Burned Wood and Cave Walls: A Guide to Charcoal Drawing Materials and Techniques
From the time that prehistoric man first took burned wood and drew on cave walls, artists have turned to charcoal for its unique feel, versatility, and rich, deep blacks. Few mediums lend themselves to such direct and powerful expression.
Charcoal is also very inexpensive to use. Masterpieces have been created with little more than a sheet of paper and a stick of charcoal. There's something very satisfying and rewarding about making art from such simple materials.
While I first learned about charcoal in college using just the cheapest Alphacolor sticks and an eraser, over the years I've learned the ins and outs of this beautiful medium. Like paint, there are many options when it comes to materials and techniques, each with its own particular effects and charms. Knowing the options can help you choose the right tool for the drawing at hand.
Types of Charcoal
Charcoal comes in two types: vine charcoal or compressed. Vine charcoal is made from fine grained wood like willow and usually found in long, thin sticks. It's graduated as soft, medium, or hard. Vine charcoal goes on lightly, tending more towards grains than deep blacks. The softer grades smudge and erase beautifully but tend to powder or dust off the paper making it a bit more fragile. It's ideal for initial stages in a drawing or for areas that will remain lighter in value.
Compressed charcoal is made by grinding charcoal and compressing it into sticks with a binder like clay. Compressed charcoal gives rich, deep blacks, goes on smoothly, and tends to adhere to paper more instead of dusting off. Compressed charcoal can be a very bold, intense black and often takes some practice to learn to develop a softer touch. You can find compressed charcoal in square or round sticks and often in different grades similar to pencils (HB, 2B, 4B, etc.) with the softer grades (3B and up) being very black. I love the Conte round sticks of compressed charcoal, but also regularly use the inexpensive square Alphacolor Char-Kole sticks and the softer, round sticks from Richeson or Yarka. Laying a stick of charcoal on its side is a great way to fill in large areas or to focus on large, sweeping gestures, while the sharp edges are excellent for fine lines and details.
Combining vine and compressed charcoal in a drawing can give you the entire range of value from the lightest gray to the deepest black with every tribe transition between.
In addition to sticks, charcoal is also available in powdered form and as charcoal pencils. Powdered charcoal comes in handy to lay in a middle gray tone across large areas of the paper. You can dust it on or even apply it with a soft brush or cloth.
Charcoal pencils can be useful for fine details towards the end of a drawing, or when a more linear effect is desired. The pencils can be difficult to sharpen and often break in a pencil sharpener. Instead use a razor blade and some sand paper to carve the charcoal pencil to a point. I prefer Ritmo charcoal pencils for their smooth feel and ability to sharpen to a good point, and recently I've become a fan of the waxier Giaconda Negro pencils from Koh-i-noor. I often use charcoal pencils on gessoed canvas do the preliminary drawing for my oil paintings. Mistakes can be erased or simply gessoed over prior to adding paint.
Charcoal works well with other drawing media too. I'll sometimes add other crayons and chalks like Conte Crayons or Nupastels. Both have rich, waxy blacks that do not dust off at all but are difficult to erase. Nupastels and other soft pastels also offer a wide range of vibrant colors if you're inclined to experiment.
Combining pencil with charcoal is often overlooked but can yield beautiful results. The graphite pencil provides soft, subtle grays while the charcoal lends the deep blacks graphite does not. Graphite drawings are smooth and slick so sometimes charcoal does not readily adhere to the surface. A light spray of workable fixative helps. Resulting drawings done in this manner can have an extensive and subtitle range of values.
An eraser is not just for correcting mistakes! It is an indispensable drawing tool, useful for shaping the light gray tones and carving out highlights. Charcoal is an additive process, building up the surface by adding more, and erasers are the subtractive balance.
Kneaded erasers are made of pliable material, usually gray in color, and quake chewing gum. Unlike other erasers that leave little crumbles of eraser dust behind, kneaded erasers do not wear away as you use them. Rather they work by picking up or absorbing the charcoal. This makes them very gentle to the paper surface as well. Kneaded erasers can be squished into different shapes by hand since they are pliable like putty or clay. You can form slender pointed tips for the pinpoint catch lights in an eye and small details, or big flat wedges for large areas, and any shape in between. Over time a kneaded eraser can absorb so much charcoal that it becomes exhausted and can not really erase any more. Sometimes I'll save these used erasers because they actually make small, smudgy marks when you draw with them and are useful for pushing charcoal around rather than removing it.
A variety of firm erasers come in handy for removing more charcoal. Some, like the well known Pink Pearl, are similar to the erasers on the end of a standard pencil. They do a good job of erasing but tend to leave eraser dust and crumbles on your paper. My favorite firm erasers are the white vinyl erasers like Magic Rub. They hold their shape and edges well. I use the sharp corners to erase fine lines and slashing highlights. They do not tend to crumble as much as Pink Pearls and last a long time.
Gum erasers are also popular among artists, although I find that I use them the least. They can be very useful for more elaborate drawings and paper as they erase cleanly without eroding the surface of the paper. They come in little brown squares and are very crumbly in use.
While blending is not a necessary technique for every drawing, charcoal's inherent ability to be pushed around and smudged easily lends itself to blending if you like the effect. There are many specialized tools for blending including stumps, tortillions, and chamois skins, but in actuality just about anything that can be used for this purpose.
Many artists tend to think of both stumps and tortillions as one and the same, and they are very similar. Tortillions are tightly rolled pieces of paper shaped into a cone and are only pointed on one end. They tend to be very stiff, hollow inside, and come in different sizes but are generally smaller in diameter than a typical pencil. This makes them ideal for fine detail.
Stumps tend to be softer to the touch, solid, and pointed on both ends. They are usually available in a wider range of sizes. They work well for larger areas and when you want smooth, velvety darks.
You hold both like a pencil to blend and push the charcoal around on the paper. Too much pressure or repeated use can ruin the tooth of the paper, although using fixes can remedy this problem to an extent. As you use them they'll become dirty with charcoal from the paper. You can clean them by rubbing them on something abrasive like sandpaper, but I often prefer to use a dirty stump to draw light, delicate lines that have an afterimage or ghostlike quality.
I think the most useful and often overlooked blending tool is always available and completely free: your fingers and hands. If you have very oil skin you might want to avoid using your fingertips as the oils will leave your fingerprints behind and can also discolor the surface of the paper. Instead use the back of your hand or side of your palm to swipe the charcoal around.
With a little imagination anything can be an effective tool for drawing and blending. I've used Kleenex, cotton balls, q-tips, soft paint brushes, pieces of felt, and even foam rubber to smudge and blend parts of my drawings. I'm not usually after a super smooth photo realistic type of feeling. Rather I use blending to help unify parts that seem too stiff or disjointed and for the gradual build up of a patina like surface. No amount of mixing will fix or hide poorly done shading.
Some artists swear by fixatives, others swear at them. For simple sketches I rarely use fixative, but on my larger pieces or more developed works it's often an integral part of my drawing process. Fixing can be done in stages while drawing, and can also be a final finish to help prevent damage to a completed work.
Fixative helps keep the particles of charcoal from smudging or falling off the paper. It's true that fixing does alter the look of a drawing, in particular a pastel or colored drawing, so understanding how it works can help you decide when and if to spray fix.
While it's possible to use a mouth or spray atomizer, most artists use aerosol spray can fixative. It generally comes in two types, workable or final. Workable fixative allows you to apply extra layers of charcoal as you continue working on a drawing. It can be used to give a little tooth or get to smooth papers or parts of a drawing that have been blended extensively. It will tend to darken colors. I use this effect to my advantage. Repeated layers of charcoal blended and fixed can develop rich, velvety blacks with extra depth.
Final Fixative is intended to be sprayed on a finished drawing, similar to varnish on a painting. Generally my drawings are framed under glass so I do not often use fixative on my top layers, and never on any drawing in color as the fixative can cause the colors to shift and darken in value.
If you're going to use fixative of any type make sure you have good ventilation. Most fixative is toxic and flammable and tend to have a horrible smell. Several light coats work best and will keep you from over saturating your paper. Do not hold the can too close to the artwork and use smooth, continuous strokes with each pass of the can. If you're in a pinch cheap hair spray can even work as a fixative, just be careful to avoid hairspray with added fragrances or painting as they may contain oils that saturate and harm the paper.
Walk into any art supply or craft store and you'll find a bewildering array of paper. Pads are often labeled for a specific purpose like sketching, drawing, pastels, charcoal, pen and ink, mixed media, and more. While there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, do not limit yourself to only using the papers labeled for charcoal drawing. Much of my work is on printmaking papers like Reeves BFK and Stonehenge.
Probably the most important thing is to make sure you're using good quality paper if it's artwork you're planning on using for sale or exhibition. For archival purposes the paper should be acid free. Usually the higher the rag, or cotton, content of the paper the more archival it is. I tend to look for heavier weight papers to allow plenty of rough handling with my erasers and charcoal. That's why I love printmaking papers.
Like any drawing medium, the grain or tooth of the paper has a big effect on the final look of the drawing. There's a near infinite variety of finishes and textures available, from tight laid patterns that resemble woven cloth to plate smooth finishes or rough and randomly textured handmade papers. Often paper has a different texture on the back than on the front.
You need not limit yourself to paper though. I regularly use charcoal on canvas as the initial sketch for a painting, and I've seen beautiful pieces created on Mylar and even gessoed wood. The key is to experiment and try as many as you can to find what works best for you.