Charcoal for Artists Explained

 
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Vine vs Willow vs Compressed vs Powder vs Charcoal Pencils vs Nitram

What an amazing medium for creating art! Many great artists used charcoal from Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan Mitchell, and Norman Rockwell to the many talented contemporary artists like Casey Baugh, Stephan Bauman, Colleen Barry, Stan Prokopenko, Cesar Santos, and Co-founder of Smile Create Repeat Tony Luongo.

Pablo Picasso charcoal drawing  Image via    The MET

Pablo Picasso charcoal drawing
Image via The MET

Georgia O’Keeffe charcoal drawing  Image via    National Portrait Gallery

Georgia O’Keeffe charcoal drawing
Image via National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent charcoal portrait drawing  Image via    National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent charcoal portrait drawing
Image via National Portrait Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci charcoal drawing  Image via    The MET

Leonardo da Vinci charcoal drawing
Image via The MET

Joan Mitchell charcoal drawing  Image via    Joan Mitchell Foundation

Joan Mitchell charcoal drawing
Image via Joan Mitchell Foundation

Norman Rockwell charcoal drawing  Image via    Hallmark Collection

Norman Rockwell charcoal drawing
Image via Hallmark Collection

Such different talents. Different visions. But they all used charcoal in their different styles. Which form of charcoal is right for you? I can’t answer that but I hope to help explain some differences in each and my opinions and observations from using them all.

Charcoal Powder

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What is it?

Charcoal Powder is vine or willow charcoal (free of the binding agents present in compressed charcoal) ground down into a powder. The definition can also include the excess captured from sharpening your vine or willow stick with a razor or sanding block. Here is an earlier blog post we did showing this.

What’s it used for?

Charcoal powder is traditionally used to create a toned gray surface to draw on. The gray will knock down the bright white of the paper and make it possible to “lift out” light areas with a kneaded eraser. It’s quick to cover large areas using charcoal powder with a paint brush, tissue, napkin, paper stump, Sofft Knife or Charcoal Sock. A what? Don’t know what a Charcoal Sock is? Watch this video we made. It’ll explain everything. On final artwork, not quick sketches or studies, I recommend not using your fingers to smudge the charcoal, you don’t want the oils from your skin on your art.

My thoughts

What I’ve observed using charcoal powder is that you can really be free with this medium. I enjoy that because when I’m creating a charcoal portrait for example, there is going to be a lot of time observing and being rather tight. Trying to get proportions and likeness. So the freedom and painterly application of the powder in the early stages is enjoyable to me. Plus, sometimes I’ll get some marks by accident that I then try to incorporate into the final piece.

Compressed Charcoal

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What it is?

Compressed charcoal is charcoal powder with a binding agent such as wax or gum. Because of this, it is harder than willow and vine charcoal and maintains it shape. Compressed charcoal comes in rectangular chunks, sticks and pencils. They are available in different softness based on the ratio of binder to powder. Fine detailed lines are better achieved then with willow or vine. Compressed charcoal can produce very dark darks in your drawing and can be difficult to erase.

What’s it used for?

Compressed charcoal is used in creating dramatic darks quickly and effortlessly. In a chunk form it can be used on it’s side to create broad painterly strokes and then sharpened to make fine details.

My thoughts

Early in my career I used compressed charcoal and white charcoal. I remember creating some nice transitions in values using the two. I’ve since learned to appreciate the delicacy of creating the values by just the application of the black on the paper, and softening it with the tools described in the charcoal powder section above. When working on the charcoal portrait demo for the July 2019 Surprise I loved the tones made when holding the charcoal on its side and by applying pressure on one edge, creating a feathered effect. Nathan Fowkes has great examples of this on his blog.

Charcoal Pencils

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What it is?

Charcoal pencils are as simple as this. Compressed charcoal in a pencil. They are available in different densities soft, medium, and hard also called 6b, 4b, and 2b in black and white (see below).

What’s it used for?

Typically charcoal pencils would be used on smaller works, sketches or adding details to larger pieces.

My thoughts

I really enjoy using charcoal pencils for small studies and larger detailed works on toned paper when used in conjunction with white charcoal pencils. The control of a pencil and it’s fine point with the immediate darkness of compressed charcoal is great for creating dark details.

White Charcoal Pencil

What it is?

White charcoal is similar to that of compressed charcoal and it comes as sticks or pencils. White charcoal, sometimes referred to as white pastels, offers another way to define highlights in your drawing. There are different varieties of supplies that can be used as “White Charcoal”. White pastel pencils are one option. My favorite white charcoal and the favorite of many artists, is General’s® Charcoal White®. They are made of Calcium Carbonate mixed with a binder inside a pencil. Alternatives to this would be white pastel - like CarbOthello, Wolff, NuPastel, Lyra, or Conte. Just beware as some of these options may become waxy (think crayons) when used so you’ll want to test it first.

What’s it used for 

It’s used for adding white to toned surfaces such as gray, tan, or another colored paper. White charcoal pencils are not usually used on white paper as the white of the paper provides the highlights needed. 

My thoughts 

I love white charcoal on toned paper. My favorite, and the brightest on toned paper, is the General's Charcoal White pencils. My drawings transform to a whole new level when I even introduce just a little white. The trick I think is being careful not to overuse the white. The drawing needs to stand on its own before the white is added. 

Vine / Willow Charcoal

What it is?

Vine charcoal is made from the burning of grape vines. Willow charcoal is made from the twigs of willow trees, burned to a degree of precise hardness for drawing. Both contain no binders which make erasing easier. Because of this property, they are perfect for sketching a composition on canvas prior to painting. However, this charcoal is more brittle and is prone to breaking. Sticks can be sharpened to a fine point with sandpaper, a razor or even a small pencil sharpener. But because of their softer consistency, they may need frequent sharpening. Here’s a blog post we made describing my process for sharpening charcoal

What’s it used for?

Vine and willow charcoal are great for drawing detailed academic works and quick gesture drawings of the figure. They’re also great for just playing around and beginners because the marks can be removed easily with a kneaded or white plastic eraser.

My thoughts

I love vine charcoal and prefer Winsor & Newton. You can wear down the tip to make flat spots to create broad strokes. Or you can keep a fine point (with lots of sharpening) to control your value transitions in tones can transition smoothly and it reacts well to erasing. Being able to draw with the eraser to add back in some lights is possible with vine. I wasn’t introduced to vine charcoal until around 2008 when my friend and artist Cameron Bennett introduced me to it. What got me hooked is the forgiveness of this medium. You can go back and forth adding and removing charcoal back to clean paper. Unlike compressed.

Nitram® Charcoal

What it is?

Nitram is a brand of charcoal that performs—in my opinion—like a combination of vine and compressed. Its stronger than vine and more forgiving than compressed charcoal. It’s produced using a unique process that maintains the wood’s cell structure to increase durability and prevent breakage. Like vine it comes in a variety of grades providing rich blacks and superior tonal values. B is a soft charcoal that produces a rich black. It’s soft, yet can hold a point. HB is a medium soft charcoal. H is a hard charcoal and can be sharpened to an extra fine point for creating fine detail and it’s unique hardness makes lighter and mid-tones easier to attain.

What’s it used for?

Nitram charcoal can be used for all drawing types but best suited for drawing in an academic setting like drawing the figure from life, portraits or cast, drawings where minute value changes, precise lines and exact drawing are needed. The variety and subtleness of tone lends itself to this style.

My thoughts

I started using Nitram when I was drawing from the figure in NH with Ingbretson Studio of Drawing and Painting. Some fellow artists let me try theirs and the first thing I noticed was that it was stronger than vine but also easy to control the values by the amount of pressure I applied. I’ve been using it along with vine and charcoal pencils ever since.

Inspired

As I was writing this I wanted to stop, put my laptop down and get to my studio to start drawing. To really think about the supplies I use and the techniques provided by them made me remember different drawings I’ve done, and all the different ways to use this versatile medium. This truly is one of my favorite drawing supplies. 

Join us over on our Facebook page where we can continue this conversation. What are your thoughts on charcoal? I’m guessing you’re a fan since you read this post. Do you prefer one over the other? We’d love to see some of your work, so please tag us on Instagram @smilecreaterepeat #smilecreaterepeat and we’ll share your charcoal drawings.