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Red Rule


Working with Charcoal

Exquisite and expressive drawings and designs can be created with simple sticks of charcoal. They are inexpensive and easy to work with, readily available at any art material dealer and very transportable. You can do a charcoal drawing with light or very involved detail. There are many charcoal-related products that help you as you delve into this medium. Following are some of the possibilities.

Willow charcoal comes in stick form and is light, hard and brittle. It is powdery and easily rubbed off, so it is not as good for finished drawings as other charcoal products. Willow charcoal shines, however, when used for quick construction drawings or underlayment for other materials or methods.

Vine charcoal is a very refined, high quality charcoal that can be used for finished drawings. It offers a full range of tonal qualities, yet it is easily erased with a kneaded eraser. Artists use this type of material to create sketches, studies and finished drawings.

Compressed charcoal is available in a variety of hardness degrees. It has a dense tone that can be difficult to erase and blend but is great for rich tonal applications. It comes in stick form that is very useful for large area coverage and in pencils that can be sharpened for explicit detail.

For coverage of huge areas and toning of materials, powdered charcoal is available. This powder can be loaded into a brush and dispensed to a surface or rubbed on with fingertips or with a cloth.

If staring at a stark white canvas scares you, consider toning the surface with an application of charcoal powder. That will create a soft tone upon which you can begin your painting.

To remove unwanted charcoal, there are two well-accepted methods. One is a kneaded eraser, which has an unusual feel, almost sticky. It grips and holds charcoal powder and is one of the neatest ways to remove lines or re-establish white or light areas. Another method of charcoal removal is a scrap of chamois leather. Its soft, gripping surface will pick up lots of powder and allow a lot of surface manipulation. For overall reduction of tone, the chamois is great. For spot removal and detail alteration, the kneaded eraser is best, but both are valuable to have.

The paper upon which you do your drawing makes a big difference in the finished look of the piece. When you select a hard surface such as drawing paper or watercolor paper, the charcoal doesn't have a "tooth" to grip and will not hold very well. But a soft suede paper or handmade paper will give the soft powder something to grip and will create a more stable drawing.

Once the drawing is finished you may choose to use a finishing spray over the sheet. Almost all of these will somewhat alter the image. It seems to wash away the powder or make the drawing have less contrast. You can do one of two things to correct this. One method is to spray a fixative from the back side of the paper, saturating through to the top layer of charcoal. (This also works with pastel works.) Another method is to spray successive light coatings of fixative over the completed drawing. Some artists expect to enhance some of the dark areas after spraying and then re-coat the entire surface.

Care should be taken with the finished drawing, even if it has been fixed. Rolling the drawing is a common practice, but is very likely to cause some disturbance of the surface. Ideally, you can create a file of drawings where they can lie flat with sheets of some sort of slick paper between them. Sheets of tracing paper or drafting layout paper are ideal.

Framing charcoal drawings is simple if you can elevate a mat above the surface of the drawing. When the inevitable bumps occur, the dust that is dislodged will fall into the space between the drawing and the mat. It is unwise to use acrylic sheeting or plastic glazing material over a charcoal (or pastel) drawing. The static of the surface will draw particles and hold them, ruining the look of your work.

Because it is a simple material and easy to work with, charcoal is an ideal creative media. Try it on some of your drawing exercises and you will see why it has been popular for centuries. See your retailer and ask for General's Charcoal Pencil Set. And check out all that the General Pencil Co. has to offer at

Red Rule

ARTtalk's Manufacturer Art Materials/Product Info. Center

Copyright ARTtalk Vol. 16 No. 4 -- February 2006