Blog Post #1
As artists we are spoilt for choice when it comes to charcoal varieties. This organic substance has been used since caveman times and is considered the oldest drawing medium known to man. There are three modern types of charcoal we can buy:
2, Vine or Willow
1. Compressed charcoal
Compressed charcoal is powdered vine or willow charcoal with a gum or wax binder added and formed into blocks or rounds. It is also formed into thin rods that are encased into wood and sold as pencils which are then easy to sharpen to fine point.
There are grades of compressed charcoal from soft, medium and hard. The more binder the harder the charcoal which also determines how light or dark it is. The less charcoal powder and more gum or wax the lighter it is in tone. The binder in the mix of powder determines the degree of hardness or softness hence, lightness or darkness.
It is suggested that beginning artists go for medium grade, long sticks and break into short pieces. Use these short pieces for a variety of strong to light tones and thin to thick lines. The compressed charcoal gives deep, dark blacks that Vine or Willow by its very nature cannot. This charcoal also doesn’t erase from the paper.
2. Vine or Willow
What’s the difference between willow and vine charcoal? In general, you can say that vine charcoal is a bit lighter (greyer) than willow charcoal. Vine charcoal is slightly harder than Willow, it is more difficult to erase and has a slightly oily feel. Vine is thinner and straighter than willow. Willow has a range of thicknesses available and has more knots in the sticks. These knots may be annoying or accepted as part of the idiosyncrasy of this charcoal. The knots mean that they can break more easily or kinda get bogged by changing density. In using either of these, you will see that overall, the difference is not that great.
Willow branches or grape vine sections are stacked into an airless kiln and slow heated to make carbonised wooden sticks for drawing. These contain no binder, so they are powdery soft and at the same time brittle. Press to hard and the stick will snap!
Willow or vine charcoal sticks make a wide range of marks, thick and thin that can be easily erased. Use a putty eraser as a drawing tool. Using these sticks gives more control, more delicate nuances, they can be powered and applied with a brush, create gradations and delicate shadings.
It’s good to be remember that willow and vine charcoal are natural or organic products, and their properties (colour, tonal value) can differ from each brand, and also across every batch. Explore the different brands and see what happens, explore, and see what works best for you.
Powdered Charcoal is simply Vine or Willow, or a mixture of both, (brand specific) crushed into fine powder. It is sold in jars or pots ready to use. It has no binder in it and so stays soft and somewhat lighter than compressed charcoal. Layers can be built with this powder, and it can be drawn into with charcoal sticks or pencils. This powdered form of charcoal is used primarily for large areas of layering in tonal values which can give a base to work on with a soft and delicate look.
Traditionally used in drawing, the charcoal powder can be applied, erased, and manipulated in different ways. Such as with a brush, wet or dry, blending with a torchon or paper towel, erasing into it. Poncing is another method which uses powdered charcoal. I encourage you to look that one up as it might be a method that you can use in your art.
Other Styles of ready to use Charcoal
Highlight Charcoal Pencils
Highlight pencils sold as white charcoal are not really charcoal but some kind of chalk. They are not like pastel pencils which contain white pigment. They work with charcoal to add lights.
These are charcoal rods encased into wood for ease of use and sharpening. Pencil charcoals come in different sizes and weights and density, from soft to hard. They may consist of compressed charcoal, powdered Willow or Vine charcoal. Check the labels and ask questions.
Tinted charcoal refers to regular charcoal sticks and compressed sticks that have the binder tinted with a touch of coloured pigment. These vary across brands as some have more chalk in them or more binder/gum to create shades of grey. They may be in pencil or block form.
Do a little exploring and see who used charcoal to make great drawings. I encourage you to satisfy your curiosity and see just what can be done with charcoal and how it may work for you in your arts practice. Charcoal isn’t only for portraits. Search out charcoal landscapes from the 19th century, still life and animals. Check out the great artists who used charcoal; from John Singer Sergeant to Leonardo Da Vinci to modern day artists like Lynn Howarth, Caesar Santos and Harley Brown.
I haven’t touched on brands within these three groups. There are so many out there and each one will work differently, as well, as how it works on different paper styles. There are plenty to discover and maybe there is one that jumps out for you to try. For example, a drawing project with Guest Artist Lynn Howarth from Scotland, at The Online Art Society introduced us to Nitrate brand charcoal.
So, get going, try before you buy, ask your art group friends or at your local art shop too. Give this medium some attention and use it in thumbnail sketches, drawing up for a painting, or do a whole drawing in charcoal and explore its unique appeal. Post what you do on your social media and tag me in so I can see your creation!! My tag is @karoloakleyartist
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The Curious Artist Blog-
talks about everything and anything to do with painting.
It's my aim to share techniques, tips, tricks, adventures, products, paintings, educate, inspire and foster the appreciation of painting.
I welcome your feedback and questions and don't promise to post regularly, but to let you know when I do post .
I'l give it my best shot to answer your questions and if I can't I'll let you know. Gee I may even be able to give you the name of someone who can answer.
Either way this blog is about art, artists and everything to do with painting and drawing, being informative, heck maybe even inspiring, all aimed at making painting enjoyable. I sincerely wish you to join me on this adventure. best wishes, Karol