charcoal.

Try using techniques besides just drawing with the charcoal. Use the side or thicker end to stroke the piece of charcoal across the heavy tooth paper. The result will be light shading at first, but the more that the artist applies the charcoal, the darker it will be. Blend in the work with a clean finger, a kneadable eraser, or a cottonwood pad. Gently erasing darker charcoal with a kneadable eraser can also lighten it as necessary.

An artist should also become familiar with a tortillion, a fibrous pencil-like instrument that can be used in addition to kneadable erasers and absorbent cotton pads. Blending is simple when using a tortillion. Simply draw or create lines with the charcoal like normal. Then, use the tortillion like a pencil to create blending effects or move tiny charcoal pieces across the paper. Try this technique for unique textural detailing when creating charcoal drawings. While buying a tortillion, grab a paper stump as well. If drawing on a large piece of paper, this tool is better for working across big surfaces.

To prevent accidentally rubbing the charcoal from one place to another when working on other parts of the drawing, it's recommended that an artist use a fixative. This varnish adheres the charcoal to the paper so that if the artist accidentally comes into contact with charcoal, it will remain intact.

Most fixatives are available as a spray in an aerosol canister. Make sure not to overspray and use too much fixative, as this could have a damaging effect on a drawing. The charcoal may look blacker than it did or stains or spots may appear. Instead, use only a single layer. It's best to let the fixative dry completely before continuing just to prevent accidentally spreading it by hand. To use the fixative aerosol, make sure that the drawing is not lying flat. Keep a window or air vents open when using this spray, and step out of the room for a few minutes while it dries.

Drawing and painting are both ideal methods of creating artwork, but for those that want to change their approach, using charcoal is a brave way to do so.